Seinfeld's "Marriage Ref" worth a few giggles

Wed Mar 3, 2010 3:07am EST

Executive producer Jerry Seinfeld answers questions during a panel for the NBC show ''The Marriage Ref'' at the NBC Universal sessions of the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, California January 10, 2010. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

Executive producer Jerry Seinfeld answers questions during a panel for the NBC show ''The Marriage Ref'' at the NBC Universal sessions of the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, California January 10, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Phil McCarten

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "The Marriage Ref" is inoffensive stuff, offering the sort of shallowness proudly displayed by executive producer Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom alter ego.

Surely there was no good reason to expect that the series -- in which three unrelated celebrities sit in judgment over arguments otherwise-loving couples are having, with comic Tom Papa mediating -- would try and cover the Mars/Venus divide in a serious way. After all: Seinfeld.

And yet the great silliness of what's thus far been put on display (a post-Olympics half-hour "sneak peek" on Sunday, ahead of its official premiere on Thursday) seems to indicate that what might have been a vaguely informative if humorous take on dealing with spousal craziness is simply going to be played for entertainment value. Apparently, once television leaves Daypart Oprah, any chance to educate goes right out the window, and by 10 p.m. there's nothing left to do but giggle at the idiot box.

There are some giggles worth having, sometimes even from the celebrity guests. The panel is random enough to jolt interest, though the preview threesome of Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa and Seinfeld seemed to gel only intermittently; later episodes promise combinations like Larry David, Madonna and Ricky Gervais, a trio I'd pay money to watch.

But the real laughs come from the highly cast couples, which I don't doubt are real but clearly are Made for Television. In an odd bit of synergy, both women in the preview presented similar problems: They objected to items their tone-deaf husbands insisted on having in the home. In one case, this meant taxidermy of the not-so-beloved family pet; in the other, a stripper pole in the bedroom ("No! It's for exercise!" was the feeble defense). Both wives earned big laughs by repeatedly sputtering their denials; both husbands got full reality checks from the panel. Meanwhile, the usefulness of surprisingly stiff Ref Tom Papa seemed to fade with every passing moment.

At least this seems to be a show where the squabbling pairs actually like each other; there's little of that on primetime reality shows. Whether light fare like this deserves a full hour -- well, that's another story.

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