Paul and Jamie Buchman were always trying characters, but in the first go-around of former Must See TV staple Mad About You, their neuroses balanced each other out. Powerhouse PR exec Jamie (Helen Hunt) was sympathetic to filmmaker Paul’s occasional lack of focus, while Paul (Paul Reiser) could be laid-back about Jamie’s high-strung tendencies. Mad About You’s real draw was that it was focused solely on its central relationship, not just the will-they/won’t-they part. Jamie would ask which earrings she should wear before going out, Paul would answer, she’d pick the other ones, and he’d respond, “Well, that’s what I’m here for,” deftly summing up the complexities of marriage in a single comedic scene. But absence hasn’t made love grow fonder for the Mad About You revival: Paul and Jamie are so awful in their return that it’s hard to remember why we liked watching them every week in the first place.
As with the return of another NBC sitcom, Will & Grace, the revival has a hurdle to get over: namely, a pretty perfect finale that makes its return superfluous. The new Will & Grace broke the fourth wall in its first episode to tell viewers to just forget about that other ending. According to the Mad About You finale, “The Final Frontier,” which aired in 1999, we know that Paul and Jamie break up eventually (and get back together eventually)—so is this breakup ahead of us? Behind us?
At least we know where we are in the stages of the Buchmans’ life cycle: Their beloved and only child, Mabel, is about to head out for college, so we are re-introduced to the married couple as empty nesters, and the adjustments that would accompany that transition. Except they’re really only almost empty-nesters, as Mabel is headed just five blocks away to NYU, making it easy for her super-attached and compulsive parents to visit much too often. Jamie has been at home for 16 years, probably becoming the type of PTA parent who sends out a plethora of daily emails, while Paul runs the same type of small filmmaking shop that he did in the original’s first days. Paul’s cousin Ira (John Pankow) is back onboard. He’s divorced from Cyndi Lauper, owns a successful Italian restaurant, and is in love with a beautiful Italian woman. Meanwhile Jamie’s sister, Lisa (Anne Ramsay), is now a housesitter to the Manhattan stars. Mark and Fran are divorced, but fortunately Richard Kind is still around to attend the Buchmans’ bagel brunches. There’s even a new dog.
Some of these interactions, like Ira pushing pasta and Mark waxing rhapsodic about divorce, now that he’s happy with his second wife, are comfortably homey, with the Buchmans’ cluttered living room as familiar to many viewers as Friends’ Central Perk. Reiser, especially, fits right back into the old set; while he’s been doing transformative work lately on shows like Red Oaks and Stranger Things, here one wonders why he bothered. Hunt is a little less familiar, a bit more brittle—after all those years at home, Jamie decides to use the MSW she somehow earned in the midst of everything and go back to work. (Although even someone with a passing knowledge of social work should know that the people Jamie will be treating are called “clients,” not “patients,” and would not call her Dr. Jamie, since she’s not actually a doctor.) Naturally this new undertaking leads almost immediately to Jamie overstepping with an elderly client (Cloris Leachman). But you have to wonder whether the woman who destroyed her child’s bed upon discovering she left for college without making it should be treating anyone.
As with the Will & Grace reunion, we want to believe that people get better with time, that our edges soften, our anxieties lessen. That change is actually possible. So it’s downright disheartening to have the Buchmans devolve into a 24-hour argument over a toothpick. Even after umpteen years together, Jamie resents it when Paul takes a toothpick while leaving a restaurant without offering her one. As if she is not a grown-ass fiftysomething woman capable of getting her own toothpick. Lest you think this is an exaggeration about a blowup over such a small incident, the fourth episode is called, in fact, “The Toothpick.”
Maybe that’s the biggest hurdle about this Mad About You: It seems as if people were excited to come back, but didn’t know what they wanted to say. The old Mad About You was able to craft full engaging episodes about life’s mundanity: In season three’s “Purseonea,” Jamie’s and Lisa’s bags got switched, so by the end of the day Jamie was a wreck, and Lisa was as well put together as Jamie usually is. “The Conversation,” an uninterrupted 20-minute take of Paul and Jamie talking in front of baby Mabel’s door as they attempt to sleep-train her, got mixed reviews, but at least it was trying for something. This Mad About You seems to be grappling for plot points, and who knows what, in fact, will stick. Ira’s long-lost son? Paul’s mom’s new boyfriend? Meanwhile, we get episodes featuring Mabel drafting a restraining order against her mother, Jamie’s hot flashes, and Paul losing a hotshot new client due to his own carelessness.
The second half of this 12-episode season will become available in mid-December on Spectrum. Mad About You also uses the fourth-wall technique to promise that things will get bumpy in that second half, possibly alluding to that looming breakup. Maybe increasingly complex material will offer more for Reiser and Hunt to dig into. As it is, it’s hard to believe that Mabel didn’t take advantage of college to get a bit farther away.