Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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, LOUIS ZORICH, and CYNTHIA HARRIS.
Well, folks, much of what I want to say about Mad About You has already been said. Almost everything discussed last week for Season Six is still valid here — but to degrees more extreme, and therefore, more unfortunate. Briefly, though, I’ll reiterate that the final two years don’t work as much as those prior because the era’s utilized stories too often don’t make sense for the two central characters, not grounding them in the palpable humanity that inspires the intended realism. That is, this era’s stories aren’t just not motivated by the depictions of both Paul and Jamie (something with which the show has always struggled because of the low-concept “realistic” way it sought to define, or not define, them), but they also call into question the very truthfulness that the thesis had earlier decided to project. In the past, potentially fourth-wall-breaking winks and gimmicks weren’t strong enough to inflict damage because Paul and Jamie far overshadowed any narrative interests. (And the times that narrative interests were indeed overshadowing, like in Season Four’s much ballyhooed split-up arc, the series suffered accordingly.) Now, in Season Seven, just as in Six (and, to some extent, Five), the weekly stories are so ostentatious — gimmicky (the duo harasses Mark McGwire — terrible episode), broad (Jamie runs around New York City in a towel), and high-concept (the pair is interrogated by the cops after stealing his parents’ car) — that Paul and Jamie no longer seem the show’s primary concern, and in fact, they’re wounded as a result of how these stories depict them. Thus, even though we’re still invested in them based on the humanity they’ve accrued over the course of this now seven-year run, they’re not impenetrable. Here, sadly, they’re more than just “out-of-character” — which has always been a nebulous concept, due to their murky (or, alternatively, “true-to-life”) definitions — they’re finally unrealistic, too. And that’s crushing.
It’s strange that such a dip comes in a year that essentially maintains the same creative forces — co-creator Reiser, last year’s showrunner, Victor Levin, and Hunt (who got a producer credit after her first Emmy win), who lead a too-large team of one or two-year wonders (with the exception of Consulting Producer Billy Grundfest, back after a two-year hiatus). More shocking is that Seven actually saw the show reaching the height of its prestige. Heck, NBC shelled out two million bucks per episode just to keep the stars (the brass didn’t want to lose Mad the same year as Seinfeld) — in the wake of Hunt’s two Emmys and her record-setting Academy Award: the first time a leading Oscar was given to a performer concurrently starring in a weekly series. (Hunt would go on to win a third Emmy before Seven premiered, and then snag her fourth and final one a year later, for the finale.) Having an Academy Award winner in the regular cast is as prestigious as it gets, and this honor speaks to both Reiser’s and Hunt’s believable portrayals, which is why it’s devastating that, following this win, their abilities are challenged. And ironically, it seems to partially stem from this otherwise good news. You see, Hunt’s high profile appears to make the show put more effort into using her more, and this year gives her the most (and the boldest) material to play… Unfortunately, because the season’s overall aesthetic is far less character-rooted, Jamie, now more than Paul, is victim to stories that jeopardize her humanity — as she vacillates between jokey, and occasionally nasty, broad strokes (“Farmer Buchman” is the worst offender) and painfully earnest Oscar moments, where she gets to Emote with a capital E. These transitions in her persona are matched by other jarring shifts, as the year jumps from small ideas gone big, to big ideas gone bigger, and sometimes, two ideas of varying bigness competing against each other simultaneously (without any meaningful union).
As for popularity, the ratings for the new season, still in the same Tuesday slot, actually got worse. In December, NBC moved the series to Monday, where it was essentially left for death… Sorry to say, but it was definitely time — the year limps to the finish line and offers very few installments that can genuinely be recommended. I have just two positive things to report. The first is Anne Ramsay’s Lisa, who’s back for seven of the 22 episodes (after not being seen since Season Five). Although never a great source of story, she is one of the best-defined members of the ensemble. (Yet that’s still not saying much; as always, the supporting cast is weak, and while this year puts Paul’s parents in over half the episodes, it tries elsewhere to arrange help from a variety of mismatched folks, including familiar faces Debbie, Marvin, Sheila, Nat, Maggie and Hal, and Fred Willard’s Henry, along with some painfully grating new folks, like Steve Park’s Dr. Lee and Jean Louisa Kelly’s obnoxious Nurse Diane.) Second, I’m surprisingly satisfied with the finale. The nature of this season’s baseline has made it impossible to avoid choosing both parts, even though I definitely have a clear preference for one over the other. (More below.) But here I’ll note, although it doesn’t adhere to some of the things I, specifically, think a sitcom should do for conclusion, Mad About You finds a way to end true to itself, and beyond adjusting my expectations to anticipate something that doesn’t fit the simple, low-concept “everyday” kind of finale I’d prefer (and which the series might have done back in the mid ’90s), I also respect that the special hour-long broadcast leans in to what the show has become narratively, along with both the romantic perspective it’s always espoused (one of the things that helps connect it to other, more popular sitcoms in the Must See TV catalogue) and the character-centric terms of its thesis. Thus, while Mad About You’s final year isn’t a great showcase for the series, the actual ending is. I’ll be curious to see if a reboot deconstructs it… But, once more, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Seven. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 143: “Season Opener” (Aired: 09/22/98)
Paul and Jamie run around the city — him with an erection, her in just a towel.
Written by Victor Levin | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Let the record show that despite the title of this blog post, this shameful installment is not one of the best episodes of Mad About You. Naturally, with the season operating at a reduced baseline of quality, the threshold for what’s permissible widens to include outings that, on the macro level, aren’t entirely credits to the series. In the case of this inflated series premiere, which utilizes the flashy premise of Paul and Jamie running around the streets of New York City (yes, the real streets, for once) with separate salacious predicaments — he took Viagra and has an unyielding erection, and she’s been locked out of her health club wearing only a towel — it uses situational humor of the bluest order, with the characters totally contorted to its will… However, for as much as this seems anathema to Mad About You and its low-concept character-rooted multi-camera sweetness, the trivial concerns, NYC setting, and cameo appearance from Jerry Seinfeld (along with SNL‘s Ana Gasteyer), are familiar, and represent elements of the show’s identity — not arranged in a form we’d like, but, hey, this is Season Seven…
02) Episode 144: “A Pain In The Neck” (Aired: 09/29/98)
Jamie worries when Paul has his tonsils removed.
Written by Monica Piper | Directed by Gordon Hunt
This is another offering with which I have major issues. But because I needed a full list of ten, I had to turn to this installment, which, in the positive column, is built around the familial ensemble and features the welcome return of Anne Ramsay’s Lisa. Also, given the premise, there’s a little more emotional gravitas than in other shows this year, and it really focuses the action onto the relationship between Paul and Jamie. In the opposite column is the aforementioned nurse played by Jean Louisa Kelly, who ably fulfills her function as an episodic complication, but takes on a negative onus given our hindsight knowledge that she’ll recur. Worse, though, are the wild fluctuations in tone; some truly killer one-liners are contrasted against moments of shocking bathos — most of it designed to give Hunt material “worthy” of an Oscar winner (like the Romeo & Juliet speech) — which is not only difficult to follow, but damaging to her characterization of Jamie, who is now nearing schizophrenia.
03) Episode 145: “Tragedy Plus Time” (Aired: 10/27/98)
Paul and Jamie are sued by their therapist, while Debbie acts out.
Written by Christopher Case | Directed by Gordon Hunt
One of the reasons that appreciating this final season is so difficult is that there’s so much episodic unevenness. This has been a trend that’s developed over the last few weeks (since Season Five, let’s say), but it’s worse in Seven, because these strained disconnected-to-character ideas are seldom worthy of holding a half-hour. Thus, we get a lot of examples with two far apart plots that not only aren’t reconciled, but also aren’t strong enough to stand on their own. I note this because both major plots here work… for what they are. One is the jokey Paul/Jamie story where he accidentally breaks Sheila’s nose and then she sues them… as she continues to counsel them. It’s sitcom tripe. The other is a bit weightier, and therefore more interesting, as Debbie cheats on Joan — with a man. Now there’s some meaty character stuff to play.
04) Episode 147: “The Silent Show” (Aired: 11/10/98)
Paul and Jamie’s therapist challenges them to spend the rest of the day in silence.
Written by Mary Connelly | Directed by Gordon Hunt
In some ways, this could be one of those episodes built around a guest star — in this case, the percussion group STOMP — who’s apparently moved into the Buchmans’ building. I don’t think that’s what this entry is about, but their inclusion — however affiliated with the premise it may be — does cheapen what otherwise could be among the year’s most genuinely worthwhile. For the idea of Paul and Jamie having to spend an outing communicating non-verbally is intriguing; sure, it’s a gimmick in the one-upping game (that last led to Six’s real-time, one-take show), but it places emphasis on the two performers and removes the narrative tension that underscores these final seasons. This offering is strangely reluctant to be similarly adventurous though, and confines its silence to just one scene, neutering the overall impact. It’s a contrivance inherently, so I don’t know why the show isn’t as bold this time (for Paul and Jamie’s sake).
05) Episode 148: “Weekend In L.A.” (Aired: 11/17/98)
Paul and Jamie head out to L.A. for a weekend without Mabel.
Written by Maria A. Brown | Directed by David Steinberg
Paul and Jamie head to Los Angeles in this odd entry that doesn’t seem like it knows what it wants to be until it reaches its last few scenes. This sense of aimlessness can be viewed as either narratively refreshing or symptomatic of larger storytelling troubles. I’ll take the glass-half-full approach with this episode because it winds up getting its finger on the show’s pulse — character — as the couple’s trip to L.A., sans baby and full of jets and jacuzzis, has Jamie realizing something that many feel: sometimes she wishes she wasn’t a mother. This is a stunning admission that forces her into an important crisis — it’s relatable, and it allows the Oscar winner to Emote (capital E). Though still mediocre, it’s a win-win. Craig Bierko guests.
06) Episode 149: “The Thanksgiving Show” (Aired: 11/24/98)
Paul and Jamie host another Thanksgiving for their family and friends.
Written by Hayes Jackson | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Without a doubt, the best episode of Mad About You was the Thanksgiving effort from Season Three (the second year of the show’s Golden Age), “Giblets For Murray.” Nothing will ever be able to compare to it — not even the enjoyable Kevin Bacon entry from Season Five — so this year’s installment, which can’t help but evoke that memory, sees its shine figuratively dulled. The truth of the matter, though, is that this is a simple and almost storyless affair — its comedic centerpiece is the ensemble playing charades — that pulls in various members from a hodgepodge, half-family (Ira, Lisa, Sylvia, Burt, Debbie) ensemble that includes Fred Willard’s Henry, Steve Park’s Dr. Lee (the pediatrician), Jeff Garlin’s Marvin, Maggie and Hal, and last-but-not-least, Ursula. The fact that it doesn’t do much but congregate characters for a game is both a critique and a compliment. Here in Season Seven, less is more, and even though the “let’s throw ’em all together” shtick is eye-roll-worthy, the little story is an amenable throwback.
07) Episode 156: “Uncle Phil Goes Back To High School” (Aired: 03/01/99)
Uncle Phil goes back to school and Lisa gets breast implants.
Written by Dean Young | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Mel Brooks won his third of three Mad About You Emmys for his work in this offering, which is another example of the season’s dastardly unevenness. The A-story, for which the classic comic won his award, is something that I find difficult to watch — it’s a logic-starved narrative that gives him the chance to chew scenery (sans Paul and Jamie there to try grounding him) and even shoehorns in another musical number. It’s a shameful commentary on what Mad About You has become… However, I’m mad about the subplot, in which Lisa gets breast implants, for it’s loaded with supreme laughs, as Paul finds himself attracted now to Lisa (a fact that he tries to keep from Jamie, unsuccessfully). It’s small, believable, and quite funny. Edie McClurg guests.
08) Episode 161: “Paved With Good Intentions” (Aired: 05/13/99)
Paul and Jamie try to tell the people they love that they love them.
Written by Susan Dickes | Directed by Gordon Hunt
My choice for the best episode of the season, this offering actually aired in a special 9:30 time slot behind Frasier. That’s right; for its antepenultimate broadcast, Mad About You was able to return to Must See TV Thursdays, the block where it lived its finest years, and air back among the aesthetic brand ambassadors with which it remained (and indeed remains) associated… But that’s just trivia. The reason this installment works is, as usual, it takes something simple — Paul and Jamie deciding to tell the people in their lives that they love them — and extrapolates a conflict from which character-based drama and comedy, both situational and innately humane, can be derived, as Paul accidentally hits Jamie’s mom with a car. It’s a funny premise and gives the show one more chance to utilize Carol Burnett, who gets some physical comedy and plays alongside Carroll O’Connor again, whose character (whom Paul foolishly called, not knowing this would be another problem) learns that his ex-wife is now seeing a much younger man. So, as you can see, it’s all relatable, human, character stuff. It’s not the year’s funniest, but like classic Mad About You, it’s funny enough — and it earns its laughs in ways congruous with what we know of both the show, and synonymously, these characters. It had to be my MVE.
09) Episode 163: “The Final Frontier (I)” (Aired: 05/24/99)
Mabel recounts the story of how she got to be the way she is today (in 2021).
Story by Helen Hunt & Paul Reiser & Victor Levin | Teleplay by Paul Reiser & Victor Levin | Directed by Helen Hunt
As mentioned above, I couldn’t help but choose both halves of the original hour-long finale for this post, for even though I do have a preference (and can technically get to discuss two “for the price of one” in these commentaries when I deal with two-parters), the season’s quality made it impossible to genuinely say that there were any other offerings better than the year’s conclusion as a whole. I do prefer Part I though, for it spends more time in the present (or, rather “1999”), and is therefore less scattered, and less emotionally indulgent — it can actually be mostly funny (like in the scene with Tim Conway, the justice of the peace). Additionally, the novelty of the concept — getting to see the terrifically well-cast Janeane Garofalo as Mabel — is naturally better felt. Nevertheless, while it’s easier to enjoy Part I, the two are a package deal…
10) Episode 164: “The Final Frontier (II)” (Aired: 05/24/99)
Mabel recounts her parents’ reconciliation (in 2021).
Story by Helen Hunt & Paul Reiser & Victor Levin | Teleplay by Paul Reiser & Victor Levin | Directed by Helen Hunt
Like I suggested, I don’t think this is (generally speaking) the best example of how to end a series — it’s overblown, weepy, and forces closure that should otherwise come simply and naturally. Normally, I believe that a final should be a typical representation of the series (and most of them aren’t)… but, for better or worse, I think this finale does represent a lot of what we know about Mad About You. It’s not the funniest show, and it is emotionally hyperbolic — prioritizing romance in ways that are both uncomedic and cloyingly sentimental. And its claims on simplicity, both in terms of narrative and character, are overshadowed by structural gimmicks and some heavy plot… But, through it all, Paul and Jamie get their happy ending. And that’s what Mad About You has always wanted. Thus, the characters are left in a good, lovely place.
Other notable episodes that merit a look include: “There’s A Puma In The Kitchen,” which tries to make one amusing idea sustain a full half-hour (and doesn’t succeed), “Win A Free Car,” which benefits from a unique premise that emphasizes the series’ multi-camera theatricality, but is generally too comedically ham-fisted and outrageous to be praised, and “The Dirty Little Secret,” which puts together several one-joke story ideas that never jell.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Mad About You goes to…..
“Paved With Good Intentions”
Come back next week for Friends! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!