The Marriage Ref

In the build-up to The Marriage Ref, The New York Times wrote a breathless piece about how it was the show that would save NBC. It featured Jerry Seinfeld, returning to save the network he apparently consigned to doom. (Never mind the fact that Seinfeld has become an increasingly odious media presence in the last few years.) It was supposedly a weird cross between reality show, game show and sitcom. And it was supposed to have the lighthearted tone that NBC does so well, or at least that it did so well in the past. Yet I could sense almost no actual anticipation for the show out there in the world I could observe, either in my real life or on the Internet. It almost seemed as if this was one of those things where people deeply nostalgic for Seinfeld decided that what made Seinfeld so good was Jerry Seinfeld.

But once I actually saw The Marriage Ref, the pre-emptive praise from the Times seems to just confirm what every American who doesn't live in New York holds as his or her biggest fear about our country's most cosmopolitan city: They're all ready to make fun of us. Put any one of us - Southerner, Midwesterner, Californian - up on a Jumbotron, and New Yorkers will go out of their way to mock our lives in a particularly mean-spirited fashion, laughing about it as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Now, granted, not everyone on the show IS a New Yorker, but the mocking tone of the show seems to be exactly what every middle American is talking about when they insist that Hollywood doesn't understand them or what they care about. It's pretty damn odious, and it's even worse because the thing is basically not funny either.

The Marriage Ref, as I'm sure you know after having watched any amount of Olympics coverage, is a show where celebrities watch clips of supposedly humorous disputes between married people and attempt to make the case for why either the husband or wife is correct in their side of the dispute. The titular referee, then, is Tom Papa, who hangs out at the edges of the show and makes the final call in favor of the husband or wife. Also turning up because NBC owns their souls are NBC News' Natalie Morales, who looks like she'd rather be just about anywhere else, and NBC Sports' Marv Albert, who's just pleased we all forgot about that whole scandal thing he was involved in in the '90s. And that's ... pretty much it.

I'm sure there's a wacky series to be made about mediating disputes between married couples. I'm sure there's a trenchant series to be made about married couples bringing serious disputes before serious panels, who try to repair the damage in those marriages. And I'm sure there's an exploitative series to be made about just how terrible some marriages are and being happy you're not in one of those marriages. Sadly, The Marriage Ref is none of these things, as it spends most of its time safely toeing the line between all of these options and never committing to one of them.

The Marriage Ref goes out of its way to choose couples who have patently ridiculous and pointless arguments. The two in the premiere episode tonight involved a man who'd had his beloved dog "the Fonz" stuffed and wanted to display it in his living room (in a special nook he'd created just for it!) and a man who really, really wanted to install a stripper pole in his bedroom for his wife to gyrate on. If you're making a goofy show about how married people just don't understand or about how men can never respect their women or any of a million cliched directions you could go, then I suppose this could work. The problem comes after the clips package is over and once the celebrities start talking.

Actually, back that up, because the problems start while the clips are rolling. The production values of The Marriage Ref resemble nothing so much as a Japanese game show you might see on YouTube. Everything about this - from the brightly lit but rather spartan set to the way that the show pushes the celebrities reacting to what they're seeing in the clips package off to the side of the clips package in little boxes highlighted by bright yellow borders - looks like a show that should be in another language for some reason. It's not as though this sort of design aesthetic is completely foreign to U.S. television, but all of it seems ever-so-slightly off.

Once the mostly inoffensive clips packages are over, though, the horribleness begins in earnest. Seinfeld and two celebrity pals - Alec Baldwin and Kelly Ripa in the premiere - act as if they are incredibly amused by what they've just seen, as if they can't believe how the rest of us live out here in the sticks. Then, they proceed to pick apart the clips package, mocking the participants in it (though mostly the husbands in the premiere) and offering their opinions. But here's the thing: The celebrities come up with some fairly substantive critiques about these marriages that probably point to actual issues. The guy with the dog is realizing that he's never realized any of his dreams, while the guy who wants his wife to dance on a stripper pole is clearly trying to reintroduce heat into his marriage.

But instead of treating these revelations with anything like, I dunno, a sense of dignity or something, the show just spends its time making fun of these people, in the most mean-spirited fashion possible. I'm not going to say that people's deep issues can't be fodder for humor, but it feels a little imbalanced when it's rich and powerful celebrities sitting in a studio and mocking the yokels who dared cross their giant TV screen for not being all they can be. The whole thing feels as if The Soup, of all things, decided to stop making fun of celebrities and start coming into people's homes to make fun of them.

Now, granted, all of this could very much improve in episodes to come. It wouldn't be too hard to bring the tone of the show back from deeply misanthropic to merely stupid. But that wouldn't change the fact that what's going on here just isn't funny at all. I think I smiled maybe once in the entirety of the half-hour, and that may have been an involuntary reaction, some sort of Stockholm syndrome reaction to having to watch a full half-hour of the thing. And, in fact, the only good thing I could find about this was the fact that I only had to watch half an episode. When the show comes back on Thursday, it'll be a full hour long. And that's probably the worst thing about it.

Stray observations:

  • Hey, why does NBC have every reality show spend so many times explaining its premise over and over? I swear that the series explains what its concept is four or five times before we get under way.
  • Also, I'm not sure why the opening animation uses a baseball metaphor when baseball has umpires.
  • And yet, despite it all, I'd almost tune in for the Larry David, Madonna and Ricky Gervais episode. I mean, that will have to have some funny stuff in it, right? Right?
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