What’s the deal with The Marriage Ref?


I don’t watch Oprah. I do, however, like to sit in front of the TV with my girlfriend while reading a book and getting credit for some quality time well-spent together, though, so I’m occasionally aware of what’s happening on the show. Occasionally, I’m even interested, as when Roger Ebert, whom Oprah Winfrey dated briefly in the early eighties, recently appeared to talk about losing his ability to talk. (“This isn’t the first time Roger Ebert’s been on Oprah, but it’s the first time it’s lasted a full 60 minutes,” I said gleefully as the show began.)1 The other interesting recent thing was Jerry Seinfeld’s curiously defensive, irritated-sounding reaction to Oprah’s question about he why decided to make a new show: “Why can’t I make a show? I see other people making shows. Why can’t I make a show?”

With The Marriage Ref, Seinfeld has answered his own question.

He can’t make a show. He’s got the stroke with NBC execs to get something on the air, but it’s a train wreck, not a television program. Seinfeld was famously described as a show about nothing. The Marriage Ref is seemingly a show about everything. Taking a kitchen-sink approach, they seem to cram every imaginable random segment in there in a desperate attempt to wring entertainment out of an hour that NBC, clearly panicking and scrambling to come up with content after Jay Leno’s move back to late night, would have been better advised to simply devote to static.

For instance, last night’s 60-minute premiere featured a barely relevant but almost certainly expensive visual gag with David Blaine. Announcer Marv Albert stood by to recap unfunny moments we’d already seen. Host Tom Papa made an aside about the dustiness of an unused dining room for the sole apparent purpose of wasting some network time by cutting to Today Show reporter Natalie Morales, who was at the ready with her laptop to drop some dust science straight from Wikipedia on the audience. (Wrinkling her nose, she reported that it’s made up of dead skin cells and dust mite feces, to peals of disgust from the studio audience.) When they rolled a clip for Tina Fey’s new movie, I wasn’t amazed that they were plugging the clearly contractually obligated guest panelists’ projects as would be done on a talk show; I was too busy trying to figure out who the musical guest would be.

Theoretically, the concept of the show is to adjudicate real couples’ marital disputes in a humorous manner. In this, The Marriage Ref is reminiscent of the terrible syndicated Rendez-View program in which Greg Proops and a bunch of C-list comics used to sit around pathetically snarking on people on dates crossed with an old episode of The Joey Bishop Show with Sammy Davis Jr. falling off the couch and spilling his highball in convulsive, sycophantic laughter at a quip from the Chairman.2

One particular segment about a husband who didn’t want to wear his wedding ring while playing pick-up basketball came off as particularly contrived, as they rolled a compilation of him missing shots seemingly solely to lob some easy comedic material to the panel. For all we know, the cutting-room floor is full of footage of him making incredible dunks and three-pointers. With creative editing, you could probably cut together a blooper reel of guest panelist Eva Longoria’s husband Tony Parker throwing bricks and getting stripped of the ball by opponents, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong in the NBA. (Speaking of Eva Longoria, her appearance on this episode made her look more insane and high-maintenance than any episode of Desperate Housewives possibly could.)

With its unholy union of talk show, variety show, and daytime reality show, I honestly don’t know what kind of show The Marriage Ref is supposed to be. Neither, seemingly, does Seinfeld. It’s also telling that he’s passed off hosting duties to the putatively happily and heterosexually married Tom Papa (who nevertheless seems to be auditioning for a show called The Gay Marriage Ref with his every flamboyant mannerism). By taking a spot on the panel instead, Seinfeld clearly isn’t committing to being there every week. Nor should he. I can’t imagine the show being on every week much longer.

1. Seeing Ebert’s wife next to Oprah makes it clear that he definitely has a certain type. After a moment of worry, I was relieved to find out that be panned the first Madea movie.
2. According to Wikipedia, Frank Sinatra never actually appeared on The Joey Bishop Show, though other Rat Packers often dropped in. If only Natalie Morales had been standing by on her laptop to fact-check this.

2 Responses to “What’s the deal with The Marriage Ref?”

  1. There’s some old line about how you know a show is a failure when you get together an interesting cast, but you’d much rather watch a conversation between these people in real life than watch the actual show. Marriage Ref looks like such a failure.

    I haven’t seen a minute of this show, and didn’t plan on doing so given the uniformly terrible reviews. But isn’t an upcoming episode supposed to feature a panel of Larry David, Ricky Gervais and Madonna? I mean, good lord. That could be a train wreck but in a good way. However, while I’d love to see the three of them chat it up, seeing them shoehorned into this terrible format isn’t promising.

    (Ok, maybe not David/Gervais/Madonna chatting as much as it would be David and Gervais just ripping on her.)

  2. Holy crap, that show managed to last two seasons?

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