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Saturday, November 23, 2019


SPECTRUM TV has just posted the first six of twelve half hour shows reprising the wildly successful 1990’s TV series Mad About You.  The original series made Helen Hunt a star, and the new set reveals her still married to Paul Reiser twenty years later, their daughter Mabel just going off to NYU five blocks away.  Susie and I were big fans of the original show and actually named one of our cats after the dog on the show, Murray.  So as soon as the first six episodes were available we sat down to watch.  It has been a letdown for both of us, and it took me a while to figure out why.

The stars are of course older.  Helen Hunt has aged splendidly, Paul Reiser not so much.  But then, Susie and I are also older, and addicted to movies with aging stars, so it isn’t that.  The dialogue is just as snappy, and the daughter is exactly the sort of person you would imagine the two of them would produce, so it isn’t that either.  But there are, I finally realized, two problems that make the episodes a bit of a drag, despite Helen Hunt’s heroic efforts to salvage them.

The first problem is that in the intervening twenty year dramatic hiatus, while Helen Hunt’s character has matured and changed [one of the episodes is a hilarious riff on menopause], Paul Reiser’s has not.  Traits that were cute in a young man are simply irritating in a man of fifty or so.  I found myself wondering, “Why has she stayed with him all this time?”

The second problem is even more interesting from a lit crit point of view.  In the original show, there was an electric sexual tension.  The characters bickered but were so attracted to one another that one knew they would fall into each other’s arms, if not on camera, then as soon as an episode ended.  This is a standard narrative device of the romantic novel – think Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  But almost as soon as the new series starts, we are told that the characters have not had sex in a while, which makes the bickering not electric but just  … bickering.  The characters have been married for twenty years and yet in that time seem not to have developed real tenderness or affection.

Still and all, they do have a new dog, who looks promising, so we shall continue to watch.

Now, if I could just talk to someone about Jar Jar Binks.


s. wallerstein said...

Helen Hunt is a very talented actress. She's in one of the funniest movies I can recall, As Good As It Gets. I'm a bit like Melvin myself.

I've never seen the TV show in question, either in its original or its current version, but maybe her co-star just isn't as talented as she is.

Michael Llenos said...

No one should be so hard on Paul Reiser. He was killed by one of the Aliens that has acid for blood. Although, in one episode of Mad-About-You, he claims he never saw the movie.

Charles Pigden said...

Surely there can be no two opinions about the general awfulness of Jar Jar Binks!

Charles Pigden said...

Also although Paul Rieser gets killed by one of the aliens, his character is richly deserving of that fate.

More seriously Rieser delivers a standout performance in the role of a slimily ambitious corporate executive though not perhaps quite as good as a Miguel Ferrer in Robocop. (Ferrer's final scene in Robocop is particularly amusing. He Is celebrating his recent successes by snorting cocaine in the company of a couple of hookers. But being thoroughly coked up he's running off at the mouth and talking to them as if they were women of his own class who he is trying to seduce. 'What I really value in a woman is intellect blah blah blah'. When the chief villain turns up for what is clearly going to be a hit, the assassin mercifully dismisses the hookers with the curt line 'Bitches leave'. As they hurry out the door one of them turns to Ferrer's character and makes the 'call me' sign' though it should've been obvious to all concerned that he is unlikely to be calling anyone ever again.)

There is a fun book to be written about the satire of corporate culture in the 80s and 90s action SF movies but it has probably already been done. said...

Who the hell is Jar Jar Binks? " What did he know and when did he know it?" Probably a Russian agent, the dirty bastard. (always striving for a bit of levity).

Anonymous said...

Helen Hunt's a good actress but that show was mediocre at best. Paul Rieser was a great comedian but was reduced to a role with no depth or smarts like, say, Seinfeld.

Charles Pigden said...

The conventional wisdom is that Jar Jar Binks was the result of a mind control conspiracy on the part of Russian agents who wanted to ruin the Star Wars franchise by poisoning the brain of George Lucas, causing to him to create the most irritating character in movie history. We now know, of course, that the mind control was perpetrated by Ukrainian agents seeking to discredit Putin by making it *seem* as if he was out to destroy the Star Wars franchise when he is in fact a dedicated fan who was as upset about Jar Jar Binks as everybody else. said...

Thanks for the clarification my dear Pigden. I suspected as much!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I must say that makes more sense than any other explanation I have seen.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

As a long-time Star War nerd, this comment thread tickles me pink. As much as the serious posts about philosophy and politics, it's fun posts and comments threads like these that keep me coming back. Non-readers of this blog do not have any idea on how much they are missing out!

Jim said...

Professor Wolff -

Within entertainment circles it is well known that Paul Reiser "borrowed" the concept of "Mad About You" from another sitcom entitled "Anything But Love" written by and starring Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis. I never liked Paul Reiser, and "Aliens" satisfied my desire for his demise. Helen Hunt is more or less beyond reproach. But I will take bickering between Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis over Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt any day. Literally, any day.

-- Jim

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Fascinating. Where do you folks come up with this info? Thank you.

Brian said...

I'm embarrassed by how much pop culture I consume, but in any case, the phenomenon that Professor Wolff notices here is one that afflicts many sequels, reboots, etc. The Avengers TV show from the sixties featured delightfully flirtatious byplay between the stars, Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg; in the movie version, Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman merely snarled at each other. The I Spy TV series was kept afloat through the rapport of Bill Cosby and Robert Culp; in a TV movie version made thirty years later, all they did was bicker meanly. Even the lousiest episodes of the original Star Trek series were enlivened by the banter of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, but in the first Star Trek movie, Spock had become a misanthrope and refused to banter with anyone. In Gilmore Girls, Lorelai and Luke have a sparkling, sparring chemistry that recalls the classic romantic comedies of the 1930s, but in the recent reboot, they seem to be bored with each other.

My guess is that screenwriters, having been told that drama requires "conflict," all too often interpret this in a one-dimensional way, not realizing that onscreen conflict can be warm and fun and exciting. (But this doesn't explain why the writers of the original series didn't fall into the same trap.)

s. wallerstein said...


I haven't seen the TV shows that you mention, but isn't the weakness of much of current pop culture due in part at least to the way that it strives not to offend anyone?

Let's take As Good As it Gets, which I refer to above. Melvin (the Jack Nicholson character) is homophobic, misogynist, anti-animal, uses his economic power to "buy" the character played by Helen Hunt (Carol) and besides, there is an appreciable age difference between the Melvin and Carol, and a male romantic lead character who is appreciably older than the female romantic character is frowned upon these days. I realize that as the movie goes on, Melvin overcomes his homophobia and hatred for animals, but could you even make a movie these days where the male protagonist (who is not a villain) is homophobic at the beginning of the movie?

The need to not offend anyone colors all of a work of art or of culture. It emasculates it (if I can be allowed to use the word "emasculate" metaphorically) and it dulls the creative energy of the authors.