“The Marriage Ref” teaches us that when settling marital issues, the wife is always right. NBC’s new reality show features real couples in each episode. Unable to solve their own disputes, they turn to a rotating panel of three celebrity judges (in the pilot episode, Jerry Seinfeld, Kelly Ripa and Alec Baldwin) to weigh in on their problems. Host Tom Papa makes the final call, deciding whether the man or woman deserves to win the argument. The arguments are definitely funny, but the judges (especially Seinfeld) disappoint.
In the first episode, Greg from Gainesville, Ga. requests that his wife perform on a stripper pole that he wants to install in their bedroom, while Kevin from New York wants to honor his beloved dead dog by taxidermy. Greg and Dianah have been married for nine years, Kevin and Danielle for 14. These are solid relationships, and the disputes are minor. While their arguments are comically over-the-top, the show takes care to select couples that are relatively normal. Rational people do irrational things—“The Marriage Ref” works to lampoon these situations and “save the day” by the end of the episode.
Reality-TV romance met its antithesis last year when “Jon and Kate Plus 8” introduced reality-TV divorce. The mission statement of “The Marriage Ref” is to intervene before couples can no longer laugh about their differences. If only “The Marriage Ref” had stepped in, Jon would have never donned the Ed Hardy tees that so ominously forecast his future, and Kate wouldn’t have had to declare “I’m a new woman!” week after week in People Magazine.
Seinfeld produces the show, and has been publicly credited as the creative mind responsible for the idea. He also lends his comedic talents to the judging panel but, surprisingly, is the weakest of the group. Baldwin and Ripa have mild success in offering their Randy-and-Paula perspective, but Seinfeld struggles to command anyone’s attention. I kept waiting for him to take charge of the debate but he had said almost nothing by the end of the show. Perhaps he is trying not to take the spotlight off Papa—whom he handpicked—in what could be a breakout role. However, I have a hard time seeing this show develop real staying power with Papa making the calls.
The weakest aspect of the show, by far, is the title sequence. Animated versions of Seinfeld, a female significant other, and Papa play baseball against each other to represent their marital battle. Jerry’s woman tags him out at the plate. Papa calls him out, confirming the well-known fact that a man can never be right in an argument with his wife. Unfortunately, these cartoons are horribly drawn. If you think this is an unnecessary critique, watch for yourself. The animation is crude, the baseball metaphor is distracting, and the purpose of the entire sequence is inexplicable. Seriously, the opening is bizarre enough to make you think deeply about the other things you could be doing with half an hour of your life.
“The Marriage Ref,” unlike most marriages, starts poorly. Don’t stick around to see how this marriage lasts.