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October 30, 2014

Lunatics Running The Asylum: 'The Marriage Ref' Could Use a Real Coach

by Mark Wigmore, posted Mar 26th 2010 8:41PM


For nine seasons, NBC and Jerry Seinfeld successfully dominated the ratings with the self-proclaimed show about nothing. According to producers, the rules of the ever-popular and manically-rerun 'Seinfeld' series were simple – no hugging, no learning. Who knew that Seinfeld could accomplish all of these goals all over again with his new series, 'The Marriage Ref'?

Now nearing half a dozen episodes, 'Ref' attempts to solve the little squabbles plaguing married couples, pegging one against the other in a win or lose contest. The show found a home on NBC thanks to the tragedy that was 'The Jay Leno Show,' the 10 pm-slotted experiment that went horribly wrong.

The Seinfeld-produced reality/game show was fast-tracked into the open Thursday position. 'Ref' features stand-up comedian and long-time pal to Jerry, Tom Papa, as the so-called Ref. According to his website bio, he has no experience in the field of couples therapy or any other professional credit in the field. That's why we decided to talk to a real psychotherapist, someone who actually dispenses advice to warring couples.

For nine seasons, NBC and Jerry Seinfeld successfully dominated the ratings with the self-proclaimed show about nothing. According to producers, the rules of the ever-popular and manically-rerun 'Seinfeld' series were simple – no hugging, no learning. Who knew that Seinfeld could accomplish all of these goals all over again with his new series, 'The Marriage Ref'?

Now nearing half a dozen episodes, 'Ref' attempts to solve the little squabbles plaguing married couples, pegging one against the other in a win or lose contest. The show found a home on NBC thanks to the tragedy that was 'The Jay Leno Show,' the 10 pm-slotted experiment that went horribly wrong.

The Seinfeld-produced reality/game show was fast-tracked into the open Thursday position. 'Ref' features stand-up comedian and long-time pal to Jerry, Tom Papa, as the so-called Ref. According to his website bio, he has no experience in the field of couples therapy or any other professional credit in the field. That's why we decided to talk to a real psychotherapist, someone who actually dispenses advice to warring couples.

Each one-hour program welcomes three celebrities who do their best to look good, mildly entertain, and offer some light and hopefully witty advice to the couples on deck – in that order. So far, stand-out names on the show have included Alec Baldwin, Madonna, Larry David, Martha Stewart and Seinfeld himself. While that list should instantly raise a few eyebrows, here are some reminders of character: Baldwin all but punched his daughter through the receiver during a phone call that famously went viral some years ago. While Madonna's track record with her kids has been favourable, her two marriages and countless lovers don't exactly lend to Joe and Jane America. Larry David announced he was a misogynist during his appearance on the program. That seems like a good place to stop.



Appearing with Oprah Winfrey on her daytime program, the Big O explained the comedian's intentions, saying "Jerry is out to save marriage in America." This notion came as a shock to Seinfeld's former girlfriend Susan McNabb, who was vocal in the press, stating, "It's ironic that the man who avoided the mere mention of marriage in my presence for years has now grown into a full-on television-show-producing expert on the subject of marriage and marital problems."

Enter the expert. Janice Berger is a psychotherapist with over 30 years experience from Newmarket, Ontario. Selling over 10,000 copies of her book, Emotional Fitness, Berger feels 'Ref's format is not only unhelpful, but damaging.

"I think it's harmful in a way. It's certainly not helpful. It's a spectacle show – The people are laughed at, are made fun of, and are being put down. I even think the guests are being made fun of as well, just because they have no right to judge anybody."

Couples are brought on the program with a wide array of problems. While one duo can't decide whether an iguana should be caged or let free in their home, another has one wife withholding sex until her husband cleans up the basement. After the crowd chuckles along with the celebs, who tend to poke fun and then offer a thin shred of advice, Ref Papa typically sides with one member of the couple.



"When solving problems is about winning and losing, you don't solve real problems that way. The whole program is about who's right and who's wrong. They come for help, they don't come to be judged. Any therapist that acts as a referee is not a good therapist, in my view."

While 'The Marriage Ref's topics are often light or silly, Berger does not discount them as unimportant. In the case of the roaming iguana, there are some lessons to be learned. While Papa sided with the husband (who recommended the beast be caged), Berger believes there was a better route to take.

"These are the kind of squabbles though that are brought to a real therapist," she says. "That couple needs to negotiate this issue themselves. A real therapist would help them look at the underlying power struggle going on there. They would help them look at the baggage they have brought from the past that is influencing their current relationship. A therapist will help them look at things like - what are their expectations of each other, are they realistic or not? What kind of agreements can they make and how do they want to make agreements? There's no right or wrong as to whether the iguana should be in the cage. It's not like it's written in a tablet in the sand somewhere."

In another vignette, Ref Papa looked pretty smart siding with both members of a couple who wanted both a sofa and a prosthetic leg out of the home due to the emotional baggage they represent. This may have appeared as a moral highroad, but in the eyes of experience, even when he is right, he's still wrong.

"It probably was a good call, but also very paternalistic," says Berger. "It's the way you treat children who were fighting over a toy. The parent might say, 'Let's put away the toy until you can decide how to play with this.' And the guests were really putting that couple down as being ridiculous."

Final prognosis?

"I don't know why anybody wants to watch people winning or losing except that it gives them a little high if they are on the winner's side. Or, if they lose, they can feel better because look at that poor schmuck, I'm better than that. It encourages people to just flee from reality and not take things seriously and not look at what is really going on in a situation.

It certainly encourages the notion that the authority for solving the problems would be taken away from the couples themselves and judged by other people. That's the opposite way than any therapist would want to take on a couple."

It seems the doctor is out on this particular show.

'The Marriage Ref' airs Thursday nights on NBC.

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