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, ROBIN BARTLETT, LOUIS ZORICH, and CYNTHIA HARRIS.
The final two seasons of Mad About You are often lumped together derisively as the “baby years,” for following last season’s finale, in which Jamie gave birth to a little girl, the Buchmans are no longer just a couple with a dog; now they’re a family. Many fans cite this two-season era as the show’s weakest, and it seems the addition of a baby is largely blamed for fostering this descent. I think the truth, however, is that the tot (cloyingly named Mabel in the premiere) is merely a shorthand way to describe the most obvious narrative link between the final two years, which are both disappointing, and I’d agree, the weakest (read: least concerned with character, and therefore most disconnected from Mad’s thesis) of the entire run. In fact, while regular readers of this blog know that I usually take a hardline approach with babies/kids in the sitcom — I think they often delude a show into thinking cute = comedic — I actually don’t agree that Mabel has that much to do with why these two seasons don’t work as well as they should. Our biggest issue has always been the show’s utilization of story, which has remained forced given the tenuous nature of these characters’ ability to motivate plots. (Even Paul and Jamie, who have heretofore earned our investment based on their humanity — not on any specific, well-designed personas — struggle.) The pregnancy, then, served in Season Five as a year-long tactic to distract from these problems — giving the scripts a narrative focus with a forward momentum and tangible endgame, freeing the characters from having to be as active in the cultivation of story. In this way, Mabel wasn’t a long-term fix, and one could argue that her inclusion only made things harder for Six by prolonging the moment of reckoning. Yet, ultimately, I find her more symptomatic of these issues than culpable for them. And when we chide the final seasons — the “baby years” — for being the weakest, we’re really taking about the years, not the baby.
Frankly, while Six does naturally involve the child in stories — something we should expect from a show that still proclaims some form of realism; if the kid disappeared never to be seen again, we might rejoice, but we’d also question the series’ truthfulness — Mad About You is still a “couple-com,” in the way that it treats Paul and Jamie as its core, only now with a child in tow. In other words, the child serves a narrative purpose, but not a structural one. So, if there’s anything bothersome about the kid here, it’s that the natural “cuteness” attached to sitcom babies — something Mad About You can’t avoid, especially because the series always operates with a pronounced comedy-subjugating emotionality that doesn’t mind subverting a joke for a sweet moment — contrasts harshly against the broader, less realistic, and now (sometimes) shamelessly laugh-seeking weekly stories. I say “shamelessly laugh-seeking” in this case, not because I think seeking laughs is shameful; no, as you know, I’ve always wanted Mad About You to be funnier. I say shameless because the crusade is so ham-fisted and labored now — seldom (as per usual) arising from the characters, or worse, often not making sense for them. As discussed, because Paul and Jamie weren’t defined in the same precise terms as most sitcom characters, the only stories that don’t make “sense” for them are the ones so big, broad, and extreme that our perceptions of the duo’s humanity is then challenged. Now, even more than in Five, there are growing instances where their truth — the show’s truth — is undermined.
While last year, on a “case-by-case basis,” proved troublesome, this season relies on heavier weekly plot: premises loaded with story, maybe high-concept in nature, or more to the point, so narratively ostentatious that even if the premise could be good for the characters, there’s no way the pair can survive under the weight of the idea. One example that best represents all of this is “The Coin Of Destiny,” a glaringly odd installment involving a potentially magic coin. (The episode also has the dubious distinction of being the first to air after Helen Hunt made history with her Academy Award win.) The narrative is unrealistic and unrelatable by definition, and unlike similar gimmicks from past years (such as “Up In Smoke”), the possibility of rich, rewarding moments for our two proxy-humans — the only thing we actually want; remember we’ve long dealt with truth-threatening winks and other gimmicks — is denied because the episode is both consumed by story, and consumed by a story that doesn’t care about character. I suppose this is a cyclical and self-fulfilling prophecy. If these characters can’t drive plot, then the show must use plots that they don’t drive. But if these plots drive themselves, then there’s no need for character. And if there’s no need for character, then Mad About You is serving no purpose and doesn’t need to exist, for that’s the only thing it told us was important when it figured itself out in Season One… This is why Mad About You is a lesser property in its last two seasons — and even though I maintain that there’s no year less enjoyable to watch than the otherwise dramatically intriguing fourth — Seasons Six and Seven fail more abjectly with regard to the terms of the premise as established, and the evidence of this failure is more visible on a weekly basis. That is, we’re really starting to see bad episodes.
The good news? Well, the year’s use of oversized weekly plots (not to mention more hammy turns from legends like Mel Brooks, and now, contemporary stars such as Nathan Lane, Ellen DeGeneres, and Fred Willard, the latter of whom recurs as one of Jamie’s work associates), makes the relatively low-concept outings, like the famed “The Conversation,” stand out more. Yes, these “small” episodes are a gimmick. And yes, the low-conceptness of a story has never been the way to fulfill the premise. But because character is the way to fulfill the premise, we’re more appreciative now of quieter outings that can strip away the pomp and circumstance… Also, I think this final era uses the family well. My thoughts on this inevitable evolution, away from the loosely affiliated group of quasi singles and into a structure that readily features folks with whom Paul and Jamie have a more obvious emotional bond (their relatives), are mixed. I think this concept is more logical — and born out of necessity, for Fran only appears three times and Lisa is absent entirely (as Anne Ramsay was cast on Dellaventura) — even though, we recall, the series’ finest episodes actually came within the earlier “singles in the city” design. (Also, like every character on the show, just because Burt and Sylvia are amusing and have a stronger effect on the leads, doesn’t mean they can motivate great story either…) Nevertheless, the emphasis on family fits Paul and Jamie’s evolution into parents, and because Six — the first of two years run by Victor Levin, the second of two-and-a-half in NBC’s Tuesday block, and the third of four for which Helen Hunt won an Emmy (more on this next week) — does have a few memorable moments, Mad About You is still worthy of consideration. It’s not “Golden Age” — or even close to it — but if you’re a fan, then you’ll be glad to know that I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 122: “Speed Baby” (Aired: 10/28/97)
Paul and Jamie realize that Mabel can only sleep when she’s in motion.
Written by Roger Director | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Evidence that the baby itself is not the problem with these final two seasons of Mad About You, this installment — the year’s first entry that can claim both laughs and a tight, low-concept plotting reminiscent of the show’s long-gone Glory Days — literally builds its story around the idea that the darn tot can’t fall asleep, thus giving Paul/Jamie a simple goal: getting her to… that’s right, fall asleep. The complication is that she can only drift off when in motion — which necessitates rides in both an elevator (yielding an amusing gag involving Burt, Sylvia, Debbie and a confused pediatrician) and a taxi, where they’re driven by a cabbie named Keanu. None of this sounds very amusing, but in comparison to much of this year, trust me: it is.
02) Episode 124: “Moody Blues” (Aired: 11/11/97)
Jamie is cranky as Paul directs his parents in a production of The Pirates Of Penzance.
Written by Lisa Melamed | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Perhaps it’s unavoidable; every long-running show we cover on this blog eventually gets to a point where it’s impossible to recognize a year’s best episodes without highlighting some of the ones that, on principle, shouldn’t really be lauded. That is, when the quality of the show falls off the figurative cliff, there’s no choice but to pick offerings that hasten the descent. Tangibly, this means recognizing outings that are especially broad… even if part of the problem, at least in Mad‘s case, is the broadness of the storytelling, which is now hurting the (non-story-motivating) characters’ claims on realism. This entry gets its laughs — the idea of Paul directing his parents in The Pirates Of Penzance is a comedic Victory In Premise — even though it has little to do with truth and is forcefully, jarringly jokey. (“Schmecky out…”) Meanwhile, Helen Hunt won her third Mad About You Emmy for her work in the postpartum A-story, which is played broadly but is rooted in a less heightened, and more character-centric, place. You don’t forget this one.
03) Episode 126: “Le Sex Show” (Aired: 11/25/97)
Paul and Jamie have trouble restarting their intimacy.
Written by Moses Port & David Guarascio | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Although this installment makes use of a handful of (what could now be termed) clichés with regard to the depiction of sex on television (the “faked orgasms,” “uh-oh, the baby heard us,” “cake as a euphemism for intercourse,” etc.), I think this offering comes the closest this year to making good use of the particulars of its era — namely Mabel and Mo Gaffney’s Sheila — while also feeling in the spirit of some of the better days that came before. As we’ve seen, this is another risqué premise for an 8:00 show that, as originally scheduled and almost always written, might be better suited for 9:30. But this overt sexuality is a means to both illustrate the intimacy of its two palpable humans, who benefit from stories (like such) where they’re paired together in lengthy scenes, and the modern realities that the series has always wanted to project. So, this offering, about a couple resuming its love life after the birth of a baby, does what we want of Mad About You — it caters to the primary duo and gives them material that makes them seem human. That’s more than most of these excursions do, and that’s why it’s my MVE.
04) Episode 128: “The Conversation” (Aired: 12/16/97)
Paul and Jamie wait outside Mabel’s door while she cries.
Written by Victor Levin | Directed by Gordon Hunt
Real-time offerings were already a gimmick back in Season Three with “Our Fifteen Minutes,” because this wasn’t a construct that the series could utilize on a regular basis. It was, however, an outgrowth of the simple, relatable storytelling that we exhibited explicitly in Season One, and which then became more justified by the premise’s redirected focus on Paul/Jamie, who — now in receipt of the audience’s investment — could thrive within a barebones set-up. So, this episode works for the same reasons that “Our Fifteen Minutes” does, even though it’s not as funny (which is odd given the year’s comparatively overbearing comedic offensive), and it feels like even more of a gimmick — both because the show has become plot-heavy since Season Three and because the entry one-ups its rarefied structure by touting a “one-shot” production method. With no cuts (and no interrupting ads), this is a gimmick meant to play into the series’ prestige. And in this era of character disconnection, it’s another manifestation of pomp over circumstance… even if the design, by default, uses character better than others here.
05) Episode 130: “Good Old Reliable Nathan” (Aired: 01/13/98)
One of Jamie’s old lovers thinks Paul might try to kill him.
Story by Susan Dickes & Jonathan Leigh Solomon | Teleplay by Victor Levin
Nathan Lane guest stars in this outing that, surprisingly, puts a lot of its comedic and narrative eggs into his figurative basket. And while we’ve seen this happen before, often in entries built around entertainment icons (like Jerry Lewis in Season One, or Mel Brooks, who won another Emmy this year for a gratingly loud installment not mentioned in this post), it’s rare to see an episode sideline Paul and Jamie, because, frankly, this isn’t a recipe for success… Indeed, this one isn’t stellar — both because Paul and Jamie are narratively deferential to Lane’s character, and also because this is a broad farce that, unlike previous farces (“Giblets For Murray”), isn’t rooted in a human place… That noted, beggars can’t be choosers; the laughs compensate.
06) Episode 131: “Separate Planes” (Aired: 01/20/98)
Paul and Jamie have very different experiences while taking individual plane rides.
Written by Andy Glickman | Directed by Gordon Hunt
One of the unfortunate truths that’s become clear when making this list — and selecting what are theoretically the season’s finest — is that so much of what’s being highlighted is derivative. A lot of these are either an attempted duplication of past successes (but raised to the nth degree, like “The Conversation”) or they’re a mishmash of other sitcom tropes (like my chosen MVE, which I nevertheless think is the most thesis-oriented of the list). This episode, which, again, satisfies on behalf of comedy and, in this case, does so without any major turbulence (pun intended) on behalf of the two main characters, isn’t really fresh or unique; we’ve seen “coach vs. first class” before. (Seinfeld did it better.) But story is never more important than character, and because Paul and Jamie work well, this excursion does, too. Rita Wilson guests.
07) Episode 132: “Cheating On Sheila” (Aired: 02/24/98)
Paul and Jamie experiment with a new therapist.
Written by Sheila R. Lawrence | Directed by Helen Hunt
I’ve read some mixed responses to the “therapy” episodes of these final three seasons, which feature Mo Gaffney as the shrink (the eponymous Sheila). But while I do think a lot of her appearances in Season Seven are over-the-top and try-hard (that is, working her into plot as a prominent member of the ensemble doesn’t make sense — especially for the given stories), these first two years with her don’t bother me, for the whole counseling construct was designed to make it easy to pair Paul and Jamie together (after a whole season where they were apart — Four, which even though it’s now a distant memory, at least has some continuity via Sheila). Thus, a lot of these therapy offerings do just that — like this one, which features a self-propelling (but nevertheless tightly told) narrative of Paul and Jamie “cheating” on their regular doc with Sydney Pollack. Also, the subplot for Burt/Sylvia includes funny Eileen Brennan.
08) Episode 133: “Back To Work” (Aired: 03/03/98)
Jamie goes back to work and then regrets it.
Written by Mary Connelly | Directed by David Steinberg
An MVE contender, this installment explores the idea of Jamie going back to work for the first time since giving birth — a grounded, relatable foundation that promises to keep her depiction humane — and introduces a new recurring presence at her workplace in the form of Fred Willard. Of course, she’s out of the job (temporarily) by the end of Act Two, thanks to a wonderfully told — and Seinfeld-ian in its dovetailing — episodic premise in which Jamie, desperately missing Mabel, schemes to be fired on Day One by having Paul (and others in the family) interrupt her non-stop with calls. This pays off beautifully with the subplot, as Paul threatens a dishonest author with legal action and calls Jamie instead, allowing both characters to have separate “conversations” on each side of the phone. It’s a great use of both regulars… and it stems from some truth. Also, politicos Mary Matalin and James Carville play themselves.
09) Episode 138: “Fire At Riff’s” (Aired: 04/28/98)
A fire at Riff’s brings clarity to several relationships.
Written by Jonathan Leigh Solomon | Directed by Craig Knizek
As with the above, this is an offering that I appreciate because it’s better focused than much of what’s not included on this list. In other words, the multiple stories in this episode aren’t disparately scattered, like usual, but instead are connected by a single event — a fire at Riff’s that begets important decisions for the characters: Jamie decides to go back to work (with Willard), Debbie and Joan get engaged, and Ira begins a casual relationship with Ursula. (Yes, Lisa Kudrow, who was stuck in the states as all her “friends” went abroad, appears.) Now, this episode is actually middling — the Paul/Jamie stuff is strained — and the second half is a little choppy. But, the intent, and little moments like the amusingly low-key final gag, help boost it.
10) Episode 141: “Nat & Arley” (Aired: 05/19/98)
Paul and Jamie play matchmaker for Nat and their babysitter.
Story by David Steven Simon | Teleplay by Moses Port & David Guarascio | Directed by Gordon Hunt
This seemingly popular episode is one that I would classify as uneven. Fortunately, the Paul/Jamie plot, of them discovering at a sleep clinic that Jamie is violent in her slumber, not only hits, but it’s a genuine riot (representing a happy reconciliation of the era’s comedic goals and the solid characterizations that weren’t obvious often enough in Six). For this stuff alone, the installment earns a place here. However, I’m less enthused by the A-story, with the romance — in which we’re supposed to invest — between the realism-strained Nat and the quirky babysitter, Arley (Lili Taylor), who makes her second of just two appearances. The script doesn’t fully succeed in making me care, but as Nat shows go, he looks more human than ever.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Mother’s Day,” the closest entry to making the above list because it features fine moments for Jamie and Sylvia, who takes a fake fall (à la Mother Jefferson) during a rather one-dimensional push for attention that’s later redeemed by a more nuanced developed bond between the two Buchman women, along with “Breastfeeding,” which shines in just one amusing (albeit, clichéd) scene with Carol Burnett, who presents to Paul and Jamie her new younger beau, “The Caper,” an ensemble show with a templated premise that yields uneven, and predictable laughs, and “Paul Slips In The Shower,” a self-indulgent look at Paul that’s hindered by its lack of actual relevance.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Mad About You goes to…..
“Le Sex Show”
Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!