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A Grown-Up Series Grown Old

TELEVISION

With 'Mad About You's' final episode coming Monday, it's time to look back at a marriage made in reality--and the forces that can keep series alive too long.

May 23, 1999|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer who covers comedy and television

In the early days of "Mad About You," Danny Jacobson says, he and Paul Reiser were in agreement: The sound of a baby crying signaled the show was over. As Jacobson, the show's co-creator, puts it, " 'Waaa' was the end of the series."

At the time, Reiser and Jacobson could afford to talk in absolutes. They were just two guys--Reiser an accomplished comedian, Jacobson a fledgling show creator--who'd come up with this simple little idea for a series: Marriage, Act 1. FADE IN: Manhattan apartment. WE SEE young couple in bed, talking.

From there, it was all based on what Reiser and Jacobson, both recently married, were thinking and feeling about the territorial stuff of a committed relationship. It was a sitcom whose story would be told in lighthearted, self-contained vignettes; a quintessential "Mad About You" scene had Jamie Buchman emerging from the bathroom to demonstrate to husband Paul the fine art of putting the toilet paper on the roller. For the all-important part of Jamie, the casting came down to Teri Hatcher and Helen Hunt. The producers made a fairly wise choice.

"The first two years were some classic television," says Jacobson, understandably partial to the early years, beginning in 1992, when as executive producer he ran the writers' room. "But the chemistry [between Reiser and Hunt], you can't write that. It's just there."

When sitcoms become hits, creative pledges grow flexible; suddenly, studios are eyeing the hundreds of millions of dollars in syndication profit to be had, if the show just keeps churning, and stars are doing the math of progressive raises and owning pieces of the show. According to Jacobson, Jackie Gleason was once asked why he did only 39 episodes of "The Honeymooners," to which Gleason quipped: "How many stories should you tell about two people in an apartment?"

Like a lot of good shows, "Mad About You" kept going, and like the Buchmans' marriage, the series had its peaks and valleys. Out of necessity, it aged into a plot. At the end of the fourth season, Jamie and Paul had trouble conceiving. They flirted with extramarital affairs and breaking up. The following season focused on pregnancy and concluded with the birth of their first child.

These were honest, promising story arcs, and America mostly stuck around. But for some viewers the series was drifting away from the simple charm of its original premise. How could it not? The well-intentioned attempts to reinvigorate the franchise betrayed the fact that "Mad About You" was now a franchise, no longer a sleepy gem but a hit show with an Academy Award-winning actress and a TV star. Gleason may have thought there were only 39 stories to tell about two people in an apartment, but one wonders how many more "Honeymooners" episodes would have been made had syndication been the golden carrot it is today.

Indeed, for all the criticism networks take for canceling shows before they've been given a fighting chance, less is said about those shows that are still on the air when they have no fight left.

"You may feel it's time, creatively, to go, but there's so much [money] riding on the show that if you're at 100 [episodes], the [studio] wants you to go to 200," says David Isaacs, who has written for such long-running shows as "Frasier," "Cheers" and "MASH."

Adds Jacobson: "It's those last two or three years [of a hit] that pays for the studio to do 10 other shows."

In this inevitable pendulum swing from art to commerce, "Mad About You" is in good company. Shows ranging from "Roseanne" to "MASH" to "Seinfeld" hung around long enough to make viewers nostalgic for the good old days. Because no matter how loud the promos get ("An all-new episode!!!"), they can't hide the fact that sitcoms are built on repetition of theme and character, an obvious recipe for creative burnout.

"The idea of making a show in its 10th year as sharp and fresh and funny as it was in its first year, no one knows how impossible that is," says Bill Diamond, executive producer of "Murphy Brown" during its eighth and ninth seasons. "When you do that many episodes, 22 to 25 a season for five seasons, you've pretty much covered all the wrinkles and pimples and character traits."

"It's almost as if we had mined all the funny out of it," says Isaacs, talking about his tenure on "MASH," where he was an executive producer in the show's later years. "Characters who really had provided a lot of conflict, they had left the show. It was still well-written, but the madness of it was gone."

*

"Mad About You" is still well-written too, but as the sitcom retires into syndication with an hourlong series finale Monday, the former hit is exiting under decidedly un-"Seinfeld"-ian circumstances--80-something in the ratings and once again a movable chess piece for NBC, which has made a habit of shifting "Mad About You" to new time periods, often to the vocal dismay of its star.

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