Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our look at Mad About You (1992-1999, NBC) — currently available in full on DVD!
A pair of young marrieds enjoy and endure the little things in life. Mad About You stars PAUL REISER as Paul Buchman and HELEN HUNT as Jamie Buchman. This year’s ensemble cast includes JOHN PANKOW, ANNE RAMSAY, LEILA KENZLE, and LISA KUDROW.
There are two lists in our seven-week coverage of Mad About You that most deserve to catch the attention of sitcom fans currently unfamiliar with the series. One is this, the best of the second season, the first of a two-year stretch that can confidently be considered the series’ Golden Age, while the other list, of course, belongs to Season Three, the second half of the Golden Age… Now, I can’t personally claim — with regard to this gem-seeking blog — that Season Two is Mad About You’s finest year; spoiler alert: Season Three contains the series’ best and brightest episodic delights, and is going to bear the richest catalogue. However, what Season Two offers uniquely is the bridge between novelty and understanding. Yes, just as we’ve seen before with many of the comedies covered here, the second year is positioned, by default, to benefit from both lessons learned in the season prior and from the lingering novelty afforded to every new series, especially one that is now more cognizant of how it can best tell stories that meet the terms of its thesis — freshly, but knowing. As a result, Season Two grants us the most straightforward opportunity to examine the series’ strengths… along with its weaknesses. Oh, sure, just because Season Two is strong, novel, and wiser than its predecessor, this doesn’t mean that all the shortcomings from the first year have been eradicated. In fact, now that Mad About You knows itself better — and we know it better — we’re given a clearer view of everything: warts and all. And there’s something most welcome about this prospect, because Season Two does acquit the show quite well. After all, this is the start of the Golden Age…
A lot of what becomes crystal clear during this period has already been discussed in last week’s much more comprehensive look at the series — during which we framed how to derive genuine enjoyment from Mad About You by using some of its more popular contemporaries as points of reference. Remember, Paul and Jamie are the show, no one comes close to matching their emotional gravitas (the ensemble surrounding the central couple is largely inferior by comparison), and the scripts themselves generally aren’t as uproariously comedic as those employed on the aforementioned Peacock Network alternatives, of which Mad About You nevertheless represents an amiable blend. Yet, what the show lacks in laugh-out-loud humor, it makes up for in the palpable humanity of its two leads, who aren’t defined in haha-yielding extremes (like so many of their sitcom counterparts), but are instead tinted with the relatable realism that’s still the byproduct of a low-concept thesis. Now that the stories aren’t trying so hard to project an intended narrative objective (as they were in early Season One), the characters are able to more naturally fulfill the associated promises made to the audience. That is, Mad About You’s premise now doesn’t try to define itself via plot, but via character… Additionally, with Mad now scheduled as the opening act of Must See TV Thursdays, the series doesn’t have to be so ostentatious with its episodic gimmicks. There will be many more cameos and casting stunts ahead, but they won’t be born of the same audience-wanting, identity-seeking desperation that we saw at the end of Season One. Accordingly, the characters have stepped up to assume the prominence that last year only suggested for them (and reinforced in its best moments), and now that we’re in a period where the stories — neither too small nor too big — are no longer fighting against us, we can truly enjoy the interlocking identities of character and show. Again, Mad About You is Paul and Jamie. Paul and Jamie are, well, you got it…
But as is to be expected, the ensemble still poses a problem — even in this Golden Age. If you’ll recall from last week, the first season dropped Selby, Paul’s man-child friend, midway through the year, and instead committed in the back nine to developing a peripheral male ally with a more natural connection to the couple: Ira, Paul’s cousin. Additionally, the longer-married couple intended to serve as a counterpoint to the Buchmans, Mark and Fran Devanow, were separated as actor Richard Kind opted to no longer remain a series regular. This left three held-over supporting players going into the year — Ira, Fran, and Lisa, Jamie’s mess of a sister — and they’re each individually amusing: not too broad, not too bland. (Although, admittedly, they’re closer to bland than broad — a function of their limited development in story.) But they’re also not great pushers of plot either, and that’s something that I think this second year confirms. Neither Lisa, nor Ira, and especially not Fran, can carry an episode’s story — and the more a narrative counts upon them to drive either the laughs or provide the emotional hook, the less likely Mad About You is to produce a classic. Fortunately, part of why this is clear here in Season Two is not that we’re subjected to painful duds that prove the point. Actually, what proves the point is that the show simply can’t turn to them to offer much, so it just… doesn’t. The most effort here is probably made with Ira, but one single episode — “A Pair Of Hearts” (which includes the first appearance of Cyndi Lauper, who’d win an Emmy for her sole guest spot in Season Three — even though I’d argue that she, like Jerry Lewis last week, is one of those stunt casting examples that distracts from the main characters, without offering any substance of her own to mitigate the gimmickry) — is enough to make a dissenting case.
Yet, while the show sticks by Lisa and Fran and Ira, and indeed secures some worthwhile moments from them — particularly when they’re made to directly intrude and cause comedic/dramatic tension in Paul and Jamie’s relationship — Mad About You is still not totally content with this ensemble structure. In Season Two, the scripts are constantly reaching elsewhere for more — more ideas, more laughs, more characters. One auditioned avenue comes in the form of a work antagonist for Paul played by Larry Miller, who departs after four appearances here without leaving much of an impression. (Nobody from Paul’s work ever jells, including this era’s cohorts, played by Marva Hicks and Steven Wright, who function like Cara Williams and Scooey Mitchell at Joe’s workplace on Rhoda: potentially interesting, but unexplored — and possibly not even worth exploring if the leading lady can’t be involved.) More rewarding, meanwhile, is Mad About You’s most famous recurring character — Ursula, a dizzy waitress played by the future Phoebe Buffay herself, Lisa Kudrow. Once Kudrow was cast in Friends, which debuted on the same night and network the following season (Mad About You’s third), the two shows consented to an explanation that would allow them to share her when possible: Phoebe and Ursula are twin sisters. Naturally, Friends gave Kudrow more than Mad About You ever could, but here before Friends was even a possibility, this show knew it could rely on her to bolster an episode’s laugh quotient, and it’s not hard to imagine Mad About You using the actress a lot more had Friends tanked… Still, though, Kudrow isn’t enough to create a viable ensemble, and there’s more exploration to be done; it comes via a source suggested by Ira (and hinted at in last year’s honorable-but-contemptible “The Man Who Said Hello”): Paul’s family.
Eventually, Mad About You will discover — partly from necessity (losing Fran and Mark), and partly within a natural evolution — that the only ensemble design that can regularly engender stories tailored to the series’ strengths (Paul and Jamie) is one with a more frequent use of the family. It seemed that last season, with the introduction of Ira and the ostentatious offering featuring Louis Zorich as Paul’s father, Mad About You would enter its second year making more overt strides in this familial direction… The truth, however, is that this year inches only slowly towards what now appears inevitable. It debuts the outstanding Cynthia Harris as Paul’s laugh-getting, yet multi-dimensional (by virtue of Harris’ performance, not these scripts), mother, Sylvia — in an early entry, “Bedfellows” — but only uses her twice more this year, with one of those times being the double-length story-driven (and not-so-stellar) season finale. This doesn’t feel right; Sylvia, as played by Harris, is built for laughs and, by design, serves as a meaty source of conflict for Paul, for Jamie, and for Paul and Jamie as a pair — and thus seems to be a potentially rich fount of story with both humor and weight. It’ll be a while before the show takes her up on this offer (and also gets Paul’s sister right; this year we meet the one-hit-wonder Sharon, played by Randy Graff, and get an episode with Talia Balsam playing Debbie, before Robin Bartlett assumes the role in the aforementioned season finale). This reluctance to indulge the relatives, though perhaps shortsighted, isn’t a flaw of the year. I’d argue that the inevitability of their enhanced presence is consuming, and indulging them too much too soon might have drained their figurative well prematurely — before the show really needed them.
Additionally, for the reasons discussed in last week’s commentary, Mad About You is still a dedicated “singles in the city” (or “circle of friends”) entry — even though its leads aren’t single and it exists before the technical brand ambassador of the template (Friends). In this era, the emphasis on relating to a thirtysomething cosmopolitan crowd is boldly apparent. And, in an irony that speaks as much to the age’s unrelated strengths as to future seasons’ unrelated weaknesses, the best years of Mad About You come not during the period where family, the most logical (albeit, last-resort) line of support, is most prevalent, but rather, right now, when Paul and Jamie are still more affiliated with the odd assortment of relatives, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances — who don’t provide much plot, but can help support the series’ thesis (perhaps indirectly — by not getting in Paul and Jamie’s way). As for behind-the-scenes reasons why Two (and Three) is superior to much of what follows, note that co-creator Danny Jacobson, who was allowed to stay involved this year due to the postponement of Shelley Long’s Good Advice, got Executive Producer reinforcements in Jeffrey Lane, who was bumped up from Co-EP after last season. Lane would remain EP for both the second and third years — a period that contains several other new hires unique to the Golden Age, including Jack Burditt (Frasier, Just Shoot Me!, 30 Rock, The Mindy Project, Last Man Standing, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Modern Family), Jeffrey Klarik (Dream On, Half And Half, Episodes), and Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn (Dream On, NewsRadio, Just Shoot Me!; him only: Back To You, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory)… Ultimately, though, Season Two is well-positioned to represent the series well, and it does; if you’re new to Mad About You, I suggest paying attention to this list (and the one for next week). So, as usual, I have selected ten outings that I think exemplify the season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 24: “Bing, Bang, Boom” (Aired: 09/23/93)
Paul and Jamie’s plans for romance are constantly interrupted.
Written by Billy Grundfest & Paul Reiser | Directed by Lee Shallat
Although this installment might miss being included on a list of the series’ all-time classics, it’s one of the best and most straightforward representations of Mad About You, with a return to the basic narrative conceit of the pilot — Paul and Jamie struggling to be intimate within the hectic world around them — that indicates, like last year’s finale, some much-needed growth. Here, we see that the show is able to retain its claims on being low-concept, and can indeed utilize thin stories (using the Aristotelian unites) as intended… but only because there’s a better understanding of how to make moments comedic or dramatic now that the characters of Paul and Jamie are carrying the series’ identity. Also, it’s still a mature “9:30 show” — even at 8:00…
02) Episode 25: “Bedfellows” (Aired: 09/30/93)
Paul and Jamie stay with his mom while his dad is in the hospital.
Written by Danny Jacobson | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
More than anything else, this is an important excursion because it offers the debut of Cynthia Harris’ Sylvia, who (as previously outlined) is a terrific source of everything Mad About You needs: laughs, conflict, story, you name it. This episode, though again not one of the series’ “all-time” classics, already makes clear what a valuable tool her character — and the family at large — can be, while still keeping Paul and Jamie, who really benefit from heavy-Sylvia outings, centripetal. (Again, blood is thicker than water, and the emotional bond inherent to the family, even for those related by marriage, ups the stakes — meaning bigger laughs and more potent drama.) Of course, this push to use more of the fam doesn’t come without growing pains — as is trivially noted, Randy Graff appears here for the only time as Paul’s sister Sharon.
03) Episode 29: “Natural History” (Aired: 11/04/93)
Paul and Jamie debate whether or not their union was fated.
Written by Steve Paymer | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Thematically, this episode is quintessential Mad About You — it’s not as hilarious as it is poignant, playing into the same kind of romantic optimism that flows underneath many of the “singles in the city” or “young urbanite” shows of the period. (See last week’s post for more.) In this way, it’s an appropriate embodiment of the series and its tonal particulars, even if some of what’s actually delivered here — a narrative device (fate) that boxes in its characters and their choices while not delivering a terrific number of laughs — wouldn’t be recommendable beyond this show’s coverage… Nonetheless, for Mad, because everything is used to service Paul and Jamie — even the inclusions of Ira, Lisa, and new recurring character, Ursula — this is an offering that works on the show’s terms. And for its thematic boldness, it’s memorable, too.
04) Episode 34: “Paul Is Dead” (Aired: 01/06/94)
Paul and Jamie’s assets are frozen when he’s declared dead.
Story by Russ Woody & Billy Grundfest | Teleplay by Billy Grundfest | Directed by Lee Shallat
I can’t give this installment points for originality — we’ve seen variations on the “falsely declared dead” premise before (the first that comes to mind is All In The Family) — but in some ways, the utilization of a recognizable story feels intentional, tied to the show’s own reverence for the situation comedy. This may be over-reading the outing’s actual intent, but I think it’s safe to assume that the enjoyment we derive from this offering, which uses a more ostentatious story than much of what’s been employed to date, is rooted in its connection to familiar themes — primarily mortality, which leads to a centerpiece in a funeral home… In this regard, we could almost call this Mad About You‘s version of “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” a sitcom hallmark, which is evoked here in a way specific to this series — with equal sentimentality as irreverence. (We’ll see Mad approach these ideas again, but in an even more story-lovin’ way, during Season Five.) But the show takes the “bigness” of the common construct and keeps it small, related to the characters… and because the series’ tone is reinforced alongside big(ger) laughs that do keep Paul and Jamie centered and grounded (via their hopes/fears), this is my MVE… in a season where, frankly, the baseline quality is high, but no entry rests above it.
05) Episode 36: “The Late Show” (Aired: 01/27/94)
Paul and Jamie both try to keep Ira’s and Fran’s secrets, respectively.
Written by Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
As previously discussed, concerns over the functionality of the series’ ensemble nevertheless persist in episodes that work their hardest to prove the opposite — because these offerings’ comparable successes both reveal how much better the show would be if the supporting players could help Paul and Jamie (mostly by sparking organic stories that would give Reiser and Hunt more meaningful things to play), and why such support is beneficial in the first place. In the case of “The Late Show,” which is a little bit farcical in the way it tracks which characters know which pieces of information, Ira supplants the departed Mark as Fran’s buddy in the classic two-couple structure, as the story contends with the possible ramifications of Ira and Fran’s hook-up. The tightness of this plot, which, again, rightly keeps Paul and Jamie the focus, doesn’t allow us time to quibble over the depictions of the others, and we’re instead able to appreciate how the low-conceptness is reflected in actual drama — with tension both heavy and light.
06) Episode 37: “Virtual Reality” (Aired: 02/03/94)
Paul considers investing with Ira in a company developing virtual reality.
Written by Danny Jacobson & Jeffrey Lane | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Popular with both the crew and the fan base, this is an atypical entry with which I still struggle. The idea of building an episode around virtual reality already looks like a gimmick; adding cameos from Christie Brinkley and Andre Agassi makes things worse. And without feeling like we actually learn something about the main characters in the process — even if they get one-on-one scenes and the story, as expected, revolves around them — the contrivances of the plot, already gaudier than what Mad About You initially told us it would utilize, don’t seem completely justified. (It’s in the title — this reality is different from true reality, it’s “virtual.”) However, it’s the execution that sells this, and in my current survey, I think I discovered why it’s enjoyable: the actors. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, and as a result, their work shines.
07) Episode 40: “The Tape” (Aired: 02/24/94)
Paul and Jamie try to retrieve their homemade sex tape.
Written by Paul Reiser | Directed by Tom Moore
This may not exactly be “low-concept” — because there’s an actual story that propels the duo — but the premise is simple enough, and removed of any externally applied “virtual reality” shenanigans, that the series’ pursuit of relatable realism is maintained, and explored (true to the Golden Age’s form) via the two characters. Credited to Reiser (also the co-creator), this is a fairly amusing excursion that successfully secures some of its truth within the risqué plot (of the Buchmans trying to track down their misplaced sex tape), which feels believable for the characters, while also seeming, for the era, taboo and envelope-pushing. (Again, this is naughty for an 8:00 show, folks!) Also, The Drew Carey Show‘s Ryan Stiles appears for the second time.
08) Episode 42: “The Last Scampi” (Aired: 04/07/94)
Paul and Jamie deal with angry moms and a depressed dog.
Written by Billy Grundfest | Directed by Tom Moore
An underrated offering, I consider this one of the year’s smartest, contending with several narrative threads that circle around Paul/Jamie and are connected not just for their relevance to the main characters, but because of their general thematic implications. Evidence of the power behind the family, this astute installment uses Paul’s and Jamie’s mothers, respectively, to drive the conflict — without even needing to put them on the screen. This helps retain the outing’s simplicity, which instead uses other established ensemble players (Lisa and Ira) to assist the primary couple in maintaining the story. Simultaneously, the subplot of Murray being depressed is revealed to be related to mother issues of his own, and this wise choice gives the entry a valuable cohesion, making it, with its narrative smarts and decent laughs, a real gem.
09) Episode 43: “Disorientation” (Aired: 04/28/94)
Paul must maneuver at the last minute to register Jamie for school.
Written by Jack Burditt & Jeffrey Lane | Directed by Tom Moore
Using the arc of Jamie going back to school to its advantage, this brash outing can legitimately be called one of the series’ funniest. As is typically the case with Mad About You‘s more laugh-loaded affairs though, this can feel jarring — for the implication is always that comedy comes at the expense of honesty. But, as explored, honesty and humor are not counterintuitive… This week, however, it is true that we’re not dealing with the same kind of palpable humanity or relatable realism as seen in any of the other entries featured above; the particulars of this plot, which drives itself and supplies its own room for laughs, indeed takes dominance. Still, it’s fun and uses the ensemble well, so it’s worth going along for the ride. Julia Sweeney guests.
10) Episode 45: “Up All Night” (Aired: 05/12/94)
Jamie’s insomnia gets her and Paul locked out of their apartment.
Written by Jeffrey Klarik | Directed by Michael Lembeck
John Astin plays himself (maybe) — as does Garth Brooks — in this classic offering that, by design, seems like it might be another gimmicky outing akin to last year’s guest-star-based middlers. Fortunately, “Up All Night” manages to justify its worth consistently. For in addition to the Astin inclusion being able to represent another foray into the series’ unique show of winking regard for television history (which it’ll explore more overtly in Season Three; stay tuned…) — and therefore an important part of Mad About You‘s identity — the simplicity of the “Jamie not being able to sleep” plot prioritizes character interaction, embraces the theatricality inherent to the medium, and makes clear what’s really at the series’ core.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: two entries that are more amusingly written than their premises would otherwise indicate, “Murray’s Tale” and “Instant Karma,” along with “Surprise,” which makes use of the New York setting (without doing great things for character), “Same Time, Next Week,” which has an easy but amiable slapstick sequence (plus another turn from Cynthia Harris as Sylvia) undercut by a laborious structure, and two offerings that have more sweetness than amusement, “Cold Feet,” and “Love Letters,” the latter of which would truly be a contender… if it just had a few more laughs.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Mad About You goes to…..
“Paul Is Dead”
Come back next week for Season Three! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!