For a show with a title as impassioned as Mad About You, this new sitcom is a curiously serene little series. Paul Reiser (My Two Dads) and Helen Hunt (Mr. Saturday Night) star as Paul and Jamie Buchman, New York City newlyweds whose biggest problems in life seem to be deciding which sofa to buy and which restaurant to choose for a leisurely brunch.
Like the show that precedes it, Seinfeld, Mad About You is conceived as a genially poky, insistently talky sitcom, a series about the little things in life. In Mad’s debut episode, a major plot point was whether the couple should leave a window open in their apartment for the dog while Paul and Jamie were at work; in a recent show, the couple is paralyzed when they can’t decide whether to spend a Sunday afternoon at a Belgian film festival or an Amish quilt exhibit.
This is the sort of sitcom that extracts its laughs from picking at the tiniest of nits. When Jamie is in the kitchen making a cassoulet, Paul asks, ”Cassoulet — what’s that?” ”A casserole,” she replies. ”Then why don’t they call it a casserole,” yells Paul, in instant high dudgeon, ”why do they do that to people?” ”I don’t know,” says Jamie. ”Should I call France?” This is the recurring rhythm of Mad About You’s scenes: Fussy, neurotic Paul is driven crazy by some insignificant trifle, only to be soothed by calm, luminous Jamie, the voice of wry reason. Then a scene later, Jamie gets to throw a fit, and Paul immediately becomes the marriage’s huggy-bear nurturer.
Reiser, who first came to wide attention as a quibbling, French-fries-with-gravy eater in the 1982 film Diner, is also a stand-up comic whose act con- sists of just the sort of why-do-people-do-this? material that forms the average Mad About You script. Reiser cocreated the series (with Danny Jacobson), and while Mad is tailored to his style, he’s exceedingly generous to his costar, who, after a number of small roles in TV series and films, has emerged as a terrific comic actress. Hunt can even do a Paul Reiser impersonation that gets laughs at least as big as her costar’s.
While the relationship between Hunt and Reiser is very much Mad’s focus — passive vs. aggressive, WASP vs. Jewish, sweet vs. sour — the series also has the requisite sitcom supporting cast. Paul has a goofball best friend, Selby (Tommy Hinkley), who so far has been little more than a lump eating potato chips on Paul’s couch; a much better-written character is that of Jamie’s sister, Lisa, played by Anne Ramsay (A League of Their Own). Lisa is amusingly intense, anxious and pessimistic — ”I have so much pain inside me that I can cry at will,” is Lisa’s idea of small talk at a party.
Ultimately, though, what’s missing in Mad About You is…madness. Unlike Seinfeld, it lacks the loopy quality — an affinity for the absurd — that regularly enables Jerry and his wacky pals to transcend the mundane. Already, a pattern is emerging in Mad: The best episodes are the ones in which Paul’s whining finickiness annoys not only us viewers but Jamie as well. The series is funniest when it acknowledges what a pill this husband can be, when these lovebirds spat — when, in short, this idyllic Manhattan romance is less wry and more awry. David Letterman has already given the show’s title his own twist — he likes to call it Mad At You. For me, it’s Ambivalent About You. B-