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TELEVISION

A Grown-Up Series Grown Old

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

Over lunch in his bungalow on the Culver Studios lot, where "Mad About You" is produced, Reiser disagrees that creative fatigue has set in on his show. "If the numbers in the last year were not what we wanted, I know for a fact that it's not because the shows were not as good," he says.

It's the week after the final episode has wrapped (directed by Hunt and guest-starring, among others, Janeane Garofalo as the Buchman baby, Mabel, all grown up), and Reiser and executive producer Vic Levin are editing the show's last original episodes. Before "Mad About You," Reiser was a well-honed observational stand-up comic whose most memorable role had come in Barry Levinson's 1982 film "Diner," about six Baltimore friends, where as the nudgy friend Modell he immortalized the line, "You gonna finish that sandwich?"

On "Mad About You" this nudginess continued, but opposite Hunt, who could mimic and deflect his shtick like a seasoned pro, Reiser bloomed into a very likable TV star (Hunt, in turn, became a very likable movie star). Viewers, it was said, saw themselves in the Buchmans, in their seemingly insignificant squabbles, which was why "Mad About You" could do an entire episode on Jamie and Paul getting locked in their bathroom on Valentine's Day.

"We were all surprised by who the audience turned out to be, because it wasn't just people who look like us and sound like us--you know, young, dual career families living in New York," Reiser says. "We got really passionate response from old couples and 15-year-old kids. So we thought, 'Hey, we're onto something.' This is not about being 30 in New York. This is about what we really thought it was about--two people, two different people in one environment, trying to be as one."

More than any other year, this season's numbers have dropped, down to under 10 million viewers a week. To be sure, some of this is due to "Mad About You's" competition this season, which at various times has included "King of the Hill" and "Ally McBeal" on Fox and the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Reiser and Hunt say that coming back this season had a lot to do with not knowing how to go out last season. It wasn't as if they didn't have options. Hunt has a thriving film career, and Reiser has a multiyear deal with Columbia-TriStar to develop new TV shows, and in the meantime is working on a script for Castle Rock Entertainment.

"At the end of last season, it just didn't seem over," Reiser says. "We were literally at the last episode, going, 'Is this it or not?' . . . But it would have been a very perfunctory ending to just say, 'Well, all right, they'll move.' Or whatever concoction we came up with."

(In a brief interview patched in from a plane, Hunt said: "Not being able to think of an ending was part of the impetus to come back.")

As it happened, Reiser and Hunt were in an excellent position to negotiate for a seventh season of "Mad About You." Faced with losing both "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You" from a sitcom roster that was top-heavy with yuppie knockoffs, NBC agreed to a licensing fee that covered Reiser's and Hunt's salaries, which went from $250,000 an episode to $1 million an episode for each, according to estimates.

Given the show's ratings this season, the decision backfired, though that discounts the stability NBC bought by keeping "Mad About You" and "ER" in a year that had them losing not just their most popular show but supposedly their soul, "Seinfeld."

Last December, after watching the show languish in the ratings, NBC moved "Mad About You" from Tuesdays at 8 p.m. to Mondays at 9 p.m., in part to make room for a newer comedy about two people in an apartment, "Will & Grace."

"I can't even find it [this season], I don't even know when it's on," Reiser says, only half-joking.

*

This is all merely a fitting coda to the scheduling frustration Reiser has experienced in the show's seven-year run.

Since debuting on Wednesday nights at 9:30 after "Seinfeld" in 1992, "Mad About You" has also visited Saturday, Thursday, Sunday, Tuesday and Monday. Its peak season came in 1994-95, when it averaged 21.4 million viewers and finished 10th overall leading off NBC's powerful Thursday night sitcom bloc. The following season it was moved to Sundays at 8, where the show still averaged 16.3 million viewers and finished 37th.

The only reason to relive this history is to underscore the idea that "Mad About You's" popularity suffered as a result, which is Reiser's point, though he doesn't particularly want to delve back into "the bitter stuff"--not now, not with "Mad About You" about to go off the air.

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