Test Pilot: File #12, The Marriage Ref

Test Pilot #12: The Marriage Ref

Debut date: February 28, 2010

Series legacy: One of the worst television series to hit the airwaves in the last few years, a signal that we should all respect Jerry Seinfeld less.

Test Pilot is back! It’s a new year, but the historical pilot analysis continues! In case you have forgotten or are new to the site, here’s the general primer: In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series. I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.

This is our third quartet of series and this go-around, things are a bit different. Instead of discussing the medium’s canon (like we did in the first four files) or a very specific genre (as we did with teen dramas in the most recent files), we are going to dive into the history of one television network: The National Broadcasting Company, or NBC.

Now feels like the perfect time to discuss NBC. The sale to Comcast has been completed, Zucker is finally gone and they have a brand-new, Peacock-less logo. NBC is obviously trying to signify this time as a new, fresh start so it makes sense to look back on this terrible era they’re just moving out of.

NBC has been discussed, derided and destroyed for nearly a decade, as what was once the most popular network in America that millions of people grew up loving has now been turned into the laughing-stock of the industry thanks to a regular dose of poor decision making.But it is really easy to pull up pictures of Ben Silverman and Jeff Zucker and use MS Paint to caption them with “FAIL” and perhaps even easier to point to YouTube clips of The Event and Outsourced as obvious reasons for why NBC sucks.

While I would certainly enjoy those activities, I’m hoping that discussing certain series and their development over the next few months will help in connecting NBC’s failures together into some sort of pattern. At this point, it is still fairly unclear as to why NBC continued to make the stupid decisions it has made. I’m looking for something more than “bad management” or simply “Jeff Zucker.” Of course, I might not find those answers, particularly in this admittedly limited scope of series and contextualization. But I do think a minor backtrack through the NBC archives will allow us to highlight why specific series are examples of NBC’s errant decision-making and perhaps even figure out if they were given a raw deal because of the stench NBC has been putting off for nearly a decade now.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that while these four entries will most certainly follow the familiar framework established from the beginning of this feature – the newbie/veteran perspective, discussion of various contexts – I have to imagine that there will be an increased focus on the historical and industrial contexts.

Here we are folks, at the end of our nice little journey into the depths of NBC’s, well, depths. When I picked this group of series, I figured the posts would be full of vitriol from the beginning, but our thoughts on Joey, Heroes and Knight Rider have been friendlier to NBC than I initially expected. This doesn’t mean that all the things that have happened to NBC over the past decade haven’t been self-inflicted or that the Peacock will continue to be a terribly-operated network with problematic vision and an unfortunate emphasis on the business over content. Nevertheless, looking back over some of NBC’s biggest disasters have given me some new perspective on NBC and how difficult it is to run a major broadcast network in the 21st century. NBC’s made some tragically stupid mistakes, but sometimes, even with all the right decisions and people on a good project, it still doesn’t work out.

Thus, I guess it’s fitting we finish with one final look into the NBC’s programming back-catalog with The Marriage Ref. This is a series with some really great talent behind it and a slightly interesting conceit (let’s just say, I’ve heard of worse ideas for television programs). Executive produced by Jerry Seinfeld, hosted by well-liked comedian Tom Papa and guest-starring all sorts of famous people, from Alec Baldwin, Madonna and Ricky Gervais to Seinfeld himself, Ref feels like a decent idea on paper. Not a great idea, but a decent one.

Unfortunately for NBC and those people who actually tuned in to watch The Marriage Ref when it debuted after the 2010 Winter Olympics, television programs are not made on paper. And when you move Ref from any other context that isn’t just “on paper,” the series is one of the worst television programs I have ever seen. Literally, The Marriage Ref is fucking awful. It doesn’t even hold a candle to the worst unscripted programming VH1 has to offer, that’s how bad it is. I almost decided not to use Ref as the final entry in this little bracket of programming because I didn’t want to have to watch the first episode again. I was moderately harsh on NBC for its handling of the Knight Rider reboot a few weeks ago, but there’s very little that makes me angrier than thinking about or talking about The Marriage Ref, so I guess this serves as a minor warning to the fact that I might get angry.

The Marriage Ref is the crown jewel in NBC’s half-decade of desperation — which of course followed the previous half-decade of major decline — and a primary example of how getting in bed with previously successful people doesn’t always work out well. We’ve explored similar territory with Joey and to some extent, Knight Rider, but at least those programming decisions were based on either previous characters or previous properties that I can almost find room to forgive Jeff Zucker, Ben Silverman and the rest of the goofballs at NBC. The Marriage Ref has less redeeming qualities to vouch for. When NBC actually creates a program that sounds like something Jack would come up with on 30 Rock in the context that which also stems from a joke that LITERALLY came from 30 Rock, you know they’re completely desperate.

And by the 2009-10 season, NBC was totally, utterly, shockingly desperate. I’ve done some previous research on this subject and based on the five-year tracing I did on NBC in between 2004 and 2009 aired 77 new series. According to my moderately confusing Excel sheet that you should consider as at least 96 percent accurate, only 17 of those new series made it longer than a season, and that figure I believe includes series that didn’t get picked up until after Ref was already on the air (things like Community and Parenthood in their second seasons).  At the time Ref was created/aired in the 2009-10 season, NBC was in its deepest rut yet. The 2005-06, 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons were all major disasters, and the only season with some real quality development — 2006-07 had FNL, 30 Rock and Heroes if you recall — didn’t really pay off ratings-wise. NBC could only blame things like the Writer’s Strike or DVRs for so long and so NBC made a bold move: Cut out the 10 p.m. drama and replace it with the previously presumed-to-be-retired Jay Leno and his new series, The Jay Leno Show. This allowed NBC to save a whole lot of money in an already weakening timeslot and use Leno’s talk-show format to pull in sponsorships, product integrations and famous people, the network brass’three favorite things!

“Shockingly,” The Jay Leno Show did not work. The program didn’t have to be a ratings hit for NBC to be too happy since it was such a cost-effective decision to begin with, but the Peacock underestimated the impact Leno’s terrible ratings would have on the 11 p.m. local news. Affiliates threatened to pull the plug on airing Leno and that forced NBC to do it for them. Of course, this led to the ensuing Late Night Wars of 2010 with Leno taking back his gig, Conan quitting and becoming a pop culture phenomenon, etc., which is a completely other area of NBC that I couldn’t find to put in anywhere. There is so much suckage that I couldn’t even fit it in, folks.

In any event, with Leno out of the 10 p.m. slot, NBC had five more hours of schedule to fill out and the one of the first series to take on that challenge was The Marriage Ref. The series was already in development before the Leno experiment imploded at the end of 2009, but its original appearance in the aftermath of all that helped crystallize some of the issues with NBC’s decision making. Just like The Jay Leno Show, The Marriage Ref was a somewhat cheap alternative to quality scripted programming in the 10 p.m. slot. And also like Leno, Ref was built around the idea that giving a star (in this case, Jerry Seinfeld) free reign to make his own program can’t miss. People love Jerry Seinfeld, especially on television! Let’s write him a blank check and hope he can executive produce something into gold! The problem with that thinking — you know, apart from the fact that it feels like the step before Jack Donaghy’s SeinfeldVision — is that NBC forgot to recognize Jerry Seinfeld’s value in 2010. His series had been off the airwaves for 12 years and apart from some commercials with Superman and a mildly entertaining documentary, the man hadn’t really delivered a lot of consistent funny. Meanwhile, the other primary brain behind the Seinfeld series, Larry David, spent those years proving that he might have been THE most important creative force in that formula. Brad will talk more about this, but you get the point: 2010 Jerry Seinfeld is not 1994 Jerry Seinfeld or even 1998 Jerry Seinfeld.

But NBC wanted to be in the Seinfeld business so badly that they let something like The Marriage Ref not only happen (WITHOUT EVEN SEEING A PILOT), but receive a massive marketing push and a cushy timeslot following the Olympics when in reality, they should have used that money and resources on either A.) marketing Parenthood, the other new early 2010 series or B.) developing something all together better. Unfortunately for us all, that’s not what NBC did. Instead, they took the cheap and easy way out yet again, and perhaps, for the last time in this era. I’ll return to that in a moment, but first I guess it’s important that I actually talk about the terrible-ness that is the first (and really, all) episode of The Marriage Ref.

As I said a few paragraphs ago, this series is legitimately one of the worst things I have ever watched on television. If the series was made by a bunch of amateurs, it’d be a disaster. But for something developed by and featuring some of the funniest and well-liked people in Hollywood, this is just a creative black hole of catastrophic proportions. The conceit, in which we see real married couples fight and argue and then kick it to a celebrity panel who tries to determine which member of the marriage is wrong/right, isn’t the dumbest idea ever. But the execution of that idea is beyond stupid and awful. The problems between the real couples are intentionally stupid and stereotypical, but it only gets worse when the series kicks it to the celebrity panel. The first episode that aired after the Olympics sees Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin and Kelly Ripa fill up the panel and never have I hated those three people more. Like anyone with a pulse, I love Alec Baldwin and I generally find Kelly Ripa charming and amusing. Here though, they’re patronizing, insulting and downright awful to these normal people in ways I never imagined when I thought about how The Marriage Ref would unspool.

It’s one thing to devote primetime television schedule real estate to highlighting the stupid things people do and say when they’re married, it’s another thing entirely to then follow-up those sequences with super-rich, super-famous people talking about how dumb and unintelligent these simpletons are. Ref is one of the most insulting, classist and elitist television series I can recall watching. I don’t think Baldwin, Seinfeld and Ripa are intentionally trying to be mean or to look down upon these “civilians,” it’s just the crux of the series requires them to be snarky and that forced humor completely derails in possibility for the series to be funny. And even if these celebrities are just awful people who hate us normal folk, it still feels like the constraints of the series’ terrible framework are pushing them to force the jokes and snark in a way that no one is really that comfortable with. Baldwin and Ripa don’t like intentionally malicious when delivering their words, but they do look just a bit bored. And by the time the episode finally gets to Papa’s Ref, it’s just not interesting anymore. The celebrities have done sucked the life out of the conceit and the pointlessness of “YOU are right” doesn’t really work as a sufficient hook. It’s rudderless and stupid on top of being insulting and embarrassing.

Thankfully, it appears most people felt the same way as I. After debuting to around 14 million viewers with this episode, The Marriage Ref was only being watched by around 4 million people by its season finale in May. Of course this is NBC and 4 million at 10 p.m. doesn’t mean the end of the world, but the consistent fall in the ratings proved that audiences didn’t care to watch celebrities talk crap about normal people like them. We’ll watch The Jersey Shore, but don’t you insult us! Nevertheless, the naked pictures that Seinfeld has of NBC brass meant that Ref was actually picked up for a second season, one that featured various retoolings and one that was supposed to debut in March of 2011. This month. But that’s all come and gone and The Marriage Ref is nowhere to be seen on the schedule, with no hope for its return in sight.

In between The Marriage Ref‘s renewal and its prospective season two airdate, NBC finally pushed Zucker and Silverman out as part of the Kable-I mean Comcast deal. The two men, who have been instrumental in killing what was once America’s most popular and well-respected television network, are gone. New people are in charge and with them comes the hope that things like The Marriage Ref don’t make it on the air, especially when it means things like Parenthood or even Chuck could get pushed off the schedule. I’m not saying that the Comcast-led NBC will immediately be successful because once a network has been so damaged like NBC has, there’s no guarantees that even the best series will get people to watch. And despite an interesting slate of pilot developments, NBC could continue to pick series that emphasize the wrong things, whether that means brand names (like Joey or Knight Rider), big names (Ref), product integration (Jay Leno, The Biggest Loser) or holding on to terrible series too long for the overseas capital (like Heroes). Running a television network is hard, but once you make those initial awful decisions, it becomes so much easier to continue on that path to destruction. That’s where NBC began in the early part of the aughts, and a decade later in 2011, there’s little light at the end of that dark, dense tunnel. The people who shoved them into that descent are gone, but shedding some weight during a free fall doesn’t really help. In fact, it will probably just make you fall further, faster.

–CB

For the newbie take, I’ve called in my buddy Brad Sanders. Brad currently works at the Indiana Daily Student as the Co-Editor of the WEEKEND section and host of the WEEKEND Watchers podcast, which means he’s doing an excellent job following in my footsteps. You can also check out Brad’s blog where he’s been slowly working through the IMDb top 250 and follow him on Twitter. Brad, take it away:

When I sat down to do some preliminary research on The Marriage Ref, I found myself looking at Jerry Seinfeld’s filmography and subsequently realizing that no one in show business is more famous for doing fewer things. Here’s a guy who has only had one starring role (Barry B. Benson in Bee Movie) in his career where he isn’t just playing himself, and even including cameos and guest appearances, he’s only been in fifteen films and TV series in his thirty year career. And yet, who’s more recognizable than Jerry Seinfeld?

Where all this is going is that there is absolutely no reason that Jerry Seinfeld had to make The Marriage Ref. He’s not someone who needs to further his brand, he’s not someone w and ho needs a continual presence on television, and he sure as hell isn’t someone who needs money. So why would one of the most successful comedians and sitcom stars of all time sign up to executive produce and appear on a mean-spirited, formulaic reality show on the last-place broadcast network? Obviously, we can’t really know the answer to this question without asking Seinfeld point-blank and probably being punched square in the jaw immediately afterward, but let’s speculate.

Presumably, NBC was calling in a favor. Somehow I doubt that Seinfeld’s EP credit means that he cared deeply about the show’s success, but with countless failed shows filling in the gaps in the mostly-acclaimed Thursday night lineup, NBC execs obviously felt it was time to ask the man whose symbiotic relationship with the network in the 1990s launched both his personal superstardom and their own golden age.

Yes, Seinfeld represented both a critical and commercial high water mark for NBC, and its infectiously likeable star became so indelibly associated with the network’s brand during the show’s run made him the logical choice to inject some new life into the schedule after the monumental failure of The Jay Leno Show. And hey, Seinfeld’s appearance on an episode of 30 Rock in 2007 (“SeinfeldVision”) was one of the best things about that show’s brilliant second season. Giving this funny, universally beloved A-lister a chance to run a reality show would be foolproof, right?

Wrong. I went into The Marriage Ref’s pilot knowing nothing about the show other than the fact that Seinfeld was involved and it was supposed to be terrible. Both of those things proved true. A couple of moments had me chuckling, but it was basically a disaster from the top down. I couldn’t help thinking that if no one particularly famous was involved and the show was on cable I might be a little kinder to it, but for God’s sake, I just watched Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa, Marv Albert, Natalie Morales and Tom Papa watch two videos of married couples with wacky problems and crack wise about it for a half hour. I’m sorry, NBC, but seriously?

I think The Marriage Ref’s most egregious crime isn’t how unfunny it is – which we’ll get to; it is disastrously unfunny – but how mean-spirited it is. It’s one thing for TLC or MTV to run a show where cameras expose the lives of people with weird circumstances or problems and another entirely for NBC to hire a cast of extremely famous people to sit around and make fun of how people live based on two-minute video clips of them. Even with something as patronizing as Dr. Phil, you get the idea that the intention is to help the people. Here, we’re just watching ostensibly funny people say mean things about presumably nice folks with the intention of making an audience laugh. I’ll admit this would be less of a problem if the audience actually did laugh (read “the audience” as “I” in this case; the studio audience seemed to love it), but about 90% of the punch lines fall flat.

Again, it’s a lot sadder that this show isn’t funny given the people involved. Jerry Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin especially do not need to put their names on something like this. Its universal critical panning was well-deserved, as was its cancellation. The pilot doesn’t point to anything promising. Even for throwaway television, this feels far too vapid and disposable to be good for much. There’s been the suggestion that after a half-decade of failure NBC is finally moving in the right direction, but if its 2010 premieres of shows like The Marriage Ref and Outsourced are any indication, I’m not sold.

–BS

Conclusions on legacy: Rightly-criticized, just freaking terrible. Hopefully the bottom of NBC’s nadir. Hopefully.

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