Jerry Seinfeld’s long-awaited attempt to save NBC, “The Marriage Ref,” is an enormous abomination of a show, a horrific blight of cheese, but there’s some train-wreck theater element to it that compels me to watch again. There’s a throwback vibe to it, something that recalls old-school “Hollywood Squares” or “This Is Your Life” merged uncomfortably with Sally Jesse Raphael or Montel Williams and slapped, inappropriately onto an NBC prime time schedule desperate to fill five hours vacated by Jay Leno (the show would be a fitting complement to Leno’s brand of brain-dead comedy).
The premise is simple: The show follows real-life couples engaged in hopelessly absurd arguments over nothing, really. After each partner pleads his or her case, so to speak, three celebrity panelists weigh in, as does Natalie Morales, one of the newsreaders on the “Today” show, with some factual minutia pertaining to the argument. Host Tom Papa accepts the advice of the panelists and then makes a decision as to which partner wins, an apparently binding decision that the couples agree to abide by in exchange for a wonderful prize. Like an Ebola Carnival cruise.
I should note, also, that Tom Papa is a stand-up comedian with no experience at all in marriage counseling. Not that he’d actually need it, as the premiere episode — which debuted on Sunday night after the Olympics — featured two arguments that were not only wankerville, but so obviously one-sided that only a bonehead would’ve taken sides with the husbands. Just to give you a taste of what sort of monumentally contentious altercations are being had in “The Marriage Ref,” the first argument — between some New Jersey suburban trash — was about whether the husband should be allowed to stuff the deceased family dog and build a shrine in the house in its honor. The second argument, no less ridiculous, was about whether the husband could compel the wife to put a stripper pole up in the bedroom. (I might add, also, and with no offense meant: Nobody wanted to see that woman on a stripper pole.)
How they find these particular couples is something of a mystery (Rikki Lake cast-offs?), as is how they capture the arguments on camera. Putting that implausibility aside, however, the train wreck portion of the show clearly revolves around the commentary from celebrity panelists. These aren’t C-level nobody celebrities, like in old game shows or VH1 series. These are real celebrities — like Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, and Kelly Ripa in the premiere episode — delivering scripted pap seemingly written by failed awards show writers. It’s painfully cheesy pun-speak delivered with all the zeal of a reluctant apology.
The highlight of the first episode was Alec Baldwin — not because he was particularly entertaining or funny, but because Alec Baldwin is the last person who should be providing marriage advice, given the magnificent and public failure of his divorce to Kim Basinger. It also seemed apparent that Baldwin had been roped into the gig by NBC against his will in order to promote “30 Rock.” (That Seinfeld appearance on “30 Rock” would not go unpaid — Tina Fey is also a future panelist.) Baldwin’s jokes were enlivened only by the pained expression that accompanied them, while Jerry Seinfeld attempted to do some leftover material from a stand-up show in 1989.
I had assumed, since NBC was pinning so much hope into the show (which will air on Thursday at 10 p.m., in its regular slot) that “The Marriage Ref” would have some merit to it. It does not. Honestly, it’s not a terrible premise for a show that takes itself even a little seriously — ongoing marital discord being something with which most married people can relate. But these arguments are artificial, cherry-picked to provide the most canned laughter. They are the marital equivalent of inadvertent kicks to the groin on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
And yet, as painful as it was to watch the first episode of “The Marriage Ref,” future celebrity panelists — including the next show, which will feature Larry David, Madonna, and Ricky Gervais — make it almost impossible not to tune in out of morbid curiosity. There’s a incongruous lunacy to it — the act of watching the rich and famous comment on the problems of the white-trash class. It might be offensive if it were even in the slightest sincere or genuine. As it is, it’s just cringe-worthy. And it’s hard to tell who is embarrassing themselves the most: the couples arguing over something outlandishly frivolous or the celebrities badly attempting to engage with it. Still, as long as the celebrities remain A-list(ish), I expect I’ll tune in occasionally, if only to see them squirm under the mawkish material.