Monday, March 1, 2010

Men are Stupid, But We Love Them Anyway: A Review of "The Marriage Ref"

Men are stupid.

You will be forgiven for believing this is true if all you watch is American television. American sitcoms routinely portray men as being dumb, selfish, boorish and insensitive, and NBC’s “The Marriage Ref” only perpetuates this, with both the men featured wanting what was portrayed as ridiculous, even creepy things.

Each episode of "The Marriage Ref" spotlights two couples, and three celebrity judges weigh in on their predicament. The host then beams the couples into the studio and delivers the verdict. The premiere episode, aired immediately after the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, concentrated on a man who wanted to keep his pet dog stuffed in their home and another man who wanted to install a stripper pole in their bedroom for his wife to use.

The stripper pole guy tried to play off his request as an exercise tool for his wife, and he was eager for his wife to show off for him. She was not thrilled, to put it mildly, and a large part of the humor was derived from the clips of the wives expressing their outrage at the ridiculousness of their husbands’ wishes.

This was underscored whenever Natalie Morales, the NBC "Today Show" anchor, would state statistics at the host’s disposal, like on the number of Americans who stuff their pets every year (1,000, surprisingly low). She would also tack on information about the couple and their particular issue not shown in the clip; the dog in question, for example, was known for being a menace, chewing up furniture, and even peeing on guests.

Of course, even though Morales was there to lend some credibility to the show and to put the situation in context, if not bolster a participant’s argument, her neutrality was quickly swept away by a raft of jokes from the panel and the host. Morales is largely superfluous, as her role can be absorbed by the host or even included elsewhere in the show. Host Tom Papa is not funny, repeating the same standard jokes, the kind of canned lines that anyone with a corny manner can pull off.

Despite all this, the show was quite funny. The premise is simple and easily modified, and it’s clear that the show is well made, that a lot of thought went into it. The opening is a shortened version of how the idea came to pass: A fight between creator Jerry Seinfeld and his wife in front of a friend led him to ask said friend to be the referee. The characters are cartoons, and a baseball theme quickly takes over. Cute. Then we open to the introductions. It appears to be an old-fashioned game show, as the celebrities smile on and joke.

A couple is then introduced, and a series of both partners explain their problem, sometimes in one-on-one sessions with the camera, sometimes in voiceover. There is always a confrontation, and this is the funny part. The clips are always well-edited, and the couples are chosen because they are funny. They have great faces, they have great lines, and in both these cases, it was absolutely obvious that the wives would win.

Each judge weighs in, usually with a joke, and they banter some more. The host joins in, then flips to Morales, then renders judgment. Preview of next couple, commercial, and the process repeats. But there’s still a few minutes left! Why not go to a recap? The sports metaphor reappears, as Marv Albert is announced, and then he appears next to fancy generic sports lettering where he says the typical line about the sponsor, followed by a joke. Then the winning highlights, one from each clip, are played back. But we’ve seen this before, more than once; they are milking the maximum funny potential. It works in this instance, as the expression and the line chosen are meant to be sealed into memory, and everyone laughs again. But it’s filler, nothing more, completely unnecessary. The commercial highlighting the season’s guest stars is much more appealing.

Although this is very much billed as “Jerry Seinfeld’s show”, he doesn’t appear in subsequent episodes, but the mix of NBC-approved stars does look quite fun, and the episode alone is often much funnier and much more amusing than a random episode of any of NBC’s comedies. The disagreements are silly; we don’t think for a minute that either of these unions are troubled, and both couples featured in this episode have been married for a number of years (they also appeared childless). The show actively promotes marriage, as the show opens and closes with a retort effectively saying that these relationships are worth fighting for and that people should stick them out (preferably with a marriage ref on hand).

The wholesomeness works, as does the celebrity panel. Both couples receive a prize at the end, but that’s not really the point; nor does it matter who the refs rule for, as these couples can do whatever they want. But it’s just fun to peek into someone’s else life, and the comments are quite funny. It’s very clear that the show was engineered well, with a broad base, and the issues mined are both current and evergreen. The men try to come across as being respectful to their wives and enlightened in these sorts of things, as even panelist Alec Baldwin jokes, but they are still every much the doofus next door.

"The Marriage Ref" could use a few tweaks, like nixing Morales and possibly the recap at the end, but it will always remain lighthearted, wholesome, and thoroughly middle-American. Congratulations, NBC, looks like you’ve found yourself your next hit.

1 comment:

John said...

When I saw the words "Natalie Morales," I nearly had a heart attack. But then I remembered that the Natalie Morales who anchors the Today Show is not the same person as the Natalie Morales who starred in The Middleman and is now on White Collar.