Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! As with last week, when we highlighted the 2018 reboots of both Roseanne and Murphy Brown, this entry includes some thoughts on the 12-episode 2019 revival of Mad About You, which was produced for Spectrum’s exclusive streaming service.
The most interesting thing about the new Mad About You is that unlike those other reboots we’ve discussed — Roseanne and Murphy Brown — or, in the case of Will & Grace, will be discussing (at a later date), this one’s return is not predicated on the sociopolitical changes suggested by the 2016 election, which had heretofore motivated those other series to reanimate themselves in response to a new era. No, this one is merely existing for the other reason that all these shows exist — to satisfy the nostalgia “itch,” granting some platform a title with brand identification, during a time when there are so many options that a “hook” is needed to secure viewer awareness. And, thus, without any overtly political issues to address in the text, the premised revival of Mad About You is therefore born to be less idea-led, and more about its characters — with its premise being that Paul and Jamie (played by the original stars, Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt) are empty nesters now that their daughter Mabel has gone off to school at NYU. As such, this revival already starts in a more character-based place.
And, to that point, the best thing that can be said about this new Mad About You is that it recognizes the original series’ strengths and leans into them. Oh, yes, it’s probably a little jokier — asking, specifically, Helen Hunt to be a little broader than she was back in the ’90s, but that seems to be a trend in these late ’10s reboots, as the multi-camera format has become faster, consuming more yuks. Otherwise, everything that was good about the first series is still intact — from its quintessentially New York vibe (with references to notable New Yorkers, like Anderson Cooper, and cameos from famous people, like Jason Alexander, whose appearance really captures the spirit of the original’s gimmickry), to the trivial nature of the storytelling (as the characters find themselves in conflict over things like toothpicks and gym nudity), to, first and foremost, the excellent chemistry between the two stars, whose believable relationship, supported by the actors’ naturalistic, palpable humanity, remains Mad About You‘s main attraction. Of course, with Reiser and Hunt more creatively involved than ever before, this shouldn’t be a surprise, as they know their own show (and each other) better than anyone. But none of the original scribes carryover. In fact, the new showrunner is Peter Tolan, best known for years spent on the first Murphy Brown, The Larry Sanders Show, and Rescue Me. So, it’s to their credit that the tone is replicated so well — in spirit, this feels a lot like the ’90s classic.
Part of this success, I think, is also because — a missing Lisa Kudrow notwithstanding — this ensemble is better than it was, collectively, during the original series, which spent many years trying to fill out the best supporting bench for Paul and Jamie, eventually realizing that nobody else was as capable of driving interest; the closest were people who had a direct emotional connection to them — primarily, family members, like her sister Lisa (Anne Ramsay) and his cousin Ira (John Pankow). They’re both back, as is Richard Kind as Paul’s friend Mark, but he’s married now to new regular Tonya (Kecia Lewis), a therapist who helps usher Jamie on her new career path. Meanwhile, other leads include Antoinette LaVecchia as Ira’s girlfriend — she’s one-note and doesn’t get much to do — and, most importantly, Paul and Jamie’s daughter Mabel, played here by Abby Quinn… Now, if you recall from the 1999 series finale, grownup Mabel was brought to life by Janeane Garofalo. Well, hold on; you have to forget everything about that finale now, for like all of these reboots, it’s selective with what it corroborates. Not only is there some fuzziness about Mabel’s birth year, but Paul and Jamie never split, they still live together in their surprisingly large Manhattan apartment, and it’s all been hunky dory.
As for Quinn, she’s a funny performer who’s incredibly buyable as the Buchmans’ daughter, and she matches Reiser and Hunt’s energy superbly. However, there’s something of a disconnect — she’s not as enjoyable as she should be, given that she’s the third most important player on the revival — someone about whom we should really care, since Paul and Jamie really care about her. I think this is partly because she’s tasked with handling many of the most ridiculous beats — when these scripts’ comedic pursuits breach the show’s own brand of aesthetic realism — but most of it, I think, is a simple result of the fact that she’s just not one of the classic cast members. Again, the only impetus for this Mad About You’s existence is nostalgic affinity; we care about the stars — specifically, Reiser and Hunt’s Paul and Jamie — and want to see where they’ve ended up. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that the best moments of this new series are the ones that most invoke its predecessor — when the couple’s banter feels familiar, or when there are guest appearances from memorable material-elevators from the initial run, like Cynthia Harris, Mo Gaffney, and Carol Burnett. When the 2019 Mad About You tries to lean into its parenting angle — as it does, most especially, in the first few episodes — or spends a lot of time with newer characters to address more contemporary themes (like when Paul is grilled by Mabel’s class for being a misogynist), it’s just not as fun, because none of that is why we’re here.
I suppose that’s inherently the problem with these reboots. They all try to recapture old magic. And even when they do, as this Mad About You is often able, it’s fundamentally limited, for viability as a new series requires newness that’s as rewarding, and in which we can become as invested. But with nostalgia being such a powerful force — heck, it’s the engine of this show’s resurrection — that’s almost impossible, for there will always be an imbalance. That is, in 12 brief segments of this updated Mad About You, I will always enjoy Richard Kind more than Kecia Lewis. I will always prefer a scene where Paul and Jamie visit his mother than when they visit their daughter. And I will always be wishing for 2019 to seem a little bit more like 1994. As a result, I’ll never be fully satisfied — because while you can take the show out of its time period, you can’t take its time period out of the show. Mad About You belongs in the 1990s, which we get to revisit sincerely every time we check back in on the original…. That said, there are some funny moments here. I know, I know; this is rarely — in any era — a hilarious series, but it’s often warmly comic, with smart ideas. I have selected my favorites.
01) Episode 5: “Boundaries And Nakedness” (Released: 11/20/19)
Jamie starts seeing patients as a therapist and Paul is uncomfortable with gym nudity.
Written by Abby Gewanter | Directed by Kelly Park
Although Cloris Leachman is the gimmicky guest star du jour in this offering, that’s not the reason I’m highlighting it here. Sure, she’s a material-elevating bonus — in her last sitcom appearance ever — but I really feature this one because it’s a great example of the classic show’s storytelling, with a trivial Seinfeld-ian idea about Mark being offended when Paul won’t be naked around him in the gym, and some character-connected fun as Jamie is suckered in by an elderly woman who pretends to be lonely. One of the funnier half hours produced for this reboot.
02) Episode 6: “Monkeys, Lies, And Withholding” (Released: 11/20/19)
Paul and Jamie visit his mother in the retirement community and Ira learns he has a son.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Kelly Park
As discussed above, the 2019 show works best when it’s evoking memories of the original, and so this appearance by the late Cynthia Harris as Paul’s mother is guaranteed to be a hit, for she was absolutely one of the funniest supporting players, and though it’s a bit tough to see her so advanced in age, her spark remains as strong as ever, with plenty of laughs that indeed remind us of the Mad About You we remember. (The “Shmooey” talk is quintessentially Buchman!) Also, the subplot has some genuine value for the Ira character, as he meets his son.
03) Episode 10: “Real Estate For Beginners” (Released: 12/18/19)
Paul and Jamie go to a marriage boot camp while Lisa has Jason Alexander watch their dog.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Gloria Calderón Kellett
Putting Paul and Jamie in therapy seemed largely an excuse to bring Mo Gaffney back as the shrink, for a lot of the maneuverings around their arguing — while reminiscent of the original series and perfectly in keeping with this revival’s “adjusting to the empty nest” premise — still feel falser than this show’s baseline. But, here, it’s justified by laughs, as their need for counseling takes them to a Berkshires retreat where writer Peter Tolan includes a reference to a short-lived series he created in the 1990s, Style & Substance (I’ll try to fit it in a later Potpourri piece), which starred Jean Smart, who revisits her role and puts the couple through a series of exercises in the mistaken belief that they are a business team. It’s funny — she’s always great — and makes for some of the most memorable moments in this reboot. Meanwhile, Jason Alexander guests in the subplot as himself. He’s fun and reminds us subliminally of the MSTV roots.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Kid Leaves,” the premiere of this revival, where Reiser and Hunt fall back into their old rapport, “The Toothpick,” which does one of the best jobs of hitting the reboot’s “empty nest angst” theme without over-relying on the daughter in whom we don’t care as much, “The Cheese Stands Alone,” which is most enjoyable for the return of Mo Gaffney’s Sheila, and the finale, “Happy Birthday, Bon Voyage, Goodbye For Now,” which I’m only citing because it features Carol Burnett.
I’ve not selected an MVE for this brief list
Come back next week for another Sitcom Tuesday! And stay tuned for a new Wildcard!