After failing in its first attempt to put a cheaply-produced show by a once-loved comedian in the last hour of primetime, NBC is shaking things up a bit starting this Thursday (after a preview last night). Five thoughts on The Marriage Ref:
1: The clumsy, focus-grouped-to-death opening sequence for this program sets an ominous tone. Look, Dick, the winter games provided a nice (if troubled) change of pace during what is traditionally one of the year’s slowest stretches in sports goings-on, and we’re all thankful for that. But just because the three major American sports are a non-entity on NBC six out of seven days of the week doesn’t mean we don’t know baseball doesn’t have any refs. The purpose of the opening seems to be to communicate Jerry Seinfeld’s endorsement before the bait-and-switch reveal of comedian Tom Papa as host. Which leads me to wonder…
2: Who is the star of this show? Papa, a forgettable television “that guy” who appears to have powerful friends, is billed below the rotating cast of celebrity chucklers. He’s joined in taped segments by two feuding couples and in-studio by legendary sports broadcaster Marv Albert and an NBC news personality who contributes relationship-related trivia seemingly ripped from the headlines of US Weekly. Seinfeld has a history of well-meaning cronyism, but at least Spike Feresten got to sit down and talk one-on-one. Papa looks as though he’s just waiting his turn to chime in on how men, boy, they sure are pigs, and women, don’t even get me started, with the shopping and the yakkety-yak.
3: What is at stake in this show? “Winners” are declared in a decidedly anti-climactic fashion after Papa listens to the input of the celebrity panel, and it’s not until the episode’s end that we learn everyone gets a vacation. The re-enacted arguments don’t give us any time to get to know/care about any of the couples, so it’s clear they exist merely as fodder for the strained banter and over-laughing of Seinfeld and company. It’s like eavesdropping on the world’s most boring cocktail party or, perhaps more appropriately given the program’s overstuffed design and cacophonous cackling, like forgetting to hit mute during halftime of NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
4: The combination of variety show-style breeziness and sound-bitey reality segments provides for some troubling representations of gender and ethnicity. The first couple, Italian-Americans from Long Island, quarrel over the husband’s desire to have his deceased dog stuffed and displayed in their home. He gesticulates and speaks forcefully in trying to convince his wife, a motion Seinfeld apes in a split screen:
In an interview with the couple later on, the husband again aggressively tells his wife to shut up, something that, under any other circumstances, would be cause for concern. Thankfully, though, we’re given an immediate cutaway to the original-Jersey Shore-girl, Kelly Ripa, who finds it hilarious.
The next segment features an African-American man in Georgia who wants to install a stripper pole in the bedroom. While his wife rebuffs the request with increasingly calm conviction, the husband (who at one point claims that if they were home alone and he “put some rap music on, [she]’d be twirling all around that pole”) devolves into a televisual iteration of the hypersexualized black male stock characters that Donald Bogle identifies as having been an integral part of American visual storytelling since cinema’s earliest days. After the taped bit, we’re fed dubious statistics about the growing popularity of pole-dancing as exercise, with Ripa saying the wife “should get freaky-deaky with him” and Alec Baldwin chiming in with Donaghy-esque smarm.
5: Jerry Seinfeld has lost whatever goodwill he gained back with last fall’s Seinfeld non-reunion reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I’m reminded here of a pop-culture eulogy written by The A.V. Club‘s Nathan Rabin for John Travolta after, well, you remember: “…bad enough to negate the last 25 years of his career…from now on, he will be seen not as the charismatic star of Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction, but as John ‘Battlefield Earth’ Travolta, the perpetrator of a film that will go down in history alongside Howard The Duck and Heaven’s Gate as shorthand for Hollywood at its out-of-control worst.” Jerry Seinfeld, this is your Battlefield Earth.