In part I blame Marc Berman's podcast for my extremely low expectations for this show. For the past two weeks Marc has been talking about the Olympics and about how NBC has been on an extreme high in terms of rating because of the Olympics – although not so great a high that they've were able to beat American Idol during the Games – but that the network had nothing to follow up their success with. Which is, of course, totally true. If I were in charge of the network I'd have a nearly completely new line-up in place after the Olympics. NBC has a couple of new shows, one of which is The Marriage Ref. And The Marriage Ref attracted much of Marc's scorn. He didn't like the concept of the show, he didn't like that it was created by Jerry Seinfeld, and he most assuredly didn't like the fact that Alec Baldwin, whose split from Kim Bassinger was one of the dirtiest and messiest divorces in recent Hollywood history, was doing a show that was "saving people's marriages." In short a train wreck that would be the equivalent of the 20th Century Limited smashing into the Super Chief and then getting T-boned by the City of New Orleans. The problem is that, having seen the show, I have to acknowledge that it isn't quite that bad for a lot of reasons.
The big thing is that no one but no one is taking this thing seriously. The "Marriage Ref" is Tom Pappa, a stand-up comedian rather than a "relationship expert," who just happens to be a close friend of producer Jerry Seinfeld's and has been the opener for Seinfeld's stand-up act for years. On a set that looks as though it was borrowed from a late, late late talk show (like Carson Daily's maybe) he is joined by "experts" which in the show's definition is anyone who is married, has been married or has ever thought of getting married. This is why you can get Seinfeld (married), Kelly Ripa (famously married to her former All My Children co-star and on-screen husband Mark Consuelos), and of course Alec Baldwin as marriage experts. Also in the cast was Natlaie Morales of the Today Show as the "fact checker" – apparently this will be another "celebrity" role – and announcer Marv Albert who seemed embarrassed to be there rather than in Vancouver (and to my eyes at least didn't look particularly well; that may be because I haven't seen him in a while).
And the "problems" that Pappa and the celebrities had to resolve are scarcely the stuff of Dr. Phil or even Jerry Springer. The first episode featured two couples with stupid/funny problems. The first couple was from an obviously affluent part of Long Island. The cause of stress in their marriage was his dog Fonzie. Or rather his late dog Fonzie. Fonzie, a Boston Bull Terrier, was pining for the fiords – or in his case probably pining for the bleachers at Fenway – and the husband decided to have the dog stuffed by a taxidermist and located in a place of honour, a shrine if you will, in the family living room. The wife, who didn't like the dog when it was alive (because as the celebrity fact checker informed us, it bit her more than once and had a habit of peeing on guests) certainly didn't want it in the house dead. The panel, in a session filled with quips and funny comments that included questioning what the husband might do with his wife when she died if he was willing to stuff his dog, decided that the whole idea of keeping the stuffed dog around, particularly in the designated "shrine area" was utterly creepy and he shouldn't do it. Pappa then rendered his decision to the couple, who were shown "live" in their home in front of the "shrine" with the stuffed dog enshrined (and looking worse than the first time we saw it in the video presentation of the family problem). Pappa said that the man could keep his dog but had to put it in the "open air attic," where part of the episode was shot.
The second problem was a man from Atlanta who wanted to put a stripper pole in the family bedroom for his wife to "work" on. His wife, who wasn't exactly stripper material in the weight department (a little heavy thanks to giving birth to at least two kids) told him that there was no way in Hell that that was going to be in her bedroom. In the course of the presentation and analysis of the problem by the panel, we learned that the man had bought his wife something like 60 thongs, and that working a stripper pole can burn about 200 calories, and is considered good exercise. In fact the husband in this case went from saying that they could put the pole in the garage and tell people that it was a fishing pole (what kind of fish does this guy go out for!) to saying that it wasn't a stripper pole, it was an exercise pole. Alec Baldwin pointed out that even if they did put the pole in the bedroom, she'd never be happy using it and that who wanted to be danced for by an angry resentful and disinterested stripper. Kelly thought that it was just plain creepy, but Jerry Seinfeld thought it was a great idea. When Pappa rendered his decision he told the man that he couldn't have his stripper pole.
The Marriage Ref is a rather obvious satire of the pretentious nature of a lot of afternoon talk shows, in particular Dr. Phil's show. Viewed in that way I think that it works well enough, but I can think of better ways to work something like that. I don't think that the show was entirely without merit. There were some very funny moments, but several of those came from the "civilians" rather than the celebrity panellists. Selection of "problems" for this series has to be key. It stops being valid if there is even a hint that the problems are really big enough to cause these people to come anywhere close to divorce or any real emotional distress. Fighting over whether or not to put up a stripper pole hardly qualifies. That said, I think that the premise is rather thin and the longer you string it out, either in episode length or in the number of episodes in an order the more threadbare it's going to appear. I think that the premise would work brilliantly as an entirely scripted regular segment on a show like Saturday Night Live. As it was presented on Sunday night, with two problems in one half hour it works adequately. One couple in a half hour episode would have spent too much time on either of the problems that these people had. Basically the problems should have been "no-brainers" for anyone anyway. My opinion is that taking this show to an hour format, whether they look at four problems or even three problems is stretching things to the breaking point, though I can see people getting bored with it at that length. If they are foolish enough to try to do just two problems in an hour, well they'll soon discover that some things just won't stretch that far. NBC should keep this show at a half hour, find something else to fill the other half of the old Leno slot on Thursday nights and hope and pray that it gets an audience. I just don't think that an hour of this is going to fly; a half-hour was testing my patience.