'The Marriage Ref' Would Be Funnier Without the Celebrities
by Joel Keller, posted Mar 1st 2010 11:29AM
'The Marriage Ref' is a strange beast. After watching last night's post-Olympic sneak preview of the show, which moves to its Thursday at 10PM ET slot on March 4, it feels like a '60s-style celebrity panel game show joined to a TLC marriage show.
It's a pretty straightforward idea: a married couple is depicted having an argument over a specific issue. In the pilot, for instance, one husband wanted to get his recently-deceased dog stuffed and display the mutt in the living room, over his wife's vehement objections.
The celebrity panel, who in the premiere consisted of Kelly Ripa, Alec Baldwin and executive producer Jerry Seinfeld, talk and joke about the situation, coming down one one side or the other. The final decision is rendered by the ref, host Tom Papa, who tells the couple via satellite feed.
But the pilot made me want to see much more of the couples having their funny conflicts than the celebrities yukking it up over those conflicts. And that's a problem.
Yes, a half-hour show of people arguing over a stuffed dog or a stripper pole in the bedroom (the other argument that was mediated in the premiere... I'm guessing the hour-long episodes will contain four couples' disputes) might get tired. But I quickly got sick of seeing the poorly-edited observations of Alec, Kelly, and Jerry; it just felt like they were all stretching to make lame jokes about these silly arguments. And the cutaways to see the panelists' reactions to the couples and each others' jokes was just painful to watch. The show somehow made three very funny people look unfunny and judgmental, and that's a crime of comedy.
I just wanted to see more of the spray-tanned candidate for 'The Real Housewives of Long Island' have a coronary over the prospect of having a stuffed dog in her house. And that's not such a good thing, either; like most reality shows of this stripe, I feel I'm more laughing at these couples than laughing with them.
Seinfeld's point in bringing this show to life is that these are the kinds of arguments every couple has, and wouldn't it be nice if everyone had a ref like Tom Papa to listen to the arguments and give a decision. But in order to make these arguments TV-friendly, we're not seeing everyday disputes like whether a spouse's mother-in-law can move in, or that someone doesn't do enough stuff around the house. No, we're seeing stuffed dogs and stripper poles, and in a later episode, a guy who keeps his motorcycle in the living room. Instead of relating to them and finding the humor in how normal they are, we just laugh at them.
If Jerry Seinfeld and his star power wasn't attached to this show, this definitely would have ended up somewhere on TLC or Style or another cable outlet. But the sheen of celebrity Jerry's going to be able to bring in -- future judges include Larry David, Ricky Gervais, Eva Longoria, Tina Fey, and a freakishly nipped-and-tucked Madonna -- isn't going to make this show any less awkward or obnoxious.
Couple of notes:
-- The sports theme is going to also get old. There's no need for Marv Albert to be there to do the announcing, and the telestrator that Papa uses feels like nothing but a gimmick they force themselves to use.
-- Papa is an affable-enough host. But it felt like he was doing a lot of teleprompter reading and not a lot of off-the-cuff riffing. When he did talk off-the-cuff, or was using pieces of his stand-up routine, he was much funnier.
-- Every time I see Natalie Morales do some silly show like this -- she's the "Just The Facts" person that spews stats and adds some info about the argument at hand -- it makes me wonder if she's putting her Rutgers journalism degree to good use (then again, I have a computer engineering degree, so who am I do judge?).