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, and LEILA KENZLE.
As the second half of the series’ “Golden Age,” and the year that boasts the best episodes of the entire run, Season Three is Mad About You at the apex of its popularity, its quality, and its identity. 1994-’95 saw the well-liked show retaining its spot as the opening act for NBC’s Must See TV Thursday line-up, which now included a new comedy called Friends, starring Mad’s own Lisa Kudrow, and, following Seinfeld, a Dabney Coleman vehicle entitled Madman Of The People (to be discussed here soon). In its second and final year as part of this esteemed comedy block, Mad About You got its highest annual ratings — coming in as the eleventh most-watched show of the season, not higher than Seinfeld or Friends, but better for the first and only time than Frasier. It’s fitting that this peak of popularity coincided with a peak in the series’ episodic excellence, which I believe the list below indicates. One of the primary reasons this list is exceptional in comparison to others is that there’s more comedic risk-taking. Although the show is no longer as new or “novel” as it was in Season Two and therefore has less freedom to tweak its persona, the bold projection of the series’ chosen identity fuels and is fueled by a greater comedic offensive. And while I’ve charged Mad About You with not being among the funniest of its NBC contemporaries, credit must be given when due, especially because, even with our expectations adjusted accordingly (so even more stock is placed on character to compensate), the greatest episodes of Mad About You tend to be the funniest. So, when we think of Season Three’s high quality, a large part of what we’re really considering is its comedic vitality.
Yet this notion of quality extends beyond comedy and goes to something even more important — the characters (Paul and Jamie, specifically). Last week we saw the show realizing that its premise was better fulfilled, not through story, but through its main players. This meant that the better the character work, the better the series. To be fair, the same is true of every situation comedy… however, Mad About You, like Frasier, is so defined by its protagonists that when we talk of Paul and Jamie, we’re also talking about the show’s identity. And since character = quality and, here, character = identity, then quality also = identity. We addressed this a bit last week when discussing how the start of the Golden Age offered a straightforward look at the series and how it was thriving (and struggling), but I want to focus now on the idea that Season Three symbolizes the height of the show’s projection of its own self, and discuss a few foundational aesthetics inherent to the episodes highlighted below, which make the case as to why Mad About You isn’t just at its most self-actualized here, but also its most enjoyable. In other words, these episodes aren’t just clear-eyed examples of Mad About You (as many of last week’s shows were); they’re clear-eyed examples of Mad About You at its most supreme — and this superiority is largely derived from how clearly its defining elements inform the identity that’s portrayed. We’ve already noted the importance of the elevated humor — there’s nothing funnier than the farce of “Giblets For Murray,” or as jokily easy as the simple “Mad Without You,” or as welcomingly audacious as the silly “Two Tickets To Paradise,” — but it’s equally important to note how, in every case, the characters remain the fulcrum around which all of this fun spins.
At the risk of getting into territory covered below, an episode like “Two Tickets To Paradise” works because it can riff on the depiction of the core players and their relationship, and then can count upon the audience’s recognition of this pair’s “normal” to secure laughs against type. You may argue that this is less character-driven than we’d like — I’d agree (the dynamic between the leads and the stories they motivate is always troubled; we’ll discuss this more later) — but it’s still rooted in what we know of them, tapping into Mad’s noble foundation. Another example of expectations used advantageously comes in “Purseona,” which may be Lisa’s finest half-hour — not because she finally turns into a story-driver; no, simply because the script is able to position her opposite Jamie to illuminate both of their characterizations and bring laughs in the process. Again, our knowledge of character is the basis for this humor… Naturally, though, the more stuff for Paul/Jamie, the better; most of the outings below are winners because they present gold for these two palpable humans. (“The Ride Home” and “How To Fall In Love” are among their great showcases.) And since everyone now knows that Paul/Jamie is how the show fulfills its premise, then more ambitious — and yes, gimmicky — narrative one-offs can be put into play (like the low-concept “The City” or the real-time “Our Fifteen Minutes”), without feeling the first year’s initial pressure to use story to affirm the premise. In other words, Paul and Jamie now dictate what the series can and can’t do, and because these entries offer relatable, humane, comic material, their structural hooks are permitted. (Yet, don’t assume greatness just because the pair is heavily featured. The wedding flashback is emotionally self-indulgent and comedically average, as is the maudlin finale. When there’s a narrative objective clouding character, the decision to prize sentiment over comedy no longer has a worthwhile justification.)
However, the aforementioned “Giblets For Murray” also soars because it builds an ensemble of (mostly) family around Paul and Jamie — pointing towards a design we’ll see later. Here, in addition to making sense narratively, “Giblets” benefits from the novelty of having such a family-heavy construction; at this point, we’re still used to the “singles in the city” design. (Of course, as with last year, the show makes great effort to find a better ensemble — once more, there’s a large roster of tertiary folks who pop in to “try out” for increased usage. Aside from Ira, Lisa, and Fran, there’s more of both sides of the family, whose presence still remains relatively confined. Then there’s more of Paul’s work chums, along with the British “neighbors from hell,” and Mr. Wicker, the super. Meanwhile, Jamie gets a recurring ex via Eric Stoltz as Alan, and Ira finds a temporary love interest in Anne Bobby’s Susannah. It’s a lot of people — and the more noise, the more we want to retreat back to Paul and Jamie, a fact that this year instinctively knows.) But speaking of the “singles in the city” design, Season Three is the year that most reinforces its fidelity (in tone/tenor) to this popular template, seemingly distilled and popularized by the new kid, Friends, which had abducted Kudrow and limited Mad About You’s use of Ursula. Mad’s willingness to share Kudrow, and then submit to Friends’ choice to feature Ursula (and explain Kudrow’s occasional Mad appearance), reiterates this show’s gameness with regard to the network’s cross-promotional hijinks. Just as it was happy to take a Seinfeld crossover in Season One, Mad About You returned the favor this year to Friends, and even went so far as to participate in the classic “Blackout Thursday” gimmick (started here in “Pandora’s Box”). Never again will Mad About You, which would soon be evicted from this line-up, be so amenable to associating itself with the rest of NBC’s brand, even though, as we explored weeks ago, the series actually is a grinning participant. Season Three just happens to be the grinningest.
But, if Mad About You’s NBC in-jokes symbolize a metatheatrical wink that some may fear threatens the sanctity of this show’s individual reality (reminder: I think this is true, but not troublesome, as long as the characters aren’t harmed), then some may be displeased that the third season, in its frank view of the series at large, delivers an even bigger wink. More than in Three’s predecessors, Mad About You now commits to its professed adoration of the situation comedy in a manner more overt than before. Yes, I’m talking of the famous “The Alan Brady Show,” which features Carl Reiner (who won an Emmy) as the character he played on The Dick Van Dyke Show, the classic series that Reiner created and which Reiser claimed to view as an inspiration for Mad About You. I’ll talk more about it below, but naturally, there are lots of TV references — as usual — and humor based on the association between the two series: elements that aren’t so character-based and do dilute the show’s realism. My feelings on the matter remain mixed (see below), however, I think the entry is careful to find a way to connect the narrative to character — via Jamie’s mom (a very smart move) — and is also born from a seasonal arc, in which Paul works on a documentary about classic TV. In this regard, Mad About You’s third season is making textually explicit a part of its identity that’s been around since Season One, and so the real value of an episode like “The Alan Brady Show” isn’t just in seeing Carl Reiner reprise a character from one of the best sitcoms ever produced; the real value is that the episode actually represents a genuine component of Mad About You and what it has to offer. Therefore, even if the entry isn’t itself indicative of a healthy sitcom fulfilling its stated character-founded premise, it does symbolize a unique truth about the series, and in this way, it’s an actualization of Mad About You that serves the characters. That’s why the episode hits — and the season, too.
I’ve already dived a little deeper than intended — after all, these episodes are strong enough to speak for themselves. There are only a few more points to add. First, I want to note that even this top season isn’t perfect; the year opens relatively drably, with muted laughs and a generally forgettable narrative use of the main characters, and ends with some heavy story outings that don’t delight like the bulk of the offerings within this year’s middle. Accordingly, it’s really the center of Mad About You’s third season that deserves your attention (let’s say, from November to March)… Nevertheless, the crew is pretty much consistent throughout the year, matching the assembly for Season Two (the other half of the Golden Age), as well. Co-Creator Danny Jacobson is still involved enough to be credited with a few scripts, Jeffrey Lane remains the other Executive Producer — for the last time, giving him the distinction of being EP on the series in its two best years only — while scribes unique to this stellar era include Jeffrey Klarik, Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn, and Jack Burditt. Among the notable new additions are one-season-wonder Co-Executive Producer Victor Fresco (ALF, Evening Shade, Andy Richter Controls The Universe, My Name Is Earl) and future Mad About You showrunner Victor Levin (Down The Shore, Dream On, Ladies Man, Mad Men). Their collective work kept the series as prestigious as ever, and in fact, this year earned the show its first non-technical Emmys — for guest performances by Reiner and Cyndi Lauper (whose appearances I appraised last week). As always, Mad About You is a show whose textual quality is improved by the performances — particularly those of its two leads; and, believe me, Reiser and Hunt shine in Season Three… So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 53: “Pandora’s Box” (Aired: 11/03/94)
Paul and Jamie have cable problems.
Written by Victor Fresco | Directed by David Steinberg
For many fans who’ll never even read this, “Pandora’s Box” has one claim to relevance: it started the eponymous blackout that the Friends ensemble experienced in that series’ memorable first season excursion. As discussed above, this was part of a night-long promotion from NBC, and every one of its NYC-based series that evening participated in the stunt (except Seinfeld, forever the wannabe rebel). The truth of the matter, though, is that this bit of trivia is actually a large part of why this installment finds a place here, for in playing the network game, Mad About You helps cement the otherwise deserved associations between this series and the others in MSTV’s “singles in the city” (or “young urbanites”) genre. Also, it’s interesting to note that the story itself is built around cable and Paul’s latest project: a documentary about classic TV…
02) Episode 54: “The Ride Home” (Aired: 11/10/94)
Paul and Jamie have their own perspectives of a party they just attended.
Written by Liz Coe | Directed by David Steinberg
This underrated gem is among the series’ classics, for while it does employ an unnecessary structural hook (a trend that nevertheless does represent Mad About You accurately), it’s also a stoic embodiment of the show’s character-rooted foundation and the storytelling’s professed interest in the trivial — something that’ll never totally disappear, even as the storytelling becomes more cumbersome. Here, the chosen structure helps direct some character-driven weight against the lightness of the plot, which throws funny little conflicts to Paul and Jamie at Fran’s party — she argues with her ex-boyfriend (played by the aforementioned Stoltz, who recurs several more times), and he tries to network with an NBC executive (MSTV’s Wendie Malick) after initially pretending to be (thanks to Ira) a chiropractor. The comedic teleplay is loaded with genuinely amusing moments, with some great stuff for Paul and Jamie, whose perspectives do benefit from this aforementioned unique structure. A sleeper favorite.
03) Episode 55: “Giblets For Murray” (Aired: 11/17/94)
Paul and Jamie decide to host Thanksgiving for their families.
Story by Jeffrey Klarik and Billy Grundfest | Teleplay by Jeffrey Klarik | Directed by David Steinberg
Without a doubt the funniest episode of the entire series and the one I most suggest for viewers who are interested in only seeing Mad About You at its best, this atypical Thanksgiving outing works for a lot of reasons. First, it can legitimately claim to be a showcase for the ensemble, which not only features the singles (Ira, Fran, Lisa) well, but also the extended Buchman and Stemple families, respectively — the latter bunch of whom now includes the joke-getting Aunt Lolly (Meg Wyllie), and new actors playing the roles of Jamie’s parents — John Karlen and Penny Fuller. Although this duo will only last the season, they offer an effective counterpoint to the quiet, averageness of the first pair, and the loud gimmickry of the third pair (coming up in Season Five), for together they form the most “charactery” versions of Jamie’s folks, most conducive to comedic story. (More like Burt/Sylvia.) Second, the farcical plot — something we’d be more apt to see on Frasier, for instance — helps ensure that this installment is truly more laugh-out-loud funny than any other Mad About You, revealing a sense of humor that’s — for once — commensurate with some of the other shows we’ve discussed here (again, like Frasier). And third, Paul and Jamie get to be at the core of the premise, not only bouncing off one another and their comedic ensemble, but driving the action and anchoring it with a realistic, relatable objective: forming their own holiday traditions as a pair. Iconic.
04) Episode 57: “The City” (Aired: 12/15/94)
Paul and Jamie have a quintessentially terrible night in New York City.
Written by Paul Reiser | Directed by David Steinberg
Throughout this Golden Age, Mad About You still regularly trots out low-concept stories reminiscent of some of the not-so-successful (and, to be fair, somewhat successful) offerings from the first season. Not all of them (like this year’s premiere) hit their comedic or character marks, but for the most part, this era’s simply plotted outings reveal how the show’s cultivated understandings of Paul and Jamie, its learned modus operandi involving story, and the year’s own comedic push, can help better fulfill the terms of the premise satisfyingly. In other words, episodes like “The City” reconcile the show’s original non-story brand of storytelling with everything that’s been learned along the way; getting character to motivate plot is still a concern, given both the depictions of the two leads and the overarching viability of the ensemble, but the implicit recognition that keeping character paramount can alone be a version of plot (the terms of Mad‘s evolved thesis now) makes for a great theoretical study… This is quintessential Mad About You, and it’s very “New York” — heck, even Rudy Giuliani makes a cameo. Another one of my favorites — evidence again of why Season Three is the series at its best.
05) Episode 58: “Our Fifteen Minutes” (Aired: 01/05/95)
Paul struggles to film a straight 15-minutes of candid footage with Jamie.
Written by Jack Burditt | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Regular readers here may be surprised to see that the series’ first classic real-time excursion isn’t my MVE, for by now everyone knows what a sucker I am for this convention. (In case you’re wondering, I think this kind of theatrical construct, playing to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action, makes for the purest and most thesis-born utilization of the sitcom genre and the television medium.) Naturally, though, it is a structural gimmick — one that has to be justified by character and comedy. Don’t worry; “Our Fifteen Minutes” easily fulfills those terms… Additionally, given the kinds of stories that Mad About You once employed, this type of entry doesn’t feel out-of-place; rather, it’s just another low-concept affirmation of the show’s premise, which now consists entirely of Paul and Jamie, who, as usual, carry the offering’s merit. The depth of their humanity, helped by the self-aware terms of the chosen story (which has them explicitly trying to get an uninterrupted and candid 15 minutes on camera), goes beyond serving the narrative design — it services the characterizations. And that’s why we connect.
06) Episode 59: “How To Fall In Love” (Aired: 01/19/95)
Paul tries to show off his pick-up techniques for Jamie.
Written by Jeffrey Lane | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
In a list filled with series‘ classics, some of the outings that merely acquit the year well pale in comparison. This is one of the few that gets overshadowed in this bunch, and it’s true: there are better above. But it’s completely successful in what it sets out to accomplish. Most importantly, it takes a trivial story for Paul and Jamie, who are at Riff’s — interacting with the outside world as a way to spark mild story beats that aren’t heavy or consuming — and lets the two stars explore their dynamic chemistry within the confines of a fairly amusing Golden Age teleplay. Also, the subplot with Ira, who can’t carry an episode and even has trouble holding together this B-story, feels thematically compatible with the A-plot, thus excusing some of the functionality of those scenes, whose goal, incidentally, is to introduce a recurring love interest for him.
07) Episode 63: “The Alan Brady Show” (Aired: 02/16/95)
Paul wants Alan Brady to narrate his television documentary.
Written by Kenny Schwartz | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Yes, this is the episode that features Emmy-winning Carl Reiner as Alan Brady, the character he played on the series he created, the classic ’60s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, which many at the time (including Reiser, who counted it as one of his favorites) associated with Mad About You. I’ve already gone into a bit of my thoughts above — to recap, this is the most obvious example of the show’s TV-reverent wink and therefore represents one of the most pronounced non-character elements of the series’ otherwise character-founded premise. The idea of using Reiner, and all the in-jokes and references that come with him, is a dreadful gimmick that isn’t commendable (and yes, I find the stunt casting overpowering, as is often the case on this series)… but the script actually stems from a season-long arc for Paul and is well-connected to exploring the characters, via Jamie, who learns something new about her mother. So, there’s a way to genuinely enjoy the entry for more than just an appreciation of The Dick Van Dyke Show: it makes a game effort with character and showcases Mad About You lovingly, honestly.
08) Episode 64: “Mad Without You” (Aired: 02/23/95)
Paul has trouble with their bed when Jamie goes out-of-town.
Written by Billy Grundfest | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Here we have another offering that is inevitably overshadowed by the absolute triumphs — or supremely memorable installments (like the one directly above) — although it, too, is a wonderfully enjoyable, no-buts-needed half-hour. What I like most about this episode is that, despite separating Paul and Jamie and, by virtue of its chosen premise, being exponentially harder to appreciate (because Mad About You, by now, is undoubtedly dependent on the two’s interaction to supply the show’s join de vivre), the script still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny and good for the characters — particularly Paul, even though the other members of the ensemble also get little moments to display what we know of their personas. It’s a victory.
09) Episode 65: “Purseona” (Aired: 03/09/95)
Jamie’s and Lisa’s fortunes reverse when they switch purses.
Written by Andrew Gordon & Eileen Conn | Directed by Michael Lembeck
As discussed, this may be the show’s best utilization of Lisa, who is probably the best drawn member of the “singles in the city” ensemble. And it’s not because she all of a sudden becomes a character who can motivate story in the way that Paul and Jamie, because of their grounded designs, need her to do (so that they have more things to do); it’s simply because the show can capitalize upon the definition it’s already given her by playing with how she contrasts with Jamie. The amiable plot enjoys a classic inversion (you remember it best with George and Elaine on Seinfeld‘s “The Opposite”), as Jamie and Lisa seemingly trade fortunes after they switch purses. Small moments pepper this funny script, which only exists because of character.
10) Episode 66: “Two Tickets To Paradise” (Aired: 03/30/95)
Paul and Jamie take his parents’ place on vacation — and have fun fooling the other guests.
Written by Rick Wiener | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Once again, this is one of the comedically boldest episodes in the entire series, and frankly, given Mad About You‘s style, even in this era of elevated humor, it seems out-of-place. Happily, though, the Paul and Jamie characterizations don’t feel strained by the machinations of this larger-than-usual story. (Part of this, naturally, is due to the performances, as the actors anchor the hijinks while also making clear that they are having fun.) The plot makes use of the characters’ playfulness — well-established, but heretofore only judiciously applied (it’s more prevalent, detrimentally perhaps, in upcoming years) — as Paul and Jamie pretend to be his parents on vacation, and then decide to make a game out of creating fictitious identities before everyone they meet. Although it’s a gaudy idea, it’s loaded with laughs, and (thankfully) no damage is done to the leads. If only the same could be said of some bold ideas ahead…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Once More With Feeling,” which has its eggs in the right figurative basket (Paul and Jamie), “Cake Fear,” which attempts to maximize its understanding of the characters by toying with structure (I just wish it was more comedically brave or genuinely revealing for Paul/Jamie), and “My Boyfriend’s Back,” which is a terrific Jamie outing and features a memorable comic book sequence at the end. The last of this trio was the closest to making the above list and is equally recommended.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Mad About You goes to…..
“Giblets For Murray”
Come back next week for Season Four! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!