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 RICHARD KIND.
There are better seasons of Mad About You — like the two we just highlighted — and worse seasons of Mad About You — like the last two we’ll highlight. But none are more interesting than the fourth, which uses the medium’s inherent structural opportunities to tell a well-crafted dramatic story about its two main humans: an apparent projection of the show’s thesis. Unfortunately, no year is less enjoyable than the fourth either, and this has as much to do with the unpleasant emotionality of this “splitting up” arc as it does the misguided choice to include it in the first place, for the telling is both hindered by and an unwitting abettor of foundational shortcomings that we’ve now been discussing for weeks. And with an already fraught relationship between character and the stories they’re able to motivate (even, and especially, concerning the two supremely well-played leads), along with a simultaneous — and correlated — tension regarding the show’s comedic obligation to the genre, Season Four of Mad About You pushes the series’ individual weaknesses to the fore. What’s more: I find the year’s attempt to justify its ambition by claiming “character value” intriguing (and indeed persuasive to some fans), but ultimately erroneous: a semi-conscious way to mask troubles that can’t be eradicated, only ignored (and in this case, made more ominous for seasons ahead)… Basically, while the year is fulfilling its own self-proclaimed objective — which many fans rightfully celebrate, although perhaps without putting it in the rightful context — it’s also letting down the show and the audience. What I said above is true throughout the year and must be reiterated: there are worse seasons of Mad About You (oh, just you wait…), but there are none less enjoyable.
Some of what makes Season Four an unpleasant watch is natural and intended, given the arc. I’d presume that most of us here appreciate the chemistry Reiser and Hunt share, and with the show now having spent three seasons treating their characters’ relationship as true-to-life, we’ve developed an enhanced investment in their “romance.” So, the very idea of having Paul and Jamie drift apart until they reach the precipice of a break-up — in, of course, an extended finale during May Sweeps — is one that’s not going to be celebrated by most viewers. We may laud the storytelling if it’s well-done, but we’re not going to rejoice in its existence. In this way, Season Four is fighting an uphill battle getting the audience “on its side.” Additionally, these two characters need to be separated more frequently in order for this arc to unfold as designed — they have to go in different directions, which means they’ll be around each other less often. And while the show’s thesis, as noted in past weeks, is hinged around the two lead characters, it’s hinged around them because they’re a dynamic duo. When they’re not treated like a duo in story, it’s both a disappointment to an audience who wants to see them together, and a cheat to the unspoken thesis. Paul and Jamie only exist on this series because they’re Paul and Jamie. (It’s a ’90s Barefoot In The Park!) Therefore, the narrative, by default, is not conducive to victory for us or the premise, and because it consumes Season Four — starting at the top with Paul’s new job and the couple’s attempts to conceive (another troubling story construct that compounds the “separation” and then supersedes it in time for next year’s pregnancy arc) — it can only be successful on its own individual terms. That is, it can be praised for what it is, even if it’s neither beneficial to the audience nor to Mad About You (Paul and Jamie).
To be more specific, I think the separation arc is a work of dramatic brilliance; it’s a well-told season-long story that uses the offer of television’s innate serialization to its advantage. The emotional estrangement between Paul and Jamie is allowed to play out in real-time, in a manner natural, believable, and for a while, surprisingly subtly — that is, we don’t realize things have gotten so rough for them until it’s too late. For such a big story, this is rare — usually the sitcom, as a genre, hits us over the head with its dramatic intentions… Of course, it’s still a leap to have both characters tempted by outside influences, and this crescendoing drama will indeed “hit us over the head” with its grandiloquence when it reaches the hyperbolic season finale. But because the whole year has been laying the foundation — with narrative nuance supplied by both the scripts and the actors, who seem to be having fun exploring the quiet ways they can show their characters moving apart (like expanding the literal space between them in scenes) — it feels more earned than it could have on a lesser series. For all of these reasons, the fourth season of Mad About You deserves to be hailed as a triumph of televisual storytelling — a classic example of a show using its medium to tell a powerful narrative… The problem is, this isn’t why we watch this series (or any series, as far as I’m concerned); I’m here for character and comedy only. That’s it. And in both cases, I think Season Four (now synonymous with this arc) falls short of both obligation and expectation. This low-concept situation comedy is built on the characters, and although realism may be the intention — showing the trials and tribulations faced by a “real” couple — attempting to reflect the premise through story (you know, instead of character), feels like a rejection of lessons already learned by the time of the Golden Age.
My main concern with this arc, then, is that it’s not character-rooted… Now, there’s a tendency, with any sitcom — we’ve certainly seen it before (ex: Murphy Brown Season Four) — to assume that a year-long story for a character is inherently “good” for said character, because it’s a focused use of him/her. But that’s not necessarily true. Ideally, a story is how a show explores its regulars — it stems from prior definition, and then affords an even greater understanding of who they are by the conclusion. (Remember: plot is supposed to serve the players, not the reverse.) Thus, in order for this arc to be “good” for Paul and Jamie, I not only want it to arise logically from their depictions, but I also want to feel that they’re better defined, or more precisely defined afterwards — that they’re well-served. Troublingly, even though there’ll be some effort to ensure that this arc doesn’t go by without any effect on them (spoiler alert: therapy), their definitions won’t crystallize and, worse, motivating story will become even more difficult in Season Five. This notion of character vs. story tension is not new though, and Paul/Jamie’s ability to directly motivate weekly plots — which are now bigger than they were at inception (because, yes, there is such a thing as too low-concept; shocking coming from me, I know) — has never been great. In fact, I posit that Mad About You, sans its original low-concept gimmick, now feels more comfortable when Paul/Jamie have a narrative construct into which they can be directed, like a separation (and next week, a forthcoming baby), and this arc illustrates (and emphasizes) just how hard it is for them to drive weekly definition-based plots — indicating that this story may only exist, perhaps unconsciously, because of this and other established frailties.
Rhetorical question time… If Paul and Jamie were better able to motivate story, would Season Four need to be driven and shaped by plot? If there was a strong ensemble already surrounding Paul and Jamie, would the year need to spend so much time with situational players in both of their workplaces? If comedy was Mad About You’s strong suit, would it need to pretend like laughs are beneath (and less important than) its uber-earnest dramatic intentions? I think the answer to all of these is NO, but let’s take the simplest one first — the ensemble conundrum. The show has always struggled on this front, and even with Mark back to reunite with Fran, this quasi “singles in the city” structure isn’t ideal. By Season Four, this all seems known, and most of the established support is used less often (with the exception of Ira, from whom the series thinks it can get the most mileage — he’s single and Paul’s family). The Devanows, along with Lisa, appear in approximately half the year’s output — their lowest episode totals so far. At the same time, we’re not yet at the point where the family — Paul’s mostly — reaches that “half the year’s output” metric, meaning that Season Four is in an odd limbo where it’s mostly just Paul and Jamie, who aren’t together often enough, and are instead surrounded by forgettable work chums — him, with his co-workers at the “Explorer” Channel, and her with her new cohorts on a political campaign. I believe if a better ensemble had already been built, then there’d be no need to reduce its usage, no matter the story goal. (Oh, and one more thing to note here — this year introduces Hank Azaria as Nat, the dog walker. Azaria plays bigger than Reiser and Hunt, and while that’s not a condemnation, it is a bit too obvious. He’s best in small doses, and stories that feature him really have to be valuable for Paul/Jamie to be worthwhile.)
Meanwhile, those other two rhetorical questions speak to both character and comedy, which are connected. As discussed weeks ago, because Mad About You was determined not to define Paul and Jamie with the kind of extreme, particular traits common of main sitcom regulars, this kept them from being, generally, hilarious. (Amusingly relatable, yes. Humorously human, you bet. Conducive to material-elevating from their performers? Oh, absolutely…) From this design, though, comedy has not been Mad About You’s calling card… Yet this “realistic, relatable” depiction has had a graver consequence: it’s exactly why Paul and Jamie have had trouble motivating plot. You see, there are a few reasons that characters are distilled into a few specific traits. One, so that the audience can identify them quickly. Two, so that it’s clear the type of humor they can offer. And three, so that it’s obvious the kinds of stories they can drive. With Mad taking care to avoid any of this with Paul and Jamie — through a noble objective of allowing the audience to identity with them as “humans” — the laughs are less frequent and the stories, well, they’re not always so earned. Even in past weeks, we’ve seen signs of this: structural gimmicks, guest stars, Victories in Premise. It was easy to overlook them then because humanity was indeed delivered… alongside inherent novelty, and more importantly, once we became attached to Paul and Jamie, sufficient laughs… But now, with an arc that’s intentionally dramatic, the humor is even harder to find. This isn’t preferable, but it can be tolerated… if the reason for dropping the laughs is justified by the terms of the show’s thesis: character. Here, I argue, again, that it’s not. Paul and Jamie aren’t motivating their separation. It’s not a specific trait of Paul’s (or Jamie’s) that drives them apart. It’s story — where they are, what they’re doing, and where the season is deciding to end up (a near divorce). That’s not good.
Thus, if the year’s arc is a triumph in telling a dramatic story, it isn’t a triumph for anything else. There’s little comedy to be found — in a genre that requires it — and this only reinforces the seldom spoken truth that Mad About You isn’t as funny as many of the contemporaries with which it’s associated. The arc is not enjoyable — both because of its emotional intent and the series’ macro character failures — and it doesn’t actually arise from their humanities, even as much as it might pretend; instead, it hits right at the heart of the series’ main issues: the pair’s inability to motivate sufficiently comic story… Additionally, I think the year may have suffered because of big changes in the writers’ room. Not only did Co-Creator and EP Danny Jacobson leave for Simon and reduce his involvement (this is the last year where he’ll even be credited with a script), but there seems to have been a mass exodus, with just Billy Grundfest, the only person besides the creators to have been around since Season One, future showrunner Victor Levin, who came aboard in Three, and Kenny Schwartz, also added last year, as the lone holdovers from the Golden Age. They were joined here by several new additions, including future Friends scribes Seth Kurland and Scott Silveri & Shana Goldberg-Meehan, along with Brenda Hampton (Blossom, Safe Harbor, Seventh Heaven), all one-season-wonders — and, after the year’s first few episodes, new EP and showrunner Larry Charles, whose most famous prior credit was, of course, Seinfeld (on which he contributed from Seasons Two through Five).
As you can see, this staff only heightens some of the connections we discussed way back during Season One between Mad About You and its more famous peers, but while there will be more narrative links with Seinfeld made in the years ahead (even after Charles’ departure), it’s worth noting that Four is even more like Friends and Seinfeld than its early “singles in the city” years were! It’s more emotionally indulgent, à la Friends, and story-lovin’, à la Seinfeld. And even though both shows are funnier than Mad About You (at this time, in particular), the conscious emphasis on relationships and the misguided fixation on the complicated, stylized construction of story (in place of the complicated, stylized construction of character) can serve as more connective tissue. Once again, though, those other shows countered with their own unique strengths, one of which was comedy, which in a situation comedy, can forgive a lot of sins… Fortunately, Mad About You has some lingering strengths, too, and they remain powerful (but not all powerful) — like the performances and chemistry of the leads. In fact, their work here was so strong that Helen Hunt took home the first of her four consecutive Emmys (probably for her dramatic work, not comedic, but I digress). So, although the numbers had fallen as a result of a move from Must See TV Thursdays to Sundays, the prestige surrounding the actors’ work, and the viewer response to the highly touted dramatic finale (which came after heavy promotion and a string of overwrought installments), kept the series a jewel in NBC’s crown… Sadly, its best days are over, and its worst days are to come. But there’ll be more to enjoy on next year’s list (compared to this one, which I don’t recommend to first-time viewers)… Nevertheless, I’m faithful to my premise; I have selected ten episodes that I think exemplify Four’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 72: “New Sleep-Walking PLUS” (Aired: 09/24/95)
Paul can’t remember a night of lovemaking that Jamie enjoyed.
Written by Paul Reiser | Directed by David Steinberg
Given the narrative course the fourth season chooses to take, it’s not surprising that the lightest and brightest episodes of the year are the ones closer to its start — where Paul and Jamie are still fairly in sync and the tone is reminiscent of the Golden Age (even if the scripts can’t be considered as comedic). This outing, co-written by series star and co-creator Reiser, is among the most low-concept of the year, as the premise is merely about Paul not remembering the previous night’s sex that Jamie raved about the next morning. It’s a Victorious Premise, but the text loves these characters, and because they seem well-utilized, this entry feels like it’s doing right on behalf of the show, too… Meanwhile, despite the tiny premise, there’s actually grand narrative ambitions: this sets up the “let’s conceive” arc and introduces Lisa’s new profession, which puts her life on the upswing (an interesting thread that I wish was better explored).
02) Episode 73: “The Parking Space” (Aired: 10/01/95)
Paul convinces Jamie that they should get a parking space — even though they don’t have a car.
Written by Billy Grundfest | Directed by David Steinberg
The year’s sophomore entry is another simple affair that pairs its central couple together for an amusingly realized narrative that is incredibly New York (and one of the things we haven’t yet credited Mad About You with is how smartly evocative it is of its NYC setting — far better than Seinfeld or Friends, for instance, were able to be), and while reintroducing Mark to the recurring cast, the straightforward script also throws an adequate subplot to Ira and Fran. Pre-Larry-Charles, pre-drama, pre-heavy-story, these first two shows of Season Four look to be fairly strong — we’ve not yet seen any real hilarity (on Three’s level), but everything is easy and breezy: the chemistry, the dialogue, even (surprisingly) the incorporation of the ensemble.
03) Episode 75: “The Good, The Bad, And The Not-So-Appealing” (Aired: 10/29/95)
Jamie hopes to bond with Sylvia over news about their conception plans.
Written by Victor Levin | Directed by David Steinberg
Commentary on this one must be prefaced by a recognition that, yes, this is a flawed excursion. It works better on paper than in execution — theory, rather than practice. Some of the laughs are strained, some of the characterizations (particularly those of the peripheral ensemble members) are one-dimensional, and some of the story beats are clichéd. But what I can appreciate about the offering is that, unlike the year’s big arc — for reasons discussed above — this episodic narrative, about the ever-fraught dynamic between Jamie and Sylvia, has its finger on a more character-driven pulse. That is, even though the teleplay won’t earn accolades with regard to its character strokes, its intentions are far more laudable than the year’s.
04) Episode 76: “I Don’t See It” (Aired: 11/05/95)
Jamie is excited about a new job opportunity — that Paul may have ruined.
Written by Brenda Hampton | Directed by Gordon Hunt
If you’ll flashback to my commentary on Seinfeld, a series to which Mad About You is often (rightfully) compared, you’ll remember that I found that series’ growing commitment to “dovetailing” its narratives a convoluted crutch that prevented a focus on character and, because of its stylization, a threat to the show’s projected realism. However, an integration of story threads, when believable/earned, is a wonderful way to reconcile having two plots per episode, and Mad About You, thus far quite simple, really benefits from being able to do it for Paul and Jamie in this outing, which launches her new career opportunity and naturally allows him to be an obstacle to her getting hired. Because the year keeps its central players separated for so long, even a narrative association between the two feels like a more intimate bond.
05) Episode 77: “Yoko Said” (Aired: 11/12/95)
Paul has the opportunity to work with Yoko Ono on a documentary.
Written by Billy Grundfest & Paul Reiser | Directed by David Steinberg
A gimmicky installment built around an iconic guest performer — one whom the show already built an episode around, even though she wasn’t actually present for it, back in Season Two — this entry for Yoko Ono is in the vein of all those guest star outings from past weeks, although, in a somewhat rarity for Mad About You, this time she plays herself. There are a lot of easy jokes about Yoko’s inclusion — some that feel beneath the series, even in an era of depressed comedic functioning — but some of the beats do land, especially her suggestion that Paul do a documentary on “the wind” (now that he’s at the “Explorer” channel — his season-long career choice). Also, because this feels like vintage Mad, however hacky, it’s easier to enjoy.
06) Episode 81: “Ovulation Day” (Aired: 01/07/96)
Paul and Jamie try to coordinate a time to conceive, while Debbie has some big news.
Written by Victor Levin & Danny Jacobson | Directed by David Steinberg
After setting up the characters’ new respective workplaces, which will be used more later in the season to help telegraph just how little time the Buchmans are actually spending together, the middle of the year features several episodes, like this one, that are designed to connect them (both, I think, to provide contrast for what’s to come, and to show signs — when they’re together — that things aren’t as smooth as they used to be). I consider this offering, in which they’re actually separate for a little bit, to be a member of this “middle of the season” category, for the show circles back to focus on the “conception” storyline — a thing that unites them, while also driving them apart. Fortunately, this smart, funny teleplay doesn’t let that truly be the focus, for its episodic plot is derailed by Debbie’s big news: she’s a lesbian. Cue the use of Paul’s parents, who get their laughs (albeit, predictably), raising the entry’s merit.
07) Episode 83: “Dream Weaver” (Aired: 02/04/96)
Paul and Jamie try to interpret the crazy dreams they’ve been having.
Written by Billy Grundfest | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Yoko Ono’s guest appearance in an offering highlighted above speaks to the show’s pronounced reliance on big name guest stars, but this one is more specifically tailored to the series’ love affair with the television medium — another and more particular part of its identity, and one that we’ve been tracking throughout the run. In this case, the show spoofs Laugh-In, with guest appearances from folks like Henry Gibson, Arte Johnson, Gary Owens, and Jo Anne Worley, during a “cocktail party” sequence that manages to actually not be a gimmick because the stop-and-start conversation is rooted in the two characters and their feelings over the current plan to conceive. In this way, an episode that looks like it’s crafted to be a tired homage to another series — and therefore not character-driven — gets to claim genuine exploration of its two leads, alongside a progression of the arc and a utilization of its TV-lovin’ iconography. It’s really difficult to choose an MVE this season, because nothing acquits itself as being notably superior. But I think this may be the most accurate, watchable reflection of the year, the series.
08) Episode 84: “Hot And Cold” (Aired: 02/18/96)
Ira resumes gambling as Paul and Jamie try to reconnect.
Written by Kenny Schwartz & Danny Jacobson | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
As with the above two excursions, “Hot And Cold” is one of the mid-year attempts to pair Paul and Jamie together directly, in a purported furthering of the “conception” storyline that actually highlights, without being too ham-fisted and explicit (like the year’s final outings, none of which are featured among this list of ten), the tension that’s developed within their dynamic. What I find worthwhile about this show, beyond some of the amusing jokes in the A-story with Ira and his gambling (at a den that uses Broadway song lyrics as the password for entry), is that Paul and Jamie get long, uninterrupted scenes — which is a rarity in Season Four. And unlike the long, uninterrupted scene they’ll have in the finale, there’s actually some comedy here.
09) Episode 86: “Everybody Hates Me” (Aired: 03/10/96)
Jamie is self-conscious about her looks as Ira loses his heart.
Written by Victor Levin | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Truthfully, I find much of the narrative workings here to be contrived. Ira falling head over heels for an Italian beauty, while perhaps a nice change of pace for him, isn’t a great emotional hook for a series predicated on Paul and Jamie — whose humanity eclipses everyone else’s — and comedically speaking, it gives Ira too much control. The best beat is Paul being a terrible third wheel with his “slinky” story, but that’s so brief… Meanwhile, the related subplot, of Jamie dyeing her hair to be alluring for Paul, actually is born in character and makes sense for the season’s arc… Of course, it’s threatened in the plotting by the forced inclusion of Nat, a character who’s not as comedic as the show tries to pretend. Yet, ultimately, because the Jamie/Paul material is theoretically strong, and because the entry contains the funniest scene of the year (where Paul tries to contextualize Ira’s girlfriend’s beauty alongside Jamie’s), it works.
10) Episode 89: “The Sample” (Aired: 03/31/96)
Paul loses his sperm sample on the way to get it tested.
Written by Ron Darian & Seth Kurland & Larry Charles | Directed by David Steinberg
On the short list of this season’s funniest, this is the second-to-last episode of the year to make any concerted effort on behalf of comedy. (The last is “The Procedure,” mentioned below.) Now, it’d be dishonest to claim that there are a lot of great character moments here; there are some, but this is primarily a Victory in Premise, where the comedic idea is what propels the action and our interest. The story has Paul’s car being stolen on the way to deliver his sperm sample (for testing). Without the sample, he’s forced to produce in the office — which proves difficult given all the interruptions. Obviously, it’s a narrative that ropes in the “conception” arc, and is surprisingly simple (once you get past the stolen car high-concept part), allowing for welcome laughs. Also, Brad Garrett (just before Raymond) is hilarious as the annoyed nurse.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “An Angel For Murray,” which introduces Hank Azaria as Nat, “Fertility,” which is another Paul/Jamie-together entry from the season’s middle, “The Glue People,” which utilizes the ensemble well and makes a smart narrative indication of the brewing troubles in the Buchmans’ marriage (a contender), “The Procedure,” which packs in some comedy as it furthers the year’s arc (another contender), and lastly, “The Finale (II),” which originally aired as the first half of the year’s hour-long concluding broadcast. I’m not a fan of the finale in general, but unlike Part I, which is all story, and Part III, which doesn’t have a single laugh (as Hunt and Reiser eschew honesty for some forced emoting), Part II plays with their separation and tries to find humor — like in the guest appearance of Ed Asner as Lisa’s father-in-law-to-be.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Mad About You goes to…..
Come back next week for Season Five! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!