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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

"I think we were asked to do too many things too many times," he says. "This season, frankly, I think the truth is [NBC] said, 'Well, we know they're leaving, so we don't have to build a base for next year.' . . . I think it would have been a little more honorable, and simply respectable, if they'd said, 'This is one of our senior shows and it's been a cornerstone of our network, let's let them go out in the style which they deserve.' "

Reiser searches for a metaphor to illustrate his frustrations and finally comes up with this one: It's like if you're an artist, he says, and you can't tell people where to hang your paintings.

But sitcoms aren't generally considered hallowed works of art--particularly not to the networks paying a premium to rent them. Seen in that light, the choice for NBC, says a network source, was unsentimental: Continue to lose ground to ABC and Fox on Tuesday nights, or get a head start on building a lineup for the future.

"Mad About You," it should also be said, hasn't always been a scheduling victim. In fact, the show came close to being canceled several months out of the gate, was saved and sent to Saturdays, and then given the boost it deserved in 1993, packaged with the likes of "Seinfeld" and "Frasier" on Thursday nights.

"It slayed dragons for us. It conquered time periods. What more can you want from a show?" Warren Littlefield, president of entertainment at NBC during nearly all the show's moves, says. "The ultimate compliment to a show is that it has the strength to be moved to a different place."

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"The testing on 'Mad About You' was not great," says Preston Beckman, NBC's executive vice president of programming and planning, recalling the network's research on the pilot. On one issue, though, the research was clear--everybody loved the couple.

Loved them, in fact, to the exclu

sion of all the eccentric friends and relatives in their midst. In its seven years, "Mad About You" never developed breakout supporting characters, talented as the ensemble may have been. You could almost argue that the only character to emerge from Paul and Jamie's shadow was their dog, Murray.

"When we cut away from Paul and Helen to do other stories, you just felt like no one cared," says Larry Charles, executive producer of the series during its fourth and fifth seasons. "That isn't a reflection of the actors, but the chemistry between Paul and Helen was addictive. People wanted to see that play out."

To Jacobson, who along with Jeffrey Lane was the show's head writer for the first three seasons, "Mad About You" owed a debt to shows like "The Honeymooners" or "I Love Lucy," but not to "Seinfeld," a sitcom to which "Mad About You" was sometimes compared. Regardless, Jacobson left after three seasons to take a reported $20-million deal with 20th Century Fox Television to create new sitcoms. From this lofty perch, he could afford to feel that "Mad About You" had outlived its premise.

"It was a show about newlyweds; it had to run its course," Jacobson says today.

Charles presided over what he calls "Mad About You's" "blue period," including the season in which Paul and Jamie danced around a breakup. This was also the year "Mad About You" moved to Sundays and stopped being the show Jacobson had piloted--the light farce about newlyweds.

"I was not interested in further perpetuating the romantic myth of marriage," Charles says. "They had supposedly been married four and five years by then. Well, you've become bored with each other by then, you're onto each other's shtick already. . . . My goal was to strip away the artifice of the couple and show them for what they really were. And I had two great actors to work with."

In most sitcom worlds, people don't change; unlike life, where self-interests clash and people constantly disappoint one another, sitcom characters are soothingly predictable, their actions varying only slightly from week to week.

"A sitcom is a comfort pill," says Patricia Richardson, co-star of ABC's "Home Improvement." "It may not be art. I have no problem with giving comfort to people."

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More so than other long-running shows, "Mad About You" demonstrated a willingness to experiment with tone, despite the risk that this would alienate its core audience.

On the one hand, the show could have kept doing episodes about a couple who, say, find themselves having sex on their kitchen table because they can't steal a moment away from obligations. But when Charles took over, he didn't want to be a "mortician"--industry slang, he says, for a show runner who inherits a no-longer-evolving show and simply keeps the corpse looking pretty. Instead, Charles, who came to "Mad About You" after several seasons on "Seinfeld," wanted to raise the dramatic stakes. So did Reiser and Hunt.

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