Before there was Must-See TV, there was Mad About You.
Twenty-five years ago this fall, NBC assembled the foundation of what would be one of the best and most popular programming blocs in TV history. Seinfeld was already entrenched at 9 P.M., while Mad About You — a sitcom starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as the happily married Paul and Jamie Buchman — was entering its second season leading off what had long been TV’s most profitable night (and its third season overall). To that duo, NBC added powerhouse hospital drama ER and a comedy about six twentysomething friends called, well, Friends. The newcomers were such instant phenomenons that room had to be created for potential new hits. So for the sake of the likes of The Single Guy, Caroline in the City, and Veronica’s Closet, the Buchmans drew the short straw. The show ran another four seasons — Hunt won Emmys for each of those four, in fact — while bouncing around less-heralded nights on the schedule, filling holes as needed. It concluded with a divisive final season where Paul and Jamie, now parents(*), edged near divorce, then actually split up in a time-hopping finale before reconciling when daughter Mabel was an adult. We were promised that they would live happily ever after.
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(*) Mad About You wasn’t the first TV series primarily about a childless married couple — Reiser once hoped to end the show either without the Buchmans having kids, or with Paul meeting his new baby for the first time — but it was still an anomaly when it debuted in 1992. It remains so 27 years later, even as social stigmas about not having children have faded a bit. The most prominent show to check the same boxes in the years since was King of Queens, and that ended back in 2007.
In Peak TV, what is dead may never die, and the zombie television trend has finally come for Mad About You, which has Paul and Jamie still happily married all these years later(*), and dealing with empty-nest anxiety after Mabel (now played by Abby Quinn) begins her freshman year of college. And in what feels like a sadly appropriate echo of the series’ nomad status in its later seasons, this revival — perhaps we should call it Mad About, Nu? — returns not on NBC, not on another broadcast network, not on TV Land nor Pop, not on a familiar streaming service that might be looking to add to its library of episodes from the Nineties. No, the only home Mad About You could find all these years later — despite bringing back Reiser, Hunt, and several of their former co-stars (John Pankow, Richard Kind, and Anne Ramsay all make appearances as, respectively, Paul’s cousin Ira, Paul’s friend Mark, and Jamie’s sister Lisa) was on Spectrum Cable. Not a Spectrum subscriber? No Buchmans for you!
(*) Among the downsides to TV’s current obsession with revivals is the way many of them have to work around series finales that were quite definitive back in the day. Will & Grace and Roseanne at least threw in jokes about how things originally ended. Mad About You simply pretends its old finale never happened, and doesn’t discuss it at all.
In an era where every half-remembered show is being resurrected, the difficulty that this one — once popular, critically acclaimed, and award-winning — had in finding a new home might suggest there’s not much demand for it. (It’s either that or the fact that its rights are owned by a studio, Sony, that doesn’t have its own affiliated TV network — nor its own streaming channel, having sold its stake in Crackle earlier this year.) Nor do the revival’s early episodes suggest there is much need for this to exist.
The revival kicks off with Mabel heading off to begin life at NYU, and thus with Jamie freaking out about her baby moving away. As sage building superintendent Mr. Wicker (Jerry Adler) points out, the campus is literally five blocks from the Buchmans’ palatial apartment, and Mabel’s parents swing by her dorm room so often and easily, she might as well still be at home.
That the stakes are so small isn’t a problem in and of itself. The original series was, like Seinfeld, often a show about nothing — early episodes involved the Buchmans shopping for a couch, or getting locked in the bathroom — that got by on the easy chemistry between Reiser and Hunt. It’s that Mabel’s relative absence puts both of her parents into a tizzy, so that the Buchmans are at their most frantic the first time we’re seeing them after 20 years. The early episodes feel sweaty — sometimes literally, like a subplot about Jamie experiencing the symptoms of menopause at the worst possible moments — in a way that doesn’t serve Reiser and Hunt well.
New showrunner Peter Tolan (who was working on The Larry Sanders Show during Mad About You‘s original run, and later co-created Rescue Me) also . On the one hand, Mark’s new wife — and Jamie’s new best friend — Tonya (Kecia Lewis) is not only a good straight woman for all the Buchman mania, but a welcome African-American face on a show that, like most of NBC’s Nineties sitcoms, presented a very white vision of New York. (For that matter, most of the new characters we meet — like Kimia Behpoornia as the editor at Paul’s production company — are people of color.) But attempts to do a culture clash between our aging heroes and a woke new generation — like Paul being called out as sexist by Mabel’s film class, or former acclaimed documentarian Paul now having to pay the bills making commercials for senior-friendly products like a pocket catheter — go over as clumsily as you might expect(*).
(*) Reiser was granted better material in this area with his guest stint on Season Two of Netflix’s The Kominsky Method, where he played the much older — with a gray ponytail to compensate for his disappearing hairline — boyfriend of Michael Douglas’ daughter. Season Two of that show was mostly a disappointment, but Reiser was a hoot.
Starting with the fourth episode, though, Mabel is mostly relegated to the sidelines, and the show is better for it. That’s not a knock on Abby Quinn, who — like Janeane Garofalo as the adult Mabel in the original finale — does a nice job of evoking both her fictional parents. But once the show and her parents accept that Mabel is doing just fine at school and doesn’t need to be checked in on as much, things calm down significantly, and the focus returns to where the series was always at its best: on the ways that Paul and Jamie do and don’t get along. The fourth episode, for instance, sees Jamie reviving an argument they’ve been having for over 25 years about why Paul never thinks to get her a toothpick when he gets one himself as they leave a restaurant. It’s completely pointless, but also the exact kind of fight many veteran couples will recognize the rough shape of.
The later episodes aren’t hugely funny — I felt something resembling a laugh from a spit-take Hunt does in an episode featuring the return of Paul’s mother Sylvia (Cynthia Harris) — but they’re pleasantly nostalgic in a way the frantic earlier ones never quite achieve. It’s about what you might have hoped for from a Mad About You revival, even if the whole thing feels unnecessary — particularly confined to such an out-of-the-way corner of the Peak TV universe. Being on cable finally allows the Buchmans to swear on occasion, but the Venn diagram of Mad fans waiting to hear Jamie say, “I don’t give a shit” probably doesn’t have a ton of overlap with those who also subscribe to Spectrum.
The first six episodes of Mad About You premiere November 20th on Spectrum On Demand, with additional episodes arriving on December 18th. I’ve seen the first six.
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