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Marriage for dummies

March 5, 2010

So, you know, NBC has had it pretty rough in recent times.  They’ve been consistently last in the ratings for the Big Three networks, and of course there was that embarrassing business with The Tonight Show last month, resulting in the excruciatingly cutesy mass declaration of being “Team CoCo.”  Now they’re trying to win back America’s favor with The Marriage Ref, a combination reality/game/comedy show created by Jerry Seinfeld, king of NBC’s heyday back in the 90s.  The fact that it’s described as a combination reality/game/comedy show should raise a big scarlet flag to anyone with some shred of common sense, but, alas, it seems to be what the network is banking on to put them back on top, even interrupting the closing ceremonies for the Winter Olympics to run a half-hour preview last Sunday.  I missed the half hour, choosing instead to immerse myself in the full hour experience, premiering last night.

Full disclosure: I was never a fan of Seinfeld.  Now, before you begin indignantly pounding on your keyboards, yes, I “got” the humor.  I got that the characters were perpetually failing to see the forest for the trees, and that their utter lack of self-awareness was what drove the show’s plot, or lack thereof.  I just didn’t think it was terribly funny.  If I wanted to watch a TV show about neurotic people becoming apoplectic over such meaningless things as TV Guide collections and the size of someone’s hands, I’d leave a camera running in my own home.   Everything about the show is like nails on a chalkboard for me, from the sound of Jason Alexander’s voice to the tuneless bass riffs during the opening credits and between scenes.  I didn’t join in the chorus of gnashing and wailing when it finally went off the air, I was relieved because I wouldn’t have to hear about it anymore, but of course I still do, because it invariably shows up on countless ‘Best TV Shows of All Time’ lists.  So clearly, the fault lies with me.

That being said, I’m glad to see that The Marriage Ref is getting a sound thrashing from critics, save for The New York Times, which recently wrote such a glowing article about Jerry Seinfeld that one assumes if he starred in a series that just consisted of him drinking coffee and picking up his dry cleaning, they’d be watching in rapt delight.  The A.V. Club described it as “odious.”  The Newark Star-Ledger called it “excruciating.”  Time.com refers to it as a “God-awful mishmash.”  Faint praise though it might be, The New York Times gave it its highest accolades, declaring “it isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.” Well, as much as I detest reality television, particularly that which is a combination game and comedy show, I also love a challenge, so I wanted to see if The Marriage Ref was, indeed, as bad as it sounds.

Spoiler alert: yes.  But have patience and read on.

The idea of The Marriage Ref, if you’ve missed the countless promos and write-ups about it, is that couples with ongoing, generally silly and meaningless (one could say Seinfeld-esque) arguments are placed before a panel of celebrity “marriage experts” (people like Alec Baldwin and Madonna, both of whom I’d certainly run to for relationship advice), who discuss which half of the couple is in the right.  The “laughs,” which are supplied in ample amounts by both the studio audience and the panelists, who guffaw at each other’s lines in true Hollywood masturbatory “You’re great,” “No, you’re great” fashion, come by way of the clips of the couples engaging in said silly arguments.  The final decision in each argument is provided by the host, a comedian named Tom Papa, whose smug, “ain’t I a stinker?” delivery would be right at home in an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

In the episode I watched, Papa and his panelists, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey and Eva Longoria Parker, “mediated,” if you want to call it that, though it’s really something closer to just making a few cracks at the couples’ expenses and then weakly declaring someone a “winner,” four arguments.  The first couple, the Raimundos, argue over the husband’s obsession with personal grooming, which leads to him spending much of his free time tanning, getting mani-pedis and refusing to do housework because it takes time away from making himself pretty.  Metrosexuals, that’s up to the minute, cutting edge humor! An impressive three gay jokes, not to mention use of the word “tranny,” are made in less than ten minutes, and the “winner” of the argument is, curiously, the husband, despite that refusing to do housework business.

The next couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rios, are arguing over something even more ludicrous.  Mrs. Rios wants her dining room used exactly once per year, while Mr. Rios would like to host the occasional poker party in it.  I immediately sided with Mr. Rios, as I firmly believe that anyone who allows an entire room in his or her house to go unused should be forced to live in an efficiency apartment with only a hot plate and a ‘Hang in There, Baby,’ poster.  They also argue over Mr. Rios’s lack of handyman skills, with Mrs. Rios berating him because he can’t accomplish the incredibly simple task of building a porch onto their house by himself.  Before they can completely turn into a Hispanic version of The Lockhorns, the argument is declared a draw.

The third couple, the Wieses, their most pressing issue is that the wife insists on flossing her teeth in bed.  I’m not entirely sure what one’s defense for flossing his or her teeth outside the bathroom would be, and if she had one I missed it because I had moved past “morbid curiosity” to “active boredom” by then.  The winner of the argument is, not surprisingly, the husband.

The last couple, whose name I didn’t catch because I completely stopped giving a fuck by that point had the issue that was probably most worth getting into a legitimate argument over, that being the husband’s insistence on taking off his wedding ring before going to play basketball with his friends.  I had some doubts about the story, mainly because the husband, who insisted that he had been playing basketball for some twenty-odd years, looked in the footage recorded for the show as if he had never set foot on a basketball court before that morning.  But that’s silly, a reality show would never make stuff up, that would be false representation.  Anyway, the winner of the argument is the wife.

The action is broken up by pointless facts provided by Natalie Morales of NBC News, such as “women are better at putting stuff together than men,” and putative “comedy” highlight reels featuring Marv Albert, who, right around the same time Seinfeld was at its peak, went on trial for biting and sodomizing his girlfriend.  I think there’s supposed to be something humorous about that, just as there’s supposed to be something humorous about Alec Baldwin, who famously cursed out his adolescent daughter in a voice mail message, appearing in the first episode, but I’ll be ding dong damned if I can figure out what it is.

The A.V. Club, which reviewed the first, half hour episode, called The Marriage Ref “mean-spirited,” with celebrities taking sport in making fun of the little people.  I didn’t see that in this episode.  With the exception of Basketball Jones in the last segment, who really did have it coming (if he was for real, which I doubt), the panelists went pretty easy on the couples.  However, it was also deeply, profoundly unfunny.  In fact, the ratio of studio audience laughter to anything funny actually said remained at a solid 98 to 2 throughout the entire show, which is impressive.  Listening to the audience dissolve into fits of spirited howling over Tom Papa making a Village People joke (more relevant, timely humor, how do they stay on top of these things??), you start to feel like you’re watching a televised version of the  “no soap, radio” joke.  Maybe it’s just you that doesn’t get it.

About the most positive thing that can be said about The Marriage Ref is that it’s, at this point at least, a limited run series.  It’s rare that a network recognizes its limitations, so I’ll give praise where praise is due.  However, even in a relatively short run I don’t expect it to get any better, particularly when one of the upcoming panelists is Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, whose show Curb Your Enthusiasm is to Seinfeld what a hard poke in the eye is to a soothing neck rub.  Why not just add Newman and Costanza and make it a triumvirate of tediousness?

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