[a] show that deserves to be more kindly remembered than it is
Mad About You reviewed by Brian Slade
American sitcoms were having a golden time in the 1990s. As we said a tearful farewell to the gang at Cheers, the top of the range spin-off Frasier hit the ground running, Seinfeld was in full flow and Friends established itself amongst the leading shows with the likes of Everybody Loves Raymond and Will and Grace still to come. One show that seems to rarely get syndication in the UK gets lost among such successful company but boasted a string of awards across its eight seasons with guest stars queueing up to join the leading performers – the gentle comedy about the life of a filmmaker and his PR wife, Mad About You.
Paul Buchmann (Paul Reiser) has worked hard to become a successful documentary filmmaker. His success has seen him meet the love of his life and settle into a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York. That love of his life is Jamie (Helen Hunt), herself a hard-working PR worker who has worked through a number of jobs to achieve her success. The pair have been married five months when the show starts as together, along with their dog Murray, they battle to keep a happy marriage while handling the demands of two very fast-paced career choices in the city that never sleeps.
Jamie and Paul met in 1989, revealed in a season one flashback episode. Their first encounter came at a newsstand where they both look to buy the final available copy of the Sunday Times. Jamie drops a ticket for her dry cleaning while she tries to make a case for her getting that final paper with the absurd excuse of her parents’ obituaries appearing in it after they died in an earthquake. While at work the next day, smitten Paul tracks her down at her office having retrieved her dry cleaning and gone through 33 floors worth of receptionists trying to find Jamie with the simple description of her as pushy and pretty.
The retrospective episode coming mid-series did an excellent job at shining a light on the two lead personalities. Paul is the more laid back optimistic of the two. Jamie is a more hardened character. When they meet, freshly dumped from another relationship she is wary of Paul’s good nature…he questions, ‘why do you keep looking for something wrong?’ She lets her barriers down and is not disappointed.
The likeability of the two lead characters was one of the keys to the success of Mad About You across its eight seasons. They are both strong and funny with them very much as a duo rather than a comedy lead and their less funny partner. The challenges of a relationship in Manhattan while both holding down two full-on careers is at the core of the seven initial seasons, but the intelligent writing ensures that the viewer never tires of the basic sitcom format. The guest stars were an intriguing element throughout its run as we see connections with other sitcoms abound. In that first season retrospective episode, Lisa Kudrow appears briefly as a failed date for Paul. However, Kudrow reappears on many occasions as a waitress named Ursula Buffett, the twin of her more well-known character Phoebe in Friends.
There’s a further familiar face that appears in the first season, when it is revealed that Paul is still subletting his old bachelor pad. When he goes to speak to the current tenant it turns out to be a gentleman by the name of Kramer, indeed played by Michael Richards. There’s plenty of debate as to the viability of the apparent Seinfeld crossover, but Richards’ appearance is one of many guest appearances that makes a very rich casting tapestry for Mad About You. Of the most established supporting cast, Richard Kind is a particular success as Dr Mark Devanow, husband – and soon ex-husband – of Jamie’s best friend Fran (Leila Kenzle).
Mel Brooks adds his comedy weight to the show with a number of appearances as Paul’s eccentric Uncle Phil and Carol Burnett won an Emmy for her portrayal of Jamie’s mother, Theresa. Sitcom stars from across the networks and generations cameoed at times including Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond), Ellen de Generes (Ellen) and William Christopher and Jamie Farr (M*A*S*H). Highlight of the cameos however must have been the meeting of two of the most opposite styles of comedy, when an eccentric billionaire tracks Paul down to make a video of his life. Throwing lavish gifts upon Paul and Jamie, such as a performance by Pavarotti in their apartment, the billionaire is actually keener on their company than the filming, but it’s almost a perfect sitcom episode. The billionaire Freddie Statler is played by movie comedy king Jerry Lewis, complete with facial and vocal craziness, while Paul employs a cameraman to assist – in this case Warren, played by deadpan, expressionless comic Steven Wright. Paul and Jamie are almost bit characters in the episode as Lewis and Wright make the ultimate polar-opposite double act.
Towards the end of the seven seasons, Paul and Jamie have a daughter, Mabel, albeit in the episode when Jamie is in hospital giving birth, Paul has to break into the hospital via a back door due to a media scrum taking place, Bruce Willis having been admitted for a concussion injury while filming his latest movie – another brief but very effective cameo. Mabel’s arrival is the connecting tissue that allowed Mad About You to reappear in 2019 for one more 12-epsiode run as the Buchman’s dealt with the departure of their daughter to college.
Mad About You isn’t always recalled with the kind of fervour that commemorates some of its sister comedies like Seinfeld or Friends, but its charm and list of awards suggest it’s a harsh treatment. Although based on Reiser’s stand-up comedy, Hunt led the awards taking multiple successes when the show was in its prime, and Mel Brooks managed three Emmy awards for his four appearances. For the obsessive repeats of Friends, Mad About You is a somewhat less eccentric and more relatable show that deserves to be more kindly remembered than it is.
Published on January 11th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.