Mad About You is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. It was a romantic show with an uncomplicated premise: follow the lives of two people, Paul and Jamie Buchman (played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt), as they struggle with the pressures of being together in a young marriage. Add in a few sitcom staples--the slightly off best friend (Leila Kenzle), the gadabout cousin (John Pankow), the ditzy sister (Anne Ramsay), a dog--and let it percolate. While the first two seasons were released on DVD within six months of each other back in 2002 and 2003, fans have been waiting nearly four years for Mad About You - The Complete Third Season (original airdates: 1994-1995). On that subject, I have a variety of things to tell you. A: The show is as good as you remember. And two: This DVD doesn't show the quality of fine ageing.
At the start of the season, Jamie is unemployed and back in school, and Paul is trying to regain his footing as a documentary filmmaker. Fran, Jamie's best friend, is still struggling with life as a single woman after her husband Mark left her in the previous seasons. (He was played by sitcom-regular Richard Kind, who returns for episodes 13 and 14, the flashback wedding episodes.) Paul and Jamie are also feuding with their snooty British neighbors (Jim Piddock and Judy Geeson). Over the course of the 24 episodes, Jamie and Fran will start a new PR firm, Cousin Ira (Pankow) will take over the sporting goods store from Paul's father, and the cast will generally have fun with its New York setting, including when they knocked out the power grid, an event that many will recall NBC used for a stunt night, knocking out the power on other Thursday shows, including Friends.
What makes Mad About You a cut above other relationship sitcoms, and thus worthy of repeated spins on DVD, is the writing, particularly as it pertains to the Buchmans. Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt have an amazing rapport, able to run through Reiser's eggheady wordplay and capture the feel of a real couple, communicating in an intricately clipped fashion that only the two people in the relationship can understand. While this kind of back-and-forth is usually incomprehensible to outsiders in real life, the humor here is that the audience understands it, making for many funny 23-minute episodes. Episode 7, "The Ride Home," even has a little fun playing with this element. During a taxi ride back to their apartment, Paul and Jamie argue about why they just left a party. In flashback, we discover that they decided to split up and mingle solo at the soiree, afraid of being one of those married couples who spend too much time together and finish each other's sentences. Over parallel sequences, we witness the party from each person's point of view, seeing the altered perspective and how it leads to misunderstandings. The conversations in the cab ride reminded me a bit of Seinfeld (to which Mad About You owes a debt, and the two even crossed over once), while the storytelling at the party predates similar techniques in the BBC's Coupling. This excellent and innovative episode also gets a boost from two guest stars: Just Shoot Me's Wendie Malick as a woman they both meet at the shindig, and Eric Stoltz as Jamie's ex-boyfriend, Alan. (Stoltz returns in two more episodes at the end of the season.)
An even more innovative episode is one I had vivid memories of and have often told people about as one of the main reasons I like this show. #21, "Cake Fear," starts off on Paul's birthday in 1995 as he tries to convince Jamie to cancel all plans because all of his birthdays end in disaster. A series of flashbacks takes us back in reverse chronological order over Paul's four previous birthdays, hitting 1991 and then turning around, climbing back to 1995. The first set of flashbacks sets up the jokes--a blizzard, Paul taking a sleeping pill before his surprise party, etc.--while the return scenes deliver the punch lines. It's the center, 1991, that houses the sweet sentimentality that is quintessential Mad About You. As an engaged couple living together, Paul and Jamie were still figuring each other out. Hurt that Paul left her out of his personal, soul-searching birthday ritual, Jamie threatens to leave--but not before Paul reveals how much he loves her. This gives us the payoff for our return to 1995 and why Jamie is so desperate to make her husband happy. Paul is right, he is cursed, and his special day gets a mirthful finale, but the sentiment holds.
Which is the other essential element of Mad About You: when the laughter calms, the love still seems real. The series doesn't shy away from the darkness of marriage, and it even showed some knock-down, drag-out fights between the couple. Much mileage is gotten out of Paul and Jamie's individual neuroses, and plenty of times they learn the lesson that it's good for them that they have each other, as no one else could put up with their quirks. That is definitely the message in the series finale, the two part "Up in Smoke," where Paul and Jamie are thrust into an It's a Wonderful Life-style alternate universe where they learn what it would be like had they never met. Neither can rest until they are back in each other's arms.
Naturally, not all the shows are as progressive as the ones I mentioned, but even when being conventional, Mad About You is still rife with laughs. Episode 15, "Just Our Dog," for instance, centers around their pet Murray (played by a really talented canine named Maui). The dog suddenly becomes a big star on commercials, and it starts a tiff between the wife who wants to chase the fame and the husband who just wants his pooch to be happy. Not the most original plot in the world, but this company makes it look fresh. Elsewhere, what could be tired clichés are reinvigorated from smart stunt casting. In #16, "The Alan Brady Show," Paul must deal with an overbearing star from the Golden Age of television, and who better to bring in for the job than Carl Reiner? And when Ira's ex-wife returns to wreak havoc, why not Cyndi Lauper? Other guest stars and cameos include Lyle Lovett, Jay Leno, Rachel Hunter, Patrick Ewing, and Brent Spiner. Also, let's not forget that Lisa Kudrow continued to play ditzy waitress Ursula, who ended up being the twin sister to Phoebe, her character on Friends. She's in a healthy number of episodes in season 3.
All in all, Mad About You - The Complete Third Season remains as funny as it ever was. Some of it is a little dated in how it looks (what were jeans manufacturers smoking back then?), but the writing remains crisp and smart, and the ensemble cast is positively brilliant through and through. If you have fond memories of this show the way I do, your mind isn't playing tricks on you, it really was that good. If you're a first-timer, you're going to be shocked this series has escaped you all these years.
There are 24 episodes on Mad About You - The Complete Third Season, cut over three DVDs, 8 shows per disc: