The second season of The Marriage Ref debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
In the winter of 2010, The Marriage Ref rode onto the NBC schedule in an emergency situation; it was asked to fill one of the many gaps that were left by the cancellation of Jay Leno's never-should-have-happened 10 p.m. talk show. NBC knew that this wasn't a 10 p.m. show, and it was likely something better suited for 8 p.m., or better yet, summer. But the network had nothing else, and they figured it had Jerry Seinfeld's pedigree behind it, so they put it out there with a lot of hoopla.
What they got for their trouble was some of the worst reviews for a network show since Viva Laughlin. What most people objected to was the show's inherent smugness, with wealthy celebrities like Seinfeld poking fun at not only the arguments everyday couples have but also taking time to ridicule some of the participants' various foibles, tics, and appearances. And, as we're finding out, some of these couples were in a pretty weak state to begin with, something that was too heavy for the host, audience, or panel to even consider.
It wasn't just Jerry, who comes off as smug and aloof even when he's doing his stand-up; it was high-powered celebrity panelists like Madonna, Donald Trump, and Alec Baldwin, none of whom could be held up as paragons of the institute of marriage, passing judgement on these bickering spouses as if they held the keys just because they were famous. Only a few of the panelists, like Ricky Gervais and Tracy Morgan, took the show for the silly spectacle that it was; not coincidentally, the episodes featuring those panelists were generally the funniest ones.
The show started strong in the ratings but ended up settling down to a small but steady 4 million viewers per week, and I can only think the people that hung in there did so because of the couples themselves. Some of them had everyday problems, like a squabble between an elderly couple on whether they should move to California, and some had silly disputes, like a spouse's out-of-control Betty Boop collection. But couples everywhere could identify with these squabbles and wanted to see who was deemed by host Tom Papa to be the right party in the argument. Because of that— and Seinfeld's considerable pull—the show got a second season, which premieres tonight at 10 p.m. eastern.
Seinfeld and his fellow producers have rejiggered the format a bit, likely in response to the smugness charge. This time around, Papa will do more stand-up bits about marriage, which is one of the specialties in his usually very funny act. The couples will face the celebrity judges in person, and a judges' vote will decide who is right in the given argument. At the end of the episode, the studio audience will determine which one of the victors is "The Rightest of the Right," and that person will win $25,000 and a billboard in their hometown declaring their victory. The expense of doing these things is likely why the show also now looks more intimate, with a smaller audience and set.
But what seems to have escaped the people who put this show together is that the celebrity panels are simply a no-go; no matter how tempered the jokes are, it still feels like celebrities passing judgement over regular people just trying to live their lives.
Tonight's season premiere indicates that, despite the changes, the show's fatal flaw is still dominant. The celebrity panelists are Seinfeld, Gervais, and Julianne Moore, and as per the show's format, the problems range from the mundane—a husband bemoans the fact that his mother-in-law from Thailand stays with him and his wife for months on end—to the ridiculous—a man is obsessed with pumpkins and pays more attention to his ever-bigger gourds than his own wife.
It's this second dispute where both the flaws and the potential of this kind of panel discussion become evident. While Jerry and Papa make fun of the sickly pumpkin and how the guy hops the fence like a cat burgler to go visit it in the neighbor's yard, and Jerry recounts how he plays "The Pumpkin Man" for his kids, both of which elicit winces, Gervais gets incredulous over what he's seeing.
"You wrote Seinfeld, one of the great comedies of all time! You were my hero!" he exclaims in a high-pitched voice as Jerry sings his "Pumpkin Man" song. "I came on this show twice because Jerry Seinfeld asked me, and now, he's a pumpkin man!"
The moments when the panelists ignore the couple and start busting each other's balls are usually when The Marriage Ref becomes most watchable. But those moments were infrequent in the first season and are very dependent on the chemistry of the various panelists. Jerry's not going to be able to get his self-loathing buddy Larry David on every week, for example; he and Gervais turning on Madonna were among last season's funniest episodes.
If The Marriage Ref had been a reality show about just the couples and their disputes or just a show where celebrity panelists talk about marriage and make fun of each other, it would have at least approached something watchable. With the two elements together, though, it remains a mess. Let's just say that if you're a fan of Jerry Seinfeld and you watch tonight's premiere, you'll likely understand why Gervais was so damned upset.