Everyone was puzzled upon learning that Jerry Seinfeld's triumphant return to NBC would be as the producer of a reality/game show called The Marriage Ref. After seeing the first episode, we are still puzzled. The Marriage Ref is a mess.
The Marriage Ref is about married couples getting in absurd arguments and the panel of celebrities who riff on and, ultimately, judge them. On tonight's premier, that panel consisted of Alec Baldwin, Jerry Seinfeld and Kelly Ripa. Seinfeld told The New York Times that the marriage refs do not themselves need to be experts at marriage. This is good because, judging from his screamy phone calls and rage-related divorce from Kim Basinger, we imagine Alec Baldwin would not handle a fight with his wife with the same wit and charm as he did the problems of other couples. Plus, if all celebrities who sucked at marriage were ruled out of the show, it would basically just be Michelle Obama and Kevin Bacon up there wisecracking every episode. (although Wikipedia tells us that both Seinfeld Ripa have improbably functional marriages.)
Many things are bad about The Marriage Ref. The worst is that the married couples never actually appear in the studio, except in a short docudrama introducing their problems, and via satellite to hear the refs' judgment. So The Marriage Ref falls into the reality show trap of making real relationships seem more contrived than anything the hackiest comedy writer could come up with. The first marriage our panel referees is being torn apart by the husband's desire to have his dead dog taxidermied. The dog's name was The Fonz. The wife hated The Fonz. If this is an actual argument two real humans had (the excruciatingly edited video suggests not) there is something strange going on in this man's head worth exploring: Is he an insane person? Is he dangerous? On what obscure Internet message board did he meet his wife? This could have been funny!
Instead, the conflict is framed in the video basically as: Husband = lovable, bumbling schlub; Wife = no-fun evil harpy. There is a darkly funny moment when the wife says the day The Fonz died was the best day of her life, but it is spoken with such a practiced sneer that it obscures the real sadism that is a necessary component of love. The Fonz's ghost will take a ghost shit on this couple's comforter tonight for disrespecting his memory with this tripe. It's just way too fake, and you have to pity the panel of legitimately funny people (well, Kelly Ripa maybe not) forced to dredge jokes out of relationships that are so poorly caricatured—without making fun of the caricaturing itself. It's like if you could only riff on shitty movies with your friends by making jokes the characters in these movies would find funny.
Even with this sparse material, Alec Baldwin got off a few good one-liners ("I think if you're going to stuff your dog, you should stuff it in either a useful or an attractive position."). Seinfeld managed sometimes to dice up the marriage problems humorously, as in the above clip about a couple arguing over placing a stripper's pole in their bedroom. And Kelly Ripa told it like it was, in that way she does. The host, comedian Tom Papa, was generally agreeable but laughed too much at the panel's jokes, like he couldn't believe that he had his own show. (We feel you.) And the humor behind too many of those jokes came from way too similar a place as The Jay Leno Show's.
In a nightmare world, The Jay Leno Show would still exist, and it would be The Marriage Ref's lead-in. In this world, NBC would feature back-to-back shows where audiences could be busted up by someone just saying the word "thong"—just the word itself! Not even a joke about it! It would be a world where there never existed a wildly popular sit-com called Seinfeld that showed how the funniest parts of a relationship are often the least obvious. A show that changed comedy in such a way that it is possible to imagine an actually funny version of The Marriage Ref, where all of the guests (Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais and Larry David will all be on future episodes) get together at a nondescript diner after a taping and kvetch about how hard it is to say no to something, even if you absolutely know it's a terrible idea.