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TV Tonight: Reiser Falls

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Paul Reiser is returning to NBC tonight, and with that I hereby pledge to make this the last time I will use the NBC “Make it 1997 again by science or magic” reference from 30 Rock. Frankly, though, the time period that The Paul Reiser Show made me think of first was not the mid-’90s glory days of hit sitcoms like Mad About You. It made me think of the very early 2000s.

And not in a good way.

The early part of the 21st century was around the time that broadcast networks were starting to get good and seriously scared of cable. As shows like The Sopranos started to draw network-sized audiences (paying ones at that), broadcasters started seeing cable more as a potential direct competitor. There was a lot of talk about how network could possibly compete with the content and format freedoms of cable–especially at NBC, which saw channels like HBO et al. as a threat to its reputation as “the quality network” too.

So this was the time when old-line networks started to look for their own versions of cable hits. CBS aired the godawful mob drama Falcone. NBC, meanwhile put on the not-quite-as-godawful (but still weak in comparison) mob drama Kingpin; and it tried to engineer its own PG-rated Sex and the City with Leap of Faith. You can judge how well this worked by how well you remember any of these shows.

All of this is a long, historically framed way of saying that the dreadful Paul Reiser Show managed to make me feel sad about two different past time periods at once. This time around, NBC is taking to star of a not-quite-as-well-loved-as-Seinfeld sitcom and trying to make its own Curb Your Enthusiasm. (The pilot, in fact, hangs a light on this by having Reiser meet with Larry David, who supposedly is up for the same game-show-hosting job that Reiser is.) Paul Reiser plays Paul Reiser, an at-loose-ends celebrity hanging out with his friends and trying to handle late-in-life fatherhood.

The first problem here is casting. Curb has the built-in appeal of persona: not only was it David’s first series since Seinfeld, but David famously based George Costanza on his own cranky sensibility. Even if you were a fan of Mad About You, have you often wondered what Paul Reiser would be like in real (or “real”) life? I wager you have not. The answer, though, for the purposes of this sitcom, is not a hilariously inappropriate curmudgeon like Curb’s David, but rather a generically kvetchy everyman.

It’s the classic network failure to commit: the full David would be deemed too “unrelatable” for audiences. So instead, we get a well-meaning, slightly irritable guy with friends and a marriage and a kids like you, except that he’s famous. Which ironically makes him actually less relatable—people connect with David because he feels things they have, but more extremely—and yet less interesting.

(And it’s not helped by the intro, in which Reiser talks about how his life situation now is being recognized by strangers for Mad About You, but needing something to do now, because “I’m not dead yet.” Yeah, Paul: I’ll watch your show every week just to alleviate your personal boredom.)

The Reiser show does have one good idea as its premise: namely, that married men middle-aged and older don’t really have their own friends. They end up with the husbands of their wives’ friends, the dads of their kids’ friends, and so on. (Note: this idea does not have to be universally true to work, it just has to be coherent.) The problem is, as a buddy comedy (and at least early on, the friends are more the focus than the family here), Reiser looks pretty much like every other randomly-assembled group of sitcom buddies, drawn from well-worn types: the nebbish, the straight-laced family man, the funny guy with the Persian accent.

The final problem here was execution: the episodes sent to critics relied on so many middle-aged-buddies tropes (the competitiveness, the family obligations, the sudden drop-ins) that watching was just a chore. The Larry David lunch scene, for instance, left me longingly wondering how well Curb Your Enthusiasm would have done it. Reiser does have a perplexed charm in the show, and I could see him doing well in an ensemble situation (I’m thinking, say, Ed O’Neill in Modern Family). But Reiser needs to find the right role. “Paul Reiser” isn’t it.