Our reviews of Mad About You: The Complete Third Season (published January 31st, 2007), Mad About You: The Complete Fourth Season (published June 23rd, 2010), Mad About You: The Complete Fifth Season (published November 17th, 2010), and The Mad About You Collection (published March 2nd, 2005) are also available.
Mad About…having to review this title
Marriage is a funny thing. Or at least you think it would be considering the number of movies and television sitcoms based in and around the premise of matrimony as Grade "A" guffaw silage. Sure, when poured into the borderline white trash surliness of a Roseanne or dimwitted beyond the point of legal retardation Al Bundy, you can mine a little comic gold. But more times than not, fiction finds people bound into committed relationships with complicated legal and emotional issues to be a pretty tough nuptial to crack wise over. They either have the newly intertwined spouses play out their worst Freudian sex game nightmares or quickly feel the urge to repopulate the homestead with little adolescent saplings. It's the media who surrender to the myth that once an individual has aged beyond a certain point or the seed has been sown for the regeneration of the species, the mature plants are more or less worthless, Nielsen wise. That's why Mad About You is such an enigma. It wants to champion the husband and wife as the last bastion of adult sensual sanity in a world gone wild with wanton infant emotion. But instead of succeeding, it resorts to outlandish situations, not finely draw characters, to find its humor. It doesn't work well at all.
Facts of the Case
This two-disc set contains the first 22 episodes of Mad About You. Each episode revolves around the newlywed life of Paul and Jamie Buchman. Paul is in his mid-30s and works out of his own production house as a documentary filmmaker. Jamie is 30 and is employed in a PR firm. Paul has a worthless, mooching college friend, Selby, who is constantly on the make, and Jamie is cursed with a mental case sister, Lisa, who seems mere moments away from a breakdown or intervention. Paul and Jamie are also friends with a married couple, Mark the gynecologist and Fran who works with Jamie in the same company. In later episodes, we meet Paul's dork of a cousin, Ira. In brief, the individual shows are:
"Out of the Past"
"I'm Just So Happy For You"
"Paul in the Family"
"Maid About You"
"Neighbors from Hell"
"Love Among the Tiles"
"The Wedding Affair"
"The Man Who Said Hello"
"The Spy Girl Who Loved Me"
Sitcoms are tricky. You're either successful by focusing on outlandish situations or sharp, complicated characters. In those rare instances when everything gels, you get a Fawlty Towers or an All in the Family, shows that placed well drawn, three dimension beings into outrageous circumstances and watched as the laughs and legacy came fast and furious. Other times, with fan favorites like Seinfeld or Taxi, you got incredibly complex and complete individuals interacting, without much happening circumstantially (heck, Seinfeld even sold itself as a show about nothing). Sometimes, a mere premise sells the pleasantry, be it men in drag (Bosom Buddies), foul mouthed urchins (South Park), or hopped up hoochies treating midtown as one big sexual salad bar (Sex and the City). But most of your classic shows succeed because they are about people: the Rob Petries, Sam Malones, and various Friends. The potentially extreme situations are ancillary. Not every show is successful, and it can take time to flesh out even the most well conceived personality. But more times than not, modern shows grab for the bizarre condition first, hoping to find the full realized individuals to populate it later.
Mad About You is the very definition of a formulaic, by the book situation comedy, meaning that the only humor to be derived comes out of the plotting the actors find themselves in, not the portrayal itself. Shows like The Simpsons or The Mary Tyler Moore Show always found their laughs from the well-constructed, multi-layered and played characters. Homer Simpson is not outrageously funny or Ted Baxter pathetically endearing because they couldn't get front row tickets to the circus. It is WHY they act the way they do, rather than WHAT they are reacting to from whence their comedy derives. Paul and Jamie are never individuals; they are things, non-specific entities moving through a maze of Manhattan machinations searching for the next punch line or acerbic putdown. A good test of whether something is funny because of what is happening vs. who it is happening to is to simply remove the situation and see if there is still something witty remaining. More times than not, Mad About You relies on a clever conceit, the farcical mix-up or the tried and tired blueprints of past comedic imperfection (the old girl/boyfriend, the insanely meddling parents, the wacky neighbor) to milk potential laughs. And they usually fall flat.
Through the course of the first season DVD presentation, you can sense the attempts at breathing dimension into the lifeless Buchman clan. Jamie is the most neurotic cipher of the two, even though Paul obviously spent too many days for night in film school studying Woody Allen's mannerisms and vocal stammers to be anything other than a vacuous imitation (he's a dense doppelganger to Alvy Singer and Danny Rose). But in Jamie, we witness the kind of amoral OCD whirling dervishness that would give Doctors Phil and Laura nightmares. This is one cracked couple. Most of their affectionate banter borders on the painful humiliating putdown, with Jamie loving to imitate Paul's manic mannerisms behind his back. Makes you wonder why they ever got together. But Mad About You also wants us to know how much Paul and Jamie care for each other, how their love and undying commitment will help them overcome such everyday life obstacles as a day selling subway tokens or an enamored Russian maid. Yet their romance is a hatful of hollow. This is a couple that knew they were in love because of a veal chop that made Jamie sick. This is a meet cute (or make it "meet puke") concept that functions as typical sitcom romantic shorthand. Paul and Jamie are not involved in a tenderness that sweeps through the ages and binds them in a passion unquenchable and bottomless. It's really all about tainted meat.
There is a sole attempt to provide some depth, however, it what is probably the best non-stunt cast show on the entire disc. "Met Someone" shows the real beginning of their romance, a gentle tale of smart people looking to jump the dating shark once and for all and find Mr. or Ms. Right. Call it when harried Jamie met silly Paul. Here, there is restraint and intelligence in the writing (all except the boss' stupid Rose Bowl story) and wonderful exchanges, which try and provide a foundation of fate and a real sense of romance in flower. It's too bad that the rest of the shows, either before or after, couldn't or wouldn't take a lesson from this one. It's probably the only example where the people, not the situation, are what's most important and it's the most adult moment in this entire immature first season. Mad About You works best, when it works at all, with the droll urbanity subdued, allowing the characters to talk like real intimates. When Paul suggests that they use the name of Adlai Stevenson's presidential running mate, Estes Kefauver, as a potential code word during a meeting, it resonates of writers being too clever to provide real wit or emotional exchanges. Since Paul and Jamie are not 100% real individuals to begin with, perhaps arcane politicians and discussions about fictional '60s television characters are fair game. But it makes for infuriating television.
Other episodes that stand out, for good or bad, also exemplify what is wrong, and only occasionally right, with Mad About You. "I'm Just So Happy for You" wants to break the mold, to show what happens when the wife, not the husband, experiences unprecedented career acceleration. The whole "asking the boss for a raise" cliché has been worked over so much and so poorly that the show wisely avoids its pitfalls and makes Jamie's potential promotion rest completely on her competence. When she wins, there is another dicta bending moment where she expresses her excitement (and new, comfy office) in childlike, over-exaggerated declarations of joy and victory. While we may be used to a Fred Flintstone shouting "Yabba Dabba Do," Jamie's explosion of emotion is uncharacteristic and unique. But then the show goes and fitters all that away by having Paul lose a chance (a chance, mind you) at having his hokey, rotten apple headed Yankees peanut vendor film footage bought by PBS. No one told the audience that his business situation was so desperate. And his artistic aspirations are never clear, so his devastation seems petty. He undermines his wife's victory by endlessly moping about it. The more he does, the more he moves from pathetic to downright insensitive. Jamie gets a bigger office, a bigger raise, and the chance to make her and Paul's life that much more financially secure. And yet the big baby Buchman just whines and sulks like he lost the Oscar to Shakespeare in Love.
So what's wrong with this? Everything. It's infuriating to think that a husband, no matter how artistically temperamental, would purposely spoil his wife's big day achievement with a self indulgent act of personal self satisfaction. Nothing is confronted realistically. It's like in "Token Friends," which guest stars Steve Buscemi playing an ex-college nemesis of Paul's. It's always nice to see this gifted actor onscreen, but he is given nothing to do and then he's carted off to make way for more Buchman baloney business. There was potential here, just like with the job storyline, but we need to keep Paul and Jamie quipping, and they can't do that when they confront each other as man and wife. Sometimes, the miscalculations are rational. In an obvious bid for ratings, Michael Richards stumbles in to play Kramer in an episode revolving around Paul's old apartment. Those who find anything Richards does hilarious will enjoy this cameo. But again, it's hollow and improbable. "Riding Backwards" almost works because we only get to see the start, and the end, of a holiday from Hell. All the irritated histrionics are left to the imagination as people stop acting television and start interacting as individuals. More moments like this, or the past probing 113, would save this first season from being an uneven mess.
Still, there are some funny moments in Mad About You's first year. "Neighbors From Hell," revolving around a British couple who find the Buchmans childish and irritating, rings hilariously true, especially for any non-fan who finds their self absorbed personalities like fake fingernails on a chalkboard. And when Jerry Lewis, France's favorite enfant terrible, makes a guest appearance in "The Billionaire," he single-handedly lifts the show to new manic levels of mirth. Many die-hards hate his hooked on monkey phonics mugging, but Lewis brings a professional desire to make people laugh to Mad About You and his human oddity persona really helps the show. But for every single good thing, there are hundreds that are bad or just plain irritating. Like Fran and Mark's son, Ryan, who plays the single most annoying child on the face of the planet (here's hoping that he grew up to be dead). Or Jamie's ill-conceived best friend and co-worker Fran, who makes Kate in The Taming of the Shrew seem like Nigella Lawson. When her doctor husband leaves her in "Happy Anniversary" and "The Painter," you won't wonder why. You'll breathe a heady sigh of relief for the poor guy. Sure, he's a lox, but no one deserves a whiny, demanding witch like her. Not even Frank Gifford.
But the main leads bring about their own set of acting and reacting issues. Helen Hunt is, mysteriously, a big time Hollywood actress with one of those heavy golden men on her mantle, and yet she plays Jamie like a one note neurotic, unable to deal with life's problems unless she has the last word or a snappy putdown. She's needier than a trash can kitten, but seems to find any positive emotion suspect, like there's a hidden surcharge involved. Paul Reiser, on the other hand, is better in those relaxed, off the cuff moments where odd thoughts come popping out of his mouth. As a standup comic, he brings a sly, intelligent wit to many of his ramblings, but the minute a scene requires him to feel, to kvetch and moan, he turns on the stammering stumble job. He becomes the postmodern male as a shticky sensitivity savant. Obviously, as the years went on and the performers grew more comfortable in their roles, the idiosyncrasies and irritating mannerisms became subdued, or even died. But they are in full flung mode in Mad About You's first season, and they won't help sell this show to the non-converted.
In the end, as this is just the first season of a show that went on for many more, to fault it for not having all its multi-layers piled on is forgivable. But it does not make for good television. Invention can come with complexity and humor can be found in the oddest of cameo roles. But Mad About You wants to be a pragmatic contemporary urban romantic comedy, where the lovers say witty things to each other over implausible circumstances that will only make their love for each other stronger and more special. It wants to experiment with the standard three-camera set up and take the action and the audience into uncharted televisional territory. But as realized out of the conceptual starting gate, the show is angry, manic and wildly uneven. Just when things seem to click, new cast members are added and established relationships undermined, seemingly for the sake of a new situation for Paul and Jamie to quip and make up over. This is a very shaky foundation upon which to formulate a classic canon of comedy. It's hard to imagine anyone championing the show for inclusion in the pantheon of great sitcoms. While occasionally genial, and almost sophisticated, Mad About You: The Complete First Season is a DVD package for the fan only, as newcomers to the series will be confused, not amused, by the Buchmans and their neverending interpersonal bickering.
Not that Columbia TriStar makes matters any better with this incredibly bare bones DVD package. Those who love the show will be glad to have a digital copy for posterity, but they will also grimace at the lack of one single extra. No cast notes. No commentary tracks. No behind the scenes interviews or information. Just a flimsy pamphlet with the episode information (and this reviewer may be wrong, but shouldn't have "The Painter" come before "Happy Anniversary" logically in the show's timeline?) is included. And the picture is not even that great. Disc One is fuzzy and unclear at times and suffers from a decided decline in quality as the 11 episodes pass by. By the end, certain scenes seem out of focus and blurred. The decision to place so many shows on one disc (at 22 minutes a pop, that's four hours per DVD) really hurts the image for Mad About You. However, Disc Two, containing the same number of titles, looks surprisingly good. Not perfect, but better than Disc One. And the stereo sound is nothing to write home about. It's an example of standard TV from the 1990s, which means that occasionally you hear a voice from the left travel right, but even that is stretching the aural limits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Television, like music, movies and literature is a very personal want and desire. What someone finds classic, another feels scrapes the bottom of the lard bucket. And it places any reviewer in the precarious position of being the dreaded messenger in that overused maxim about who to shoot when bad news (or in this case, a bad review) is delivered. Mad About You is not a bad show. It doesn't grate on the nerves like something starring Jim Nabors or strain at sanctimony like Will and Grace or Ally McBeal. It tries hard to be a good-natured look at modern romance and on its own limited terms it succeeds. After all, this was a show that, in season one (as with most other show's first few forays into broadcasting) was finding its legs, experimenting with tone and playing with casting, filming, and performance. By Season 5, the show was a certified hit and had established all of its important character dynamics. Sure, maybe it was lame to make Jamie a closet cello player, only to drop it quickly and never mention it again. Yes, the Buchmans swore they hated opera, so to have them cry when Luciano Pavarotti stops by to sing smacks of cultural reconsideration, but everything has to start somewhere. To fault Mad About You for not being perfect out of the box (and it's the rare show that is) is unfair. But to sit through eight hours of a show that never called you in the first place seems equally unjust. Fans will be happy with this DVD. Non-fans haven't even bothered to read this review.
Nobody, and no marriage, is perfect. All relationships have their ups and downs, and as the old saying goes, many spend so much time at the bottom that there is nowhere else to go but topside. Or maybe to Hell. They also propose that two can live as cheaply as one, but they fail to take into consideration the emotional costs. The compromises, the battles and the challenges faced individually supposedly build character, but when mutual among two people, they can murder love in its post-coital slumber and lead to a date with a process server. Mad About You wants to show how the relationship between two complicated, educated people can blossom and grow even in the midst of interpersonal trials and unusual or borderline wacky circumstances. But since everyman and everywoman don't live in the circus-like atmosphere of a sitcom, its lessons seem trivial and its emotion forced. Fans will rejoice that they have a semi-decent DVD package to replace their VHS collection, or if just to revisit an old favorite. But its sad when the family as foul mouthed fiasco known as The Osbournes sells a more positive and realistic image of marriage and relationships than this young urban yuck fest. Light on truth and heavy on hijinks, Mad About You will leave you angry with yourself…for wasting your time in front of the TV.
Mad About You is found guilty of being a trivial, uninspired attempt at a television romantic comedy, and is sentenced to…but it's already been cancelled, so who cares. Columbia TriStar is sentenced to ten years hard labor for failing to provide fans with anything other than a bare bones package of episodes only.
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