Mad About You
The Complete First Season (Columbia Tri-Star-2002)
The best way to describe Mad About You comes not from the show itself but from a better one: Seinfeld. In it, a newly engaged George Constanza (Jason Alexander) finds himself, so obviously against his will, watching an episode of Mad About You with his fiancée. The look on George’s face is indescribable, but at best it can be depicted as a what-have-I-just-done epiphany of mortification and fear. He is trapped, now and forever, a deer in the headlights, a newly sentenced prisoner, adjusting badly to the stifling, compromising ritual of couples, being one of two forevermore.
As the cloying Mad About You theme song (“The Final Frontier”) worms its way under George’s skin, his fiancée watches the screen and chuckles knowingly and cuddles preciously, thinking all the while, as most fiancées do while watching other young marrieds on television, they are just like us!
However, as Seinfeld is a show about nothing, Mad About You is a show about nothing special. Often incorrectly described as a “married Seinfeld,” Mad About You tries hard to remain practical and firmly planted in the ordinary, to “unintentionally on purpose” make every episode an instant classic, its everydayness to be appreciated and timeless, its contents to be discussed at corporate center water coolers from now until the end of time (The One In Which They’re Locked In The Bathroom, The One With Jerry Lewis, The One About the Wedding, The One About The Former Boyfriend/Girlfriend).
In fact, one episode goes as far as to suggest that Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt) tortures her husband, Paul (Paul Reiser) to rid himself of the bachelor pad he is sentimentally holding onto, even though they are now living together in a new apartment. Paul has been subletting the place to none other than Seinfeld’s Kramer (Michael Richards). Clever enough, but any real Seinfeld fan knows that Cosmo Kramer lived in the same apartment since he was a little boy. This is just another example of the show’s mad desire for stunt casting at any cost, usually with mild to disappointing results. More about that later.
Mad About You wants it both ways: they yearn to convey that their relationship is atypical; that their situations and chemistry are universally understood, and the everyday, ordinary minutiae that they endure and the insecurities involved with a new marriage are very similar to what other newlyweds go through. And yet, they are blatantly one of the most maddeningly unrealistic couples ever to appear on a sitcom.
As happens with so many programs both before and after, the comedy writers of this ambitious project commit the most heinous of crimes foisted upon the public: their seemingly “real” characters live in an enormous apartment they can’t afford and hold unlikely dream jobs that they almost never do. This crime is second degree and usually unintentional: the result of committees of spoiled dreamers with their heads in the clouds who are not exactly familiar with the hustling reality of what it truly takes to make a living (especially in Manhattan).
Seinfeld doesn’t pay attention to this either, but at least they don’t pretend to know. Jerry often says, “I’ve never had a real job,” and the running joke about Kramer is that his whole life is like a baseball fantasy camp. George and Elaine muddle along from job to job, each occupation more miserable than the last, just like real people. The economic unreality of Seinfeld is proudly acknowledged often – then they move on to find brilliant truth in other, more mundane subjects.
From there, you only have to look as far as Friends to see the copycat serial crime repeated: Rachel goes from waitress to Ralph Lauren executive in a few short seasons, Monica is a restaurant chef who never fulfills the sixty hours a week required of most Manhattan eateries. Chandler goes from a numbers cruncher to an advertising copywriter in about six episodes. Ross teaches NYU students about dinosaurs.
Most TV writers are afraid to make any character’s vocation too ordinary. Yet they strongly want you to believe that this is a funny take on real life. You – with the ordinary job and the stress-filled day-to-day struggle – are weary and exhausted, but you are smarter than that. You know you don’t buy it.
Don’t misunderstand — it’s perfectly okay to escape reality at the end of a hard, pointless day – that’s why we watch TV. But it’s insulting to be instructed as to how close to reality these characters are, that they’re just like us.
For economic absurdity, nobody beats Mad About You. They completely and consciously neglect the authenticity of a young married couple scrimping and scratching to make ends meet. Tear away these two from their cozy TV fantasy and plop them down in the real world: they wouldn’t last five minutes, not even on their charm.
Paul and Jamie Buchman are clearly Exhibit A: the “neurotically funny New Yorker” (translation: Jewish) meets his shikse goddess at a newsstand and they marry soon after. Although he “makes his living” as a “documentary filmmaker” and she is a non-descript “public relations executive,” they are able to hold down a Fifth Avenue apartment in a doorman building (!) that is as large as the cosmos. Their bathroom, for instance, is the size of most studio apartments. In the episode in which they get locked in the john, they don’t seem to be irrationally upset (the way most couples would), because, let’s face it, there is so much room in there, they can each go off on their own and not see each other for days.
“You don’t know what I do,” Jamie finally confronts Paul when it clearly seems evident that he doesn’t. And neither do we. We barely ever see her working. And when she hires her husband to direct a series of TV commercials for her client, the dilemma of the episode is not “we desperately need this job to pay the rent,” but “will we be able to work together on a daily basis and still love each other?” Of course, Paul and Jamie have a difficult time at it (hence the situation comedy), and the resolution of the story comes with Jamie’s precious line, “I missed missing you.”
In another false note, the couple decides to hire a maid because they are both so busy that their place is a mess (how busy can a documentary filmmaker be?). Exactly how this fits into their seemingly endless budget is mystery enough, but the apartment is a hopeless tangle of laundry and dirty dishes only for that one episode and to serve that one purpose – for the rest of the series, and without the maid, the immense apartment is immaculate and orderly.
Here is the message they are trying to communicate: is marriage really supposed to be like this? They examine the “little things,” such as who sleeps on which side of the bed, dealing with snoring, attending a foreign movie versus going to an Amish quilt festival, old lovers, sex, no sex, the question of pineapple on pizza, playing Monopoly, reading the Sunday paper, arguing over the remote, searching for a lost sock, debating the use of Q-Tips, impossible in-laws, going to other couples’ weddings, which family will have Thanksgiving dinner and the appeal of a loveseat versus a couch. However, the Buchmans’ insecurity about the reality of marriage is a direct result of how they have seen marriage portrayed on television: the very crime they commit and perpetuate themselves.
Like most comedians of the nineties who scored their own shows, Reiser is basically just doing his stand-up routine (see the contents of the previous paragraph). However, Helen Hunt is the true dilemma here: is she a brilliant, natural actress, or is she just being Helen Hunt?
Another puzzlement is Richard Kind, as the couple’s friend. Thankfully for us, after only one season he would leave this show for Spin City and there he would turn in one of television’s all-time hilarious performances. Here, unfortunately, they don’t know what to do with him and he has not one funny line. His character, however, can be credited with one interesting personality quirk: he tends to find the most boring people completely fascinating. At an office Christmas party, everybody shies away from the boss, who is telling a dull and dreary story for the zillionth time. Kind’s character, however, can’t get enough of this tedious tale; he even has questions about it and wants to hear it told again.
Leila Kenzle, who basically serves as the plain friend to the more attractive and together Helen Hunt, plays his wife. This trick was pulled before, when Mary Tyler Moore hired Millie Halper and later Rhoda Morgenstern as her plain friends. Kenzle is mildly abrasive, like a kitchen cleanser. And when she’s not there, you don’t miss her.
Even though it’s a doorman building, quirky characters come and go without being buzzed up or announced (another major unreality). Jamie’s sister, underplayed by Anne Ramsay, is supposed to be a New York neurotic with a mild (mild enough for a sitcom) eating disorder and cutesy relationship problems. However, her character feels underwritten and not fleshed out. You want to appreciate her, but there’s not enough there on the bone. Besides, Reiser out-neurotics everybody so why bother with yet another New York nail biter if they’re not going to go full volume? Paul’s friend, Selby (Tommy Hinkley) has nothing to do but occasionally help to move the plot along, and he is soon replaced by Cousin Ira (John Pankow), a bridge-and-tunnel lothario who has more meat to his character and yet still doesn’t add much spice.
The stunt casting is admirable but always falls flat: Jerry Lewis is a Jerry-Lewis-like billionaire who – for someone unknown reason – wants Paul to film a documentary on him. It’s basically a chance for Lewis to scream “LLLLADY!” and act quirky on purpose and fill our hearts with joy. Barbara Feldon plays a Barbara-Feldon-type ‘60s babe (from a fictional TV series called Spy Girl) who is promoting her autobiography while Paul and Ira jealously fight over her bitchy attention, all these years later.
Regis Philbin plays himself, in the center of a media frenzy that concerns Paul’s father yelling out to him and waving to him in a crowded theatre. The incident, for no reason at all, makes the cover of a major New York newspaper and Paul’s father gets his fifteen minutes of fame. This is where Mad About You leaves reality completely for the nether reaches of outer space.
Lisa Kudrow plays a pre-married Paul’s bizarre blind date in a flashback. In the second season, Kudrow appears semi-regularly as yet another character, an ironically dumb waitress (who is also the twin sister of Phoebe on Friends – are you following this?). And deadpan comedian Steven Wright just barely plays Paul’s deadpan assistant to whatever Paul is supposed to be doing.
The DVD contains 22 episodes, and good luck. You may want to skip over the theme song, which is nightmarish, and the last two episodes are mistakenly switched out of order. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that those two episodes are an integral part of an important story arc, and without this warning, you will be totally confused. However, props must be given to the fact that they were able to fit all 22 episodes onto only two DVDs. Other series, for no apparent reason, do not subscribe to this convenience (Everybody Loves Raymond, for instance, has its 22 episodes on five DVDs!).
Mad About You may not be the worst thing you will ever see. They do give it their best shot and aim high. However, their priorities are all screwed up. It’s best described when Paul has a near-fatal accident and he exclaims, “My whole life flashed before my eyes!” Jamie asks, “What was I wearing?” Paul answers, “You weren’t there.”
Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 13, 2004.