'Mad About You' Reboot: TV Review

Does this relationship comedy feel fresh in 2019? Not so much.
11/20/2019

Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt's Emmy-winning NBC comedy is rebooted on Spectrum Originals with some of its charm intact, but few laughs.

At different points during the first six episodes of Spectrum's reboot/continuation of the semi-classic NBC sitcom Mad About You, both Jamie (Helen Hunt) and Paul (Paul Reiser) Buchman say "shit." They don't say it often and they don't expand any deeper into the catalogue of words you couldn't say on NBC in the '90s, but darned if they don't both say "shit."

That brief paragraph was the result of nearly a half-hour's contemplation about how Spectrum's Mad About You justifies its existence in a TV landscape in which every canceled show believes itself to be just seconds from resurrection. That's the best I've got.

Mad About You ended in 1999 after 164 episodes and 12 Emmys with one of the all-time odd finales that followed the storyline decades into the future as Jamie and Paul broke up and reconnected, while their daughter Mabel grew up to become Janeane Garofalo. The finale ended with a Faith Hill song and the conclusive pronouncement, "These two, if you'll pardon the expression, lived happily ever after," but only because nobody in 1999 could have predicted what TV in 2019 would look like.

Forget about that finale, already more formally experimental than the rest of the show. This new Mad About You Mad About New? Remade About You? — retreats instantly to its familiar theme song (now sung by Lyle Lovett and Kecia Lewis), familiar multicam rhythms and familiar characterizations, rarely generating laughs, but occasionally generating smiles of recognition. Plus, they say "shit" a couple times.

The Spectrum premiere — if you don't have Spectrum as your cable provider, it's gone from Must See to Can't See — begins with a rebooted Mabel (Abby Quinn) preparing to leave the nest for college. She's going to NYU, which is only a few blocks away, but her departure is enough to trigger empty-nest insecurities for Jamie and Paul.

The most peculiar part of using Mabel's college journey as a point of entry for Jamie and Paul is that the thing that is causing the most change for the main characters is a thing that marks virtually no change for viewers. Mabel debuted as a character in the sixth season and was one of those only sporadically relevant TV children, so it's hard to invest deeply in how her absence changes the series when her presence only marginally impacted it. We don't really know what kind of mother Jamie was, so episodes about her extreme clinginess feel thin. We don't really know what kind of father Paul was, so episodes about his struggles to offer advice to his daughter ring false.

Still, it's a reasonable point of return for Reiser, Hunt and showrunner Peter Tolan to take for the reboot. Pre-Mabel, the show focused on a couple so absorbed by their amusing squabbles as a duo that they didn't need a child for complications, and the series returns to those roots in halting fashion as Mabel's presence forces Mad About You to be more initially plot-driven than the original series probably would have wanted it to be.

Around the fourth or fifth episode, you can sense everybody involved recovering the cadences of the loving arguments and disagreements that made Mad About You relatable at its peak. I'm not sure Mad About You gets enough credit for the degree of chemistry between Reiser and Hunt and how it allowed the show to, especially in its first five seasons, have their personalities be so generally at odds without losing their believability as a couple.

A lot of that chemistry remains. Reiser co-created the original series and has continued to steadily mine similar comic veins over the past 20 years, so it's probably not a surprise that his comfort level returns most instantly. Hunt has focused more on dramatic roles and on carving out a productive and admirable career as a director — she helmed the original finale and the reboot premiere — so maybe she requires a small window of acclimating. They're both on the same page, without often being laugh-out-loud funny, for the second half of the season's first binge-friendly stretch of six episodes and there's some enjoyment in watching that.

Reiser's studied ease with the show's comic voice and Hunt's sharp and inquisitive timing provide cover for how little the series is able to do with a lot of other beloved Mad About You faces. John Pankow is back as Ira, who has become an acclaimed restaurateur for some reason and mostly gives the characters a place to congregate other than the Buchman apartment. Anne Ramsay pops up a few times as Jamie's terminally insecure and unsettled sister, but if there was a thing that once made the character amusing — I legitimately don't remember either — it's been lost. Richard Kind does a bit better in his return as Mark, a little adrift without Leila Kenzle's Fran, and there's a later episode in which Mark's testicles are the topic of a running gag that, like the use of the word "shit," probably wouldn't have been allowed as part of Must See TV (at least in the show's early years).

Mad About You developed a remarkable ensemble of recurring characters, who occasionally dominated the proceedings so thoroughly that Hank Azaria, Lisa Kudrow, Cyndi Lauper and Mel Brooks share almost equal billing with Reiser and Hunt in my memories. All are missing and, I believe, unmentioned in these new Spectrum episodes. The absence of Murray is addressed and the attempt to fill the canine-shaped hole in Jamie and Paul's hearts produced one of the few "awww" moments I experienced watching these episodes.

With almost every newly added character, you can sense producers attempting to correct the astonishingly monochromatic original. It's a welcome awareness, however conspicuous it feels.

These days, you clearly don't need a narrative imperative to get a reboot and having a strong reason to come back doesn't guarantee success. I'm looking at you, Murphy Brown. With Mad About You, the necessity doesn't run deeper than, "Wouldn't it be nice to see what the Buchmans are up to?" It's a soft incitement and leads to a soft reboot. It's pretty middle-of-the-road stuff and you never feel like NBC made a mistake in not wanting this reboot, but at least they can say "shit."

Cast: Paul Reiser, Helen Hunt, John Pankow, Richard Kind, Abby Quinn, Anne Ramsay
Creators: Paul Reiser and Danny Jacobson
Showrunner: Peter Tolan
Premieres: Wednesday (Spectrum Originals)