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The Marriage Ref: Grounds for Divorce

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Last night, NBC gave a demonstration of the difference between so-awful-it’s-awesome and so-awful-it’s-amazing awful. First came the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, which, after the usual nods to the next Olympic site, final benediction by Olympic officials and emotional performances, morphed into a bizarre comic parody of Canadiana that was like a hallucinogenic trip induced by maple syrup. There was a comic monologue by William Shatner. There was Michael Buble and sexy Mounties. There were dancing hockey pucks and giant beavers. (Someone call the Parents Television Council!) The only thing missing was Terrence and Phillip.

And then, just as the ceremonies were reaching a brilliant crescendo of Canadian self-satire, NBC cut away—at least in the Eastern and Central time zones—to the premiere/preview of Jerry Seinfeld’s The Marriage Ref, the most God-awful mishmash of a comedy-variety show to lead into local news on NBC since immediately before the Olympics.

The first bad sign was the animated intro, in which Seinfeld explained the premise—giving couples a “ref” to adjudicate their arguments. It both gave the show corny, low-rent feel (Seinfeld and his wife looked like the work of a not-very-good sidewalk caricaturist) and ignored the fact that, as Monkey See blogger Linda Holmes pointed out, baseball does not have refs.

From there it just got worse, as a studio audience coughed out forced laughter at a lame monologue by host Tom Papa, who brought out the celeb refs for the night: Seinfeld, Kelly Ripa and Alec Baldwin. (Because when you want to find harmony in your relationships, you ask the guy who left an abusive voicemail to his daughter.) Then came the video profiles of the squabbling couples, both of the my-husband-has-a-crazy-idea school: in the first, hubby had his beloved deceased dog stuffed, and in the second, the husband wanted to install a stripper pole in the bedroom.

The couple each seemed camera-ready—very camera-ready, too camera-ready, either as if they were aspiring actors or had been coached, making the show seem phony even by reality standards. Then “reffing,” which was basically the panel trying improv comedy riffs. (It’s funny, ordinary Americans, because the celebrities are laughing at you! Because you’re idiots!)

Then the couple received their verdict, in an interview segment that had all the drama of watching NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me as a TV show. Then Natalie Morales tossed a few shovels of dirt on the casket of TV journalism by pulling up “fun facts” on how many Americans stuff their pets or install home stripper poles. Then veteran sports announcer Marv Albert recapped the “funniest” moments of the program you just watched. It was as if someone thought that, if you just piled more and more elements on, somehow they would magically turn into an entertaining show.

It was, at least, an interesting object lesson in how TV works. It proved that, if you are Jerry Seinfeld, NBC will put any program you want on the air, and will give you no network notes. For the sake of my fond memories of the sitcom Seinfeld, I am going to make myself believe that Seinfeld knew this, and was deliberately punking the network.

The big winner in all this: Jay Leno. The Marriage Ref may or may not give him a good lead-in on Thursday nights, but already The Jay Leno Show is looking better in comparison.

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