Ever since its premiere following the Olympics closing ceremony, critics have been shitting all over The Marriage Ref, NBC’s new Jerry Seinfeld-produced game show which features celebrities helping real life couples resolve marriage disputes. Entertainment Weekly called it “tedious” and Time‘s James Poniewozik used words like “corny,” “low-rent,” and “god-awful.” Even Ricky Gervais, appearing on the program alongside Larry David and Madonna (an intriguing lineup if ever there was one) exclaimed early on, “What is going on? This is a strange program. I feel like someone’s put crack in my drink. What is going on? This is the weirdest show I’ve ever been on. It’s already weird. It’s weird that I’m here with you two. I don’t know what they’re doing up there.” After watching two episodes, I’m not convinced it’s hopeless, and with some changes it could become a hit. Who doesn’t want to see famous and entertaining people sitting around making jokes with one another ? The View, after all is wildly popular, and the women featured on that show are not terribly funny or really famous for anything else (Whoopi aside).
Unfotunately, Poniewozik and Gervais are right: The Marriage Ref is corny, and uncomfortable and off-kilter. Seinfeld’s goal was apparently to harken back to the game shows of the 1960s, which often featured celebrities cracking jokes and bantering with one another. Perhaps it’s that dusty retro feel that makes The Marriage Ref so strange: TV has changed, and this kind of old-fashioned set up can at times come across as more strained than Cosmo Kramer’s dumpster-salvaged, imaginary Merv Griffin Show. The idea itself is not a bad one. Seinfeld has oodles of famous friends, and seeing them onscreen together week after week is a delight. And one can’t just put a bunch of celebrities on TV; they need something to talk about. The couples featured are wacky and familiar, though the presentation of the couple segments is perhaps edging scarily close to America’s Funniest Home Videos-style sound effects and Bob Saget voices. (Maybe it’s the jaunty background music? What is it, exactly?) This is where the corny comes in. Nothing on The Marriage Ref is untouched or left to stand on its own. Everything is fussed with and tortured, in what is indeed a very retro way, making it all feel hammy-awards-show-funny instead of prime time comedy funny.
The laughter is a big problem. Tom Papa may indeed be a funny comedian, but his monologue is stuffed with so much raucous, canned-sounding laughter that it’s impossible to appreciate his wit. There’s allegedly a studio audience, but one that I imagine is strapped to their chairs, Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to laugh loudly at that ever-illuminating laughter sign. This is a mostly improvised comedy program. I understand that not every gem from the mouths of these famous funnypeople will have a crackerjack punchline. Some of it may be lame, some serious, some deeply unsettling. But what’s even more unsettling, in a David Lynch’s “Rabbits” sort of way? When the audience laughs uproariously at things that aren’t even really jokes. It’s creepy. And corny. And tedious.
Another misstep that has been pointed out by many critics is the presence of poor NBC newswoman Natalie Morales, who must have drawn the short straw somewhere along the line. Smiling uncomfortably and perched on a chair, she does “research” on her little computer and pipes up with banal statistics that she seems to realize we could have easily looked up ourselves if we really cared. This is another retro touch that, as much as Seinfeld may want it to, simply doesn’t work in the age of Wikipedia. Statistics are not hard to find, and this exercise backfires by leaving the guests of honor figeting uncomfortably in silence.
So what’s the point of my analysis? I’m just being hard on Jerry like all of these other critics, never forgiving him for leaving us to wallow in syndication after nine iconic Seinfeld seasons. I believe it’s true that Seinfeld’s involvement has made critics hate the show even more. What betrayal! What bitter disappointment! Our golden boy, our baby blue! But all is not lost. The Marriage Ref can be saved. There is a lot of tweaking that needs to be done. But the idea of three mismatched celebrities actually hanging out and talking to each other, instead of some neutral talk show host, is too exciting to pass up.
It actually reminds me of that other show about a bunch of famous people getting together, joking and arguing about stuff: Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. Jerry Seinfeld was actually featured on the very first episode of that program, which entertainingly combined politics, comedy, and the spectacle of dumb people arguing. Sadly, the show was cancelled amidst Mahr’s (ridiculously overblown) comments regarding the September 11th attacks, in what would be a death-knell for open political discussion on network television. I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate the show until the end of its run, but I think it’s something that The Marriage Ref could look to for guidance. Of course, I’m aware that TMR isn’t at all political, and is supposed to be goofy and lighthearted. But why is it so nervous? One of Mahr’s best qualities and a host (and occasional pundit) is his laid-back nature and sense of reason. TMR comes across as nervous and high-strung as George Costanza during a massage. It needs to let its guests relax, and breathe, and banter like they’ve all been trained to do by publicists and comedy club one-night-stands. It needs to present its likable couples as they are, and trust the audience to acknowledge their quirks for themselves. To answer my question, people hate The Marriage Ref because it tries too hard. Jerry, of all people, should know enough to just relax. He’s even Steven, after all. Things will work out for him.