The Arbiter is a weekly column dedicated to revisiting canonical works of art, high and low alike, in an attempt to reevaluate their merit. All media are considered; none are pitied. As an homage to the greatest Jewish guardian of memory, Marcel Proust, each work will be rated on a scale of one to five madeleines, with one pastry meaning the work should be forgotten posthaste, and five arguing for a spirited recollection.
TV shows, like lovers, are never as thrilling as they are when we first meet them, when they’re sexy and clever and lighthearted and doing their damnedest to impress us. Judging by its seven-year run on NBC and robust afterlife in syndication, the first episodes of Mad About You, which debuted in 1992, charmed enough people into sticking around with its stars, Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, and caring for their foibles as newlywed Manhattanites named Paul and Jamie Buchman. Having gone back and watched 40 hours of this show in the course of one thoroughly regrettable weekend, I can say with confidence that Mad About You—a show born in and of a cultural moment that produced MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, Celine Dion and Milli Vanilli—is a soulless hoax, a stifling bit of fakery that, due to the regrettable state of the human condition and the specific deformities of the era in which it was made, became a hit.
We weary viewers should have recognized the show’s particular heartlessness from the very first scene of the pilot. After some inane chatter about neglecting to drop off laundry at the dry cleaner, Jamie pops a question. “It doesn’t bother you that we haven’t had sex in five days?” she asks. “What’s going on with us?” Paul is quick to answer: “What’s going on is that we’re married five months and the sexual part is over. I thought you understood that. I’m sorry. That’s what happens now. I play checkers in the park and you start arguing with buses.”
In the hands of a greater comedian, Jamie’s complaint of sexlessness so early on in the marriage might have unleashed a brilliant bit that dissected, painfully and humorously, the anxiety men feel whenever their virility is called into question. But Reiser took the path of least creation; his response was fast, glib, sounded good, and had nothing to do with what educated, youngish New Yorkers sound and feel and think like. As anyone who’s ever written for a humorous college outfit knows, nothing is easier than dreaming up repartee; the true comedic art lies elsewhere, in the marvelous trick—mastered by the Jackie Gleasons and the Lucille Balls and the Bill Cosbys—of turning out lines that are both hilarious and heartfelt. Such nuance seems lost on Reiser, who was the show’s co-creator and received writing credit on all of its 161 episodes. The scene’s—and the show’s—chief failure is that Paul and Jamie’s dialogue isn’t funny because it doesn’t ring true.
Such sham writing is a small sin when the subject at hand is copulation, but when religion’s the issue, it’s intolerable. Consider this: In seven years of documenting the Buchmans’ voluble intimacy, Mad About You never once mentions the fact that Paul is Jewish and Jamie is not.
How do we know their religions? Well, for starters, Jamie’s father is played by Carroll O’Connor while Paul’s Uncle Phil is Mel Brooks. She is the daughter of Archie Bunker; he the nephew of the 2,000-Year-Old Man. Yet the Buchmans have nothing to say about Christmas and Hanukkah, welcome their daughter to the world without discussion of christenings or naming ceremonies, and live as if their identities were limited to talking fast and having brunch. Their desexualized relationship can be seen as a consequence of their deracinated lives, which make it impossible for them to be honest, emotionally connected, or truly funny.
From the standpoint of survival in the network jungle, however, Paul and Jamie may have been smart to exclude faith from their televised lives. Those intermarried couples that preceded them on the small screen paid a steep price for attempting a greater degree of connection to reality. In 1973, for example, Bridget Loves Bernie, about the marriage of a rich Catholic teacher (Meredith Baxter) to a poor Jewish cab driver (David Birney), became the highest-rated television show ever to get canceled. As historian and television critic David Zurawik notes in his indispensable book The Jews of Prime Time, the show was the fifth-most-watched of the year, which didn’t stop CBS from pulling the plug, a decision most likely influenced by the show’s controversial premise. Nearly two decades later, ABC arrived at a similar decision, canceling Chicken Soup, a sitcom starring Jackie Mason as an impoverished Jewish pajama salesman and Lynn Redgrave as his wealthy British landlady. Despite an audience of 16 million homes—making it, Zurawik notes, the 13th-ranked show out of a total of 110 that season—Chicken Soup lasted only eight episodes. It became the second-highest rated television show ever to get the boot. In the years leading up to the debut of Mad About You, the intermarriage game was television’s favorite sport: Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis (Anything But Love), Corey Parker and Tea Leoni (Flying Blind), and others all played at trying to make the union of Jew and gentile funny.
Reiser’s refusal to mention his Jewishness makes not only for slimy evasiveness—even Seinfeld casually referred to its star’s ethnicity every now and then, acting like it was no big deal—but also for an unspeakably shitty formulation of marriage. As my friend Alana Newhouse noted, the Buchmans’ marriage features the worst of both worlds, wedding Jewish anxiety with WASPish repression. They’re miserable, and they don’t talk about it.
Of course, demanding accuracy in sitcoms may seem preposterous. It’s not. The genre’s operating principle calls for airless environments, like workplaces or families, and depends on endless permutations of interactions between a few main characters for laughs. No sitcom, in other words, can succeed without predictability and familiarity. The great turn to life for inspiration; we laugh at Archie Bunker because we recognize in him something of the prickly prick next door or the retrograde uncle who infuriates and entertains us each Thanksgiving. This is also why the other 1990s sitcoms about intermarriage may not have been as successful as Mad About You, but are much more intriguing. We’ve no problem picturing Richard Lewis, say, engaging in some deliciously wicked fucking with the terrific Jamie Lee Curtis; he, we can see, is truly mad about her, and his madness translates into real passion that isn’t afraid to touch on the sorts of topics, like sex and ritual, that real passion incites. And that’s hot. The steamiest thing one can imagine Reiser and Hunt doing is waxing nostalgic about how they first met, which they do all the time.
Any show that was on the air for as long as Mad About You is of course likely to produce its share of small comforts. The marvelous Anne Ramsay, for example, plays Jamie’s sister Lisa, a chestnut-haired bundle of neuroses who often seems, in a fictional universe inhabited by walking stereotypes spewing one-liners, to be the only real human being around, and also the only real Jew. Her speech may be laced with psychoanalytical jargon, but her emotional instincts—Rage! Resentment! Infatuation!—are fiery, and they warm up, for brief spells, her otherwise deeply frozen milieu. Likewise endearing is Lisa Kudrow as the dippy waitress Ursula Buffay.
And yet, even these two talented actresses can’t save Mad About You from its deadening self. But let us not look back in anger: In the decade and a half since Paul and Jamie said their final network farewell, TV seems to have learned much about how to play out being married and being Jewish without resorting to shtick. Cable outfits like HBO now allow creators like Larry David the freedom to explore intermarriage not as metaphor but as life, funny and sweet and sometimes vicious. And shows like The Big Bang Theory feature nebbishes of all ethnicities (two Jews, an Indian, and a Texan), some of whom pine for the girl across the hall, a dumb blonde who turns out to be not so dumb at all. The result, often, is the kind of joyous, uproarious, lively humor that Paul and Jamie wouldn’t recognize if it crawled into their tidy, small bed.