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, ROBIN BARTLETT, LOUIS ZORICH, and CYNTHIA HARRIS.
Season Five, much like its predecessor, is a unique entity. Unlike both Two and Three, bound together by similar aesthetics and many shared scripters, and Six and Seven, united under the same showrunner and related foibles (not to mention a baby), Season Five has no clear partner. For while there are a few things in common with Four — like head writer Larry Charles — Five is closer in style/design to the final two seasons than the prior two, and even that’s not a direct link, for Five is much funnier, more enjoyable, and less strained (on behalf of character) than the upcoming. (It’s also funnier than Four, but that was for reasons particular to the latter.) In this way, Season Five straddles both the show’s past and its future, creating a mix of specific characteristics — some positive, some negative. By examining the ways in which Five is the middle circle in this figurative Venn diagram with Four and Six, I think we can frame this season’s successes and failures (those both shared and seemingly exclusive) to point us towards the year’s most satisfying episodic examples. And although I want to save my thoughts on the final two seasons for my posts on the final two seasons, I have to address the ways in which Five can be likened to Six and Seven, which, it must be noted, many fans consider to be the worst of the entire run. They’re termed the “baby years,” for Paul and Jamie’s household expands from three to four (counting Murray, of course), and I will ultimately concur that those are the show’s weakest — if not the least enjoyable. (Remember, Four desperately wants, and earns, that honor.) Obviously, the baby is not the exact reason the last two years represent a decline, but it does form a connective narrative tissue — one that, you might argue, is already present in Five, for this is the season where Jamie is pregnant, meaning that a child is imminent and many of the weekly stories are built around the idea of a baby… even if said baby is not here yet.
Certainly, there’s a distinction to be made between the years with the baby and the years without it, but Five puts Mad About You on the path towards the oft-reviled tot — more so than Season Four, with its “trying to conceive” thread, because that was merely an outgrowth of the larger splitting up narrative — and this year contends, like its two successors, with a definite maturation in Paul and Jamie’s dynamic. In this way, Five also represents the start of the show’s conscious shift away from the “singles in the city” construct that it initially cultivated, even before the template was crystallized via Friends (and heck, even before Mad About You knew that the true projection of its “little things” thesis came from character, not story or concept). For we’ve finally reached the era where family takes first position within the ensemble — particularly Paul’s folks, who now appear in slightly more episodes than Lisa and Fran, vestiges of the “circle of friends” (though Lisa is family) design, with which this year, by also keeping them in about half the scripts, remains loosely affiliated… Now, my thoughts on this are complicated; I think the “singles in the city” look is part of the show’s identity and the best episodes, from the best era, often reiterate this truth. However, there was no one in this construct — even Ira, who remains the most visible side player here, and even gets a quasi-sidekick in Jeff Garlin’s contrived Marvin — that could really motivate story. I believe the family members, i.e. Burt and Sylvia, do a better job of procuring narrative circumstances with inherent emotional stakes for Paul and Jamie, and while this set-up isn’t ideal (and their dominance doesn’t coincide with the show’s best years), it’s less ill-fitting than the ensemble previously utilized.
And we can definitely see the scales tipping here, for even though the year, like its antecessor, decides to keep Paul and Jamie in separate workplaces with potentially new recurring players — such as Patrick Bristow as one of Jamie’s work rivals — Paul’s latest project is a documentary about the Buchmans, and thus, this integration of Paul’s professional and personal lives ensures that the family assumes a stronger foothold in story. (Since this seems to be the intention, it’s a really smart way to make it happen.) Additionally, the introduction of sister Debbie’s regular girlfriend, Joan (Suzie Plakson), who’s also the couple’s gynecologist (another wise move) reinforces the changing tides — as do several other family members we meet now, including Mel Brooks as Paul’s Uncle Phil, and the final couple to play Jamie’s parents: Carroll O’Connor and Carol Burnett, the latter of whom appears in six episodes this year, winning an Emmy and becoming the most frequently seen member of Jamie’s family (aside from Lisa). As indicated in prior weeks, the progression of Jamie’s parents is indicative of how the show has evolved. We had the low-concept, realistic, and generally forgettable Season One pair (Dussault and Dooley), the best defined and most poised for story and laughs (Fuller and Karlen), and now the stunt cast, larger-than-life, one-big-wink-because-we’re-not-going-to-treat-them-like-real-truthful-characters (O’Connor and Burnett). Now, I like Burnett and, as you’ll see, I favor a lot of her appearances, but I don’t think she either gets to clown like she should or is thrown a character with palpable humanity. Furthermore, I’m bothered by what her casting says about the show and its move away from relatable realism; yes, we know the only thing the show must dedicate its thesis’ realism towards is the depiction of Paul and Jamie, but by broadening the family as such, even with this TV-lovin’ bent — and Emmy winning scenery-chewer Mel Brooks is part of this trend — we’re getting dangerously close to corrupting the duo.
To this point of corrupting the depictions of Paul and Jamie, even more than the ensemble’s shift to a more family-centric M.O., the general feeling that Paul and Jamie are no longer as believably written as they once were is what Season Five most has in common — spoiler alert — with the two years ahead. Naturally, this is a problem that mounts over time, and in Season Five, it’s less of a concern than it will be in Seven. But there are already cases of story simply not feeling right for the characters. And this is an interesting phenomenon, for I’ve maintained that Paul and Jamie have largely been undefined; what’s kept them worthy of our investment has been the humanity that’s been imbued in their portrayals. (It’s so strong, in fact, that it will be able to mitigate the sting of some traumas ahead.) Thus, when I say a moment or idea does not work for these characters, I’m not merely noting that the writing has not motivated its action through their depictions (we’re already used to this dynamic being murky), but rather that the idea/moment calls into question the established humanity. In other words, when we stop believing in Paul and Jamie as people, then the show is failing on behalf of character, and, for our rhetorical purposes, it’s not living up to the evolved terms of its premise… I see it beginning to happen here, and most of the time, the issue revolves around story and the tension between bigness and smallness. Part of the challenge during the Golden Age was negotiating the show’s original low-concept intent with yarns that actually worked for the medium and for these characters. By Season Five, smallness has become a special treat (a “gimmick”), and story is bigger — both on the macro level, with arcs like the pregnancy, and on the micro level, with episodic plots that are cumbersome, heavy on narrative trappings, or so enamored of their very concept that character, and the sanctity of character, is pushed aside.
Three of the most egregious examples are “The Gym,” “The Cockatoo,” and “The Touching Game.” While the middle entry of that trio is bogged down by story for story’s sake, “The Gym” makes uses of a comedic premise (Paul not wanting to be associated with a homeless man at the gym) that doesn’t seem congruous with the rather simple, believable depiction of Paul, for now he’s shown to be petty, image-conscious, and scruples-lacking. It’s an unestablished extreme that makes me doubt his truth — his humanity. Similarly, the misguidedly popular “The Touching Game” utilizes a laugh-driven idea-based B-story for Jamie (she’s clumsy all of a sudden) and a somewhat nasty, not character-rooted A-story with Paul and Ira, during which they mistake an androgynous man for a pregnant woman. That’s an amusing idea, yes, but it has nothing to do with Paul, and it’s the kind of slightly mean-spirited social conundrum that was common and actually worked for the regulars on mid-era Seinfeld… To wit, if there’s something else that all three of these character-poor ideas share, it’s that they remind of what Seinfeld, also initially low-concept, developed into as it progressed: a story-heavy series with characterizations that embraced their stunted moralities (initially for relatability, but then taken to such an extreme that the opposite occurred). I can’t go so far as to say the same is happening on Mad, but the more frequent utilization of externally imposed plot, due to characters who’ve never been able to easily motivate it, is something that makes this year seem especially Seinfeld-ian. We’ll see more examples ahead, suggesting another area where Five is aligned with its weaker successors. As expected, it’s impossible to deny that this storytelling is independent of current EP and head writer, Larry Charles, who came aboard in the first quarter of Season Four. For although this type of weekly story wasn’t felt last year — but will be next season, even after Charles has departed — his years do share something unique: a fixation on narrative…
That is, season-long arcs. Four builds towards the separation/pregnancy, and Five builds towards the baby. No other year can claim to be constructed around a story through-line like these two, and, as such, Five is more connected to Four narratively than any of the upcoming. But I’d argue that this association is less obvious because of the figuratively loud structural similarities between Five and Six/Seven, and because, unlike Four, it doesn’t shy away from laughs. No, actually, Season Five is relatively bold in its pursuit of comedy. This doesn’t always work (check those examples above), but it is appreciated, and because Mad About You exerts more effort here, it gets to claim victory more often. Heck, although only Seasons Two and Three can boast lists that are excellent through-and-through, I’d say that Five offers the best collection outside of the Golden Age. Part of the year’s charm is that the baby arc, as a driver, overshadows some of these weekly character-to-story issues, downplaying what’s not working. This isn’t a long-term fix, but it makes the year strong, and allows us to focus on its good ideas — like this noble pursuit of comedy (which we missed last week), that very clever utilization of the family via Joan and Paul’s movie, and the use of therapy sessions (with Mo Gaffney) to both reinforce Five’s commitment to pairing Paul and Jamie more often, while also reconciling the events of the previous year within this pivot. For these reasons, and the evidence below, Season Five — the first of two years as the opening act of NBC’s “B” comedy block on Tuesdays, and the only season with notable writers like Richard Day (Garry Shandling’s, Larry Sanders, Drew Carey, Spin City, Arrested Development) and Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is The New Black) — not only won Hunt another Emmy, but also stands as a more enjoyable season than any of the years surrounding… So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify its strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 96: “Dr. Wonderful” (Aired: 09/17/96)
Paul and Jamie try out a few gynecologists — including Debbie’s girlfriend.
Written by Victor Levin & Larry Charles | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Although this episode isn’t as shiny as many of the others on this list, it’s a generally more laudable showing than the Honorable Mentions, for it’s productive. It sets the thematic terms of the season and reveals a more (and much-appreciated) lighthearted tone, while also cementing the fact that the family is going to take an enhanced prominence — with the pending Buchman baby the (primary) justification for this conceptual shift. As discussed above, I think it was genius to introduce Sylvia’s love interest, Joan, played by former Love & War regular Suzie Plakson (who first came to my attention, I must say, from her two memorable appearances on Everybody Loves Raymond), as Jamie’s gynecologist. Establishing all this is the focus of Five’s premiere. (Also, another Seinfeld connection: John O’Hurley appears as Dr. Von Derphal.)
02) Episode 98: “Therapy” (Aired: 10/15/96)
Paul and Jamie visit a therapist and try to apply her advice.
Written by Richard Day | Directed by Michael Lembeck
My feelings on the show’s use of therapy in these final three seasons was touched upon above; I think, in the context of Season Five, it’s a great way to form a continuity between this year and the previous — especially in light of the obvious tonal shift. It’s also a tool the show can use to force Paul and Jamie together — even when an episode has them sequestered in two different narratives (which isn’t ideal, but I digress…) This installment, which introduces Mo Gaffney as their therapist (Sheila), operates at the season’s baseline humor level — which is more pronounced than in most seasons of Mad About You — but it gains distinction for the intelligent way it proves the value of the therapy design, uniting two disparate work plots (here, with Jamie and Patrick Bristow at the mayoral campaign, and with Paul at the start of his “Buchman” documentary) under a shared umbrella: the advice Sheila gives to them in counseling.
03) Episode 101: “Jamie’s Parents” (Aired: 11/12/96)
Jamie’s parents’ visit leads to a break-up: theirs!
Written by Maria Semple | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Jamie’s parents are introduced — for the third time — with the same portrayers they’ll maintain for the rest of the series’ run: Carroll O’Connor and Carol Burnett, the latter of whom would win an Emmy for her work in several outings this season. Again, I already shared some thoughts on them above, but I’ll repeat that, while casting them is a gimmick that perhaps illustrates the era’s favor of pomp over circumstance (or really, gimmick over character), it’s also a wink towards the show’s TV-lovin’ part of its identity, and therefore seems tonally in step. Now, it’s also true that stars like Burnett and O’Connor (and Brooks, below) don’t get material that’s on par with what they had in their own respective classics, but the show prizes them, and this offering, which gives O’Connor more words than he’ll ever have on the series, features them in several showy moments — particularly the RV scene, where the two couples have a cramped dinner. And though Mad relies upon their very inclusions to secure much of the entry’s value, there’s enough character stuff to keep it on solid narrative footing. MVE contender.
04) Episode 102: “The Outbreak” (Aired: 11/19/96)
Paul and Jamie try to stop the spread of their pregnancy news.
Written by Richard Day | Directed by David Steinberg
Evidence of the era’s utilization of (almost) self-driving weekly narratives, this Victory in Premise nevertheless manages to stand out as one of the year’s funniest. The idea of Jamie and Paul trying to contain the news of their pregnancy, which they’ve been waiting for precisely the right time to reveal, is a natural gem — it’s both connected to the year’s primary arc, and it’s a way to involve the ensemble (which largely consists of the family — Burnett now included) believably and without force. It’s also a story that doesn’t require plot points sparked by character; each beat is farcically circumstantial, which means the story propels itself and the players can exhibit their characterizations in response. (This is a smart construction for a show that struggles getting its characters to motivate plot.) As a result, there are many funny beats — and Kevin Bacon, of the famed “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game — makes a cameo.
05) Episode 109: “The Penis” (Aired: 02/11/97)
Paul and Jamie don’t want to know their baby’s sex, while Uncle Phil has a request.
Written by Maria Semple & Richard Day & Larry Charles | Directed by David Steinberg
There’s a lot going on here, which means there’s a lot to enjoy — especially because all of the moving pieces work. In fact, because I think it’s the season’s funniest, it’s my choice for this week’s MVE. Mel Brooks, who won an Emmy for his appearances in each of these last three years, makes his second (of two) Season Five turns in “The Penis” — following an installment Honorably Mentioned below. I think he hams it up too broadly in all of his appearances (and more to the point, overpowers the characters with whom he interacts in scenes), but there’s no doubt that this offering utilizes him the best, for it contextualizes his inclusion within a family-rooted story that is both episodic, and again, tied into the year’s main arc — as Phil, who thinks he’s dying, requests that Paul and Jamie name their baby after him; and, here comes the comedic idea: his real name is Deuteronomy. Simultaneously, Paul and Jamie have decided that they don’t want to learn the sex of their baby, but Paul peeks and thinks he sees a penis. Luckily, he didn’t see what he thought he saw — their baby is to be a girl, which means Deuteronomy is off the table… As you can see, the entry makes use of a plot-oriented, Victorious Premise with a big name guest star (who even gets to do a musical number — yes, it was Sweeps, after all), but it’s highly memorable, doesn’t disappoint, and symbolizes the year accurately.
06) Episode 110: “Citizen Buchman” (Aired: 02/18/97)
Paul tries to decipher the dying words of his uncle.
Written by Victor Levin | Directed by David Steinberg
As with the above, this is another hysterical, unforgettable Victorious Premise that’s centered within the family construct, features a big name guest star (or four or five), and ties into one of the year’s primary narratives: this time, the documentary that Paul is making about the Buchmans. The premise is an homage to Citizen Kane as Paul tries to figure out what a dying uncle — played by Shecky Greene — means by his last words: “who moos.” This sparks a story-propelling quest that allows the show to feature a starry array of family members and friends, including Fred de Cordova, Florence Stanley, and last but not least, Mel Brooks’ old employer, Sid Caesar. Also, David Steinberg, frequent Mad About You director, plays the rabbi forced to give the eulogy, while other guests playing Buchman family members include Len Lesser and Sam Lloyd. It’s laugh-heavy — like a starry, more story-filled (thus, quintessentially Mad) “Chuckles Bites The Dust” — and it makes for one of the series’ most iconic showings. MVE contender — the runner-up.
07) Episode 111: “Her Houseboy, Coco” (Aired: 02/25/97)
The house turns into chaos when the doctor orders Jamie to bed rest.
Written by Victor Levin | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Most of what’s written about this offering misses the big picture and focuses on one single element: Nat “stealing” Murray, whom he feels has been neglected by Paul and Jamie during the latter’s pregnancy. Fortunately, this episode is much more than that — I say fortunately because Nat is a jokey character who isn’t as funny as the show would have him be (and if this contrived episodic conflict was all the entry had to offer, it wouldn’t make the list). Actually, the premise, at large, is about the madness that ensues when Paul takes run of the house after Joan insists that Jamie remain in bed. This is the idea that invites the Nat/Murrary thread, and then gets the rest of the ensemble involved — Paul’s family, in particular. It’s a simple notion that finds natural ways to incorporate the familial ensemble, and that is why it’s worthwhile.
08) Episode 115: “The Dry Run” (Aired: 04/29/97)
Sylvia reveals a long-held grudge, as the Buchmans are kicked out of a birthing class.
Written by Moses Port & David Guarascio & Larry Charles | Directed by Michael Lembeck
I debated about whether or not to include this installment on the list, because I just as easily could have selected the first half of the finale, for it’s much less uneven. However, because I’m highlighting Part II, I’m already getting to talk about two for the “price” of one… So, I’m taking advantage of the chance to discuss this curio, which guest stars Marsha Warfield as a birthing coach who kicks the couple out of class for not following through with their “dry run” to the hospital. That’s an amusing (and arc-sparked) premise by itself. It’s the subplot that complicates matters, as Sylvia refuses to sign her release form for the documentary because Paul won’t cut out a story about why she doesn’t like Jamie — Sylvia believes that Jamie stole a spoon during their first meeting. That’s all well and good, right? Relationship-based, familial conflict? I’m in. The problem is that Jamie did steal the spoon, which means that she’s morally in the wrong. This is a stretch to our faith in her realism — because we’ve never seen any behavior this extreme from her before. And yet, despite the troubled story, it is an example of how the show is using more Seinfeld-ian plots — and because it’s more enjoyable than some of the less favorable examples of this narrative trend, I decided to feature it.
09) Episode 117: “The Feud” (Aired: 05/13/97)
Paul and Jamie are caught in the middle of their mothers’ feud.
Written by Richard Day | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Carol Burnett makes another memorable appearance in this excursion, which pits her against her daughter’s mother in-law, Sylvia, in a Bewitched-esque grandmama feud over cribs for the baby. Here we have another innately comedic one-episode conflict that’s connected to the year’s primary through-line and can give the performers something mildly juicy to play — indeed, the scene where they tear apart each other’s cribs is Lucy-like in its amiably familiar broadness. Again, this is an easy story to like; both moms elevate the laughs. However, the familial drama is the real foundation here (as usual), as it allows greater emotional ramifications for Paul/Jamie. (What isn’t so great is the subplot, which tries to better integrate Jeff Garlin’s Marvin, a peripheral option whose inability to motivate story contrasts against the two moms.)
10) Episode 119: “The Birth (II)” (Aired: 05/20/97)
Paul rushes to be by Jamie’s side as their child is born.
Written by Larry Charles | Directed by Gordon Hunt
This, the second half of the aforementioned two-part season finale, is the kind of big event installment by which I am usually repulsed. And true to Mad About You‘s story-fixated era (again, there are clear Seinfeld connections — just look at who’s credited), both parts of this outing lean in to the bigness, with appearances from not only the parents and the siblings, but Nat, Sheila, and Alan (Jamie’s ex, played by Eric Stoltz), as well. Of course, the entry is also remembered for an odd, and admittedly ill-fitting, cameo from Bruce Willis as himself. It’s all a giant spectacle that loses the show’s initially espoused simplicity. But, frankly, I like it… because this circus-like atmosphere helps cut the schmaltz that otherwise would have been in abundance, and also, the show is “in” on its own bigness here, so it doesn’t feel like the characters are being let down. (Note: unsurprisingly, this was the episode that won Hunt her second Emmy…)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Grant,” which claims the first appearance of a hammy Mel Brooks (his scenes are fine; it’s the story’s disjointed separation of Paul and Jamie that disqualifies it), “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge,” which was the closest to the above list and is amusing for its premise of the central couple using fudge as an aphrodisiac (and for the easy joke of Sylvia and Burt being horny), “Guardianhood,” which sees the return of Ursula after nearly two years and features good character moments (clouded by a gaudy subplot with Seth Green), and the previously discussed first half of the GRAND season finale, “The Birth (I),” which, incidentally, features a quick cameo by Estelle Getty. (Also, “The Handyman,” centered around Lisa and featuring Ed Asner, would be worth highlighting if it wasn’t hampered by a logic-starved script, as would the aforementioned and laugh-filled “The Touching Game,” which is otherwise anti-Mad About You in every way.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Mad About You goes to…..
Come back next week for Season Six! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!