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TV Review: 'The Marriage Ref' (2010)

The Marriage Ref
The Marriage Ref
Courtesy of NBC Universal

If I were describing NBC’s “The Marriage Ref” in a single word (and I suppose I’m about to), it would be excruciating. ”Ref” is the absolute worst kind of reality-TV dreg. I’m somewhat mystified NBC would even greenlight it. I know; it’s created and executive produced by ueber comic and NBC legend Jerry Seinfeld, but there has to be a line. Considering that this tripe is even worse than the crap-fest it replaces, “The Jay Leno Show,” I’d say both NBC and Seinfeld have exceeded that line. And then some.

The show’s setup is simplicity itself. Married couples engaged in minor domestic squabbles allow cameras into their homes to film and document said disputes. The footage is shown in a studio setup—replete with customary “studio audience”—that, ironically enough, recalls “The Jay Leno Show” and a hundred other gab-fests like it. After watching the filmed footage, a panel of celebrity “guest” judges discusses the dispute, debating the various fallacies, merits and hypocrisies involved. Afterward, the couple in question appears via a live feed and a winner is proclaimed based on the panel’s vote and on the final judgment of series host, comedian Tom Papa.

I suppose it sounds modestly intriguing, but very little about this show works as its creators likely envisioned. One of the first things to jump out during the premiere was the forced, artificial “comradery” between the inaugural guest-judge panel. That panel was comprised of Seinfeld himself, TV writer and comedian Tina Fey (who I’m a big fan of) and Eva Longoria.

Although the panel laughed and gushed and offered an endless stream of witticisms and one-liners, there was a notable undercurrent of discomfort that reminded me of something out of “The Twilight Zone.” No, really. Remember that old episode where the all-powerful little boy holds a town hostage? The child is so powerful that, through pure fear, he forces everyone, basically, to worship him and behave in prototypical ways based on how a young boy might interpret adult behavior. In the world of “The Marriage Ref” Jerry Seinfeld is the all-powerful little boy, the comedic legend upon whose whim careers can be made or unmade. Everyone else is the townspeople.

The jokes, at times, seemed so scripted and canned it was almost gag inducing. Case in point, the first couple’s dispute involved the husband’s propensity for over grooming, a trait the wife found effeminate, vain and off-putting. At one point during the panel’s discussion Seinfeld asked Longoria if she found the husband’s over grooming unattractive.

“The point of the argument,” Longoria contends “is that she [the wife] finds it unattractive. If she liked a man that shaved his chest and arms, then it would be a good match.”

“What if your husband said, ‘I like a bald woman’?” Seinfeld asks. “Would you do it?”

Quips Longoria, “Bald where?”

The audience reacts as if this might be the most spontaneous, outrageous moment of the TV season. Right. Call me cynical, but it reeks of scripted contrivance and artificial chemistry. Are we really supposed to believe that was a spontaneous line? Really?

There were four couples in total, but I won’t bother with further details—due, in no small part, to the fact that I quit watching after the second dispute. I initially suspected NBC would give “The Marriage Ref” lots of time to grow and win an audience. I don’t think that anymore; I doubt NBC will have much choice in the matter. I certainly don’t think they’ll have much time; internet response, word-of-mouth and sheer badness will likely kill “The Marriage Ref” in a month or less. I’m tempted to say Jerry Seinfeld can do better but, in all honesty, I was never a fan of his iconic, overrated, long-running sitcom either. Though, admittedly, it was nowhere near as bad as “The Marriage Ref.”

Then again, few shows are.

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