Mad About You is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. The show ran for seven seasons, from 1992 to 1999, and also enjoyed a healthy life in syndication. It detailed the ups and downs of the young marriage of Paul and Jamie Buchman, played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. It was a show that was at once romantic, funny, and emotionally true. It was just as common to see the Buchmans arguing as it was to see them kissing and cooing. In that, it was like watching a real relationship rather than watching a pair of stock "types" living contrived lives--especially as the newlyweds stopped being new and their relationship matured. The show won a couple of Emmys and was part of the NBC juggernaut of the 1990s, including fitting connections to Seinfeld and the network's "Must See" comedy line-up.
It's surprising, then, that this one-time hit has been treated so poorly on DVD. Season 1 was released in 2002 and Season 2 came a year later, but it took four more years for a substandard release of Season 3 in 2007. Now it's three years later and we're finally getting Mad About You: The Complete Fourth Season. In fact, it's been so long between sets, my hope had diminished so much, I had forgotten that I wrote the DVD Talk review of Season 3!
Thankfully, in that time, the DVD series has moved from Sony over to the fine folks at Shout Factory. The studio has put together a complete package with decent looking transfers that look much better than the worn-out copies used last time around. (Though, the third episode this season is a clip show, and the clips look terrible, so age definitely has something to do with it on those previous sets.) Some new extras might have been nice, but given that the most important thing is the show itself, Mad About You fans should be happy for the series' return and hopeful that we will see the remaining three seasons treated in a similar manner.
Mad About You: The Complete Fourth Season aired during the 1995/96 television season. As the cycle begins, Jamie and her best friend Fran (Leila Kenzle) are getting their fledgling PR company up and running, while Paul is thinking about giving up his career as an independent documentary film maker to join the Explorer Channel and take charge of their in-house programming. Also on the couple's mind are babies. In fact, from the very first episode, the idea is introduced that Paul and Jamie will start trying to get pregnant. As one would expect from Mad About You, this is not a choice made lightly. It weighs heavily on the characters, as they must consider the changes it will bring. Not that it's all serious, however, since the second episode immediately starts looking for pockets of comedy in the situation. A parking space opens up in the Buchmans' apartment building, and Paul wants to purchase it despite not having a car. To him, it is the beginning of owning property, which will set the foundation for having a family, a house, and all the rest. Sure, it's only a parking space, but can't you see the difference it will make? Cue the chuckles!
I'm pretty impressed by the storytelling that goes on over this cycle of shows. The writing staff really understood how to make serialized television work. Each episode stands on its own, but each one also builds on the lives of the characters. Jamie starts working for the mayor's office, and that has as much importance as Paul's new job, introducing new characters and new scenarios. One particular highlight is "Do Me A Favor," a show that comes in the middle of the season. It features Jamie learning the political game and playing dirty by accident. Seeing Paul tumble into a blackmail scheme via doublespeak and innuendo makes for some great laughs. The new jobs also add to the anxiety of growing a life and a family, and the two crossover in ways that push the characters to question their principles and express their concerns. In "The Glue People," the couple realize that they support different candidates when Paul is offered a job to direct a commercial for Lance Brockwell (Alan Ruck), the politician Jamie is backing. Is it possible for them to disagree on who to vote for and still raise a child together?
Again, it's all handled very seriously in terms of what the writers want to get across, but not so that the comedy is sacrificed. When the pregnancy doesn't happen right away, for instance, they decide to check Paul's sperm count ("The Sample"). Their car is stolen before they can leave for the hospital, with Paul's sperm jar in the back. Paul gathered the sample at home so he wouldn't have to in the clinic, and so his worst nightmare comes true. The rest of the show is him at the fertility bank trying to make another deposit. (A pre-Everybody Loves Raymond Brad Garrett has a great one-time role as the nurse trying to collect.) In another episode ("Dream Weaver"), a series of dreams throughout a single night keep the couple awake, until their mindwaves cross and they share a nightmare on the Laugh-In set, which has been transplanted into their living room. The pitch-perfect re-creation of the Rowan and Martin comedy show not only features a bunch of the original cast members, but also provides an amusing platform for Paul and Jamie to share their anxieties.
Other guest stars this season include brief walk-ons from Gilbert Gottfried ("The Couple") and Kathy Griffin ("New Year's Eve," an early example that she was never ever funny), as well as a full episode with Yoko Ono playing herself ("Yoko Said") and Ed Asner showing up as Jamie's sister Lisa's future father-in-law during the finale. Hank Azaria joins the show as the dogwalker Nat, adding to the already rock solid supporting cast, which includes the always hilarious Richard Kind, Anne Ramsay, John Pankow, and Leila Kenzle. These guys are a sitcom dream team, providing reliable back-up that fortifies the main comedy and gives the lead duo plenty to play off of. If I have any complaint about Mad About You: The Complete Fourth Season, it's that some of the side stories seem to lack direction. The Ira/Fran relationship is quickly dropped, and Ira is given multiple new love interests, and even though that fits his character (he's a dog), it starts to feel like the producers are just tossing things out there until they find a plot line that has enough legs to stand on its own.
Given the strength of the supporting players, Mad About You should have probably been one of those shows where the B-team overshadowed the A-team (for instance, how Josh Radnor is the least interesting person on How I Met Your Mother or how Zach Braff was a totally useless appendage on Scrubs), but the chemistry between Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt is so amazing, I never find myself wishing they'd step aside for a little more Mark or a smidgen of Ira. The two actors have remarkable timing, and after four years, they've honed it so that the mechanics have all disappeared. Their back and forth has the comfortable tone of a real couple, which only adds to the believability of their onscreen affection. If someone ever wanted to do a promo reel to show just how good Reiser and Hunt are together, all they'd have to do is string together the pre-credits bumpers. Each episode starts with a quick gag, some small relationship quirk or an odd bit of side comedy, stuff that today would make for excellent viral promos online. In fact, the bang for the buck here is pretty impressive. Every show is packed front to back, including a closing gag during the final credits.
As for the couple's ongoing connection, the fourth disc in the set leads us into some dark territory, and this season of Mad About You ends in uncertainty. The final quartet of episodes, including a three-part finale, center around infidelity. Paul almost slips, but Jamie genuinely slips, and this comes like a patch of black ice on an already troubled road. Work-related stress has previously caused the two to become estranged, and the emotional avalanche is overwhelming. It's a bold move for a sitcom to pull at the end of a banner year. "Leave 'em laughing" is an old show biz adage, and Mad About You: The Complete Fourth Season stomps all over that, leaving viewers with heartache. The long, brutal discussions about what happened and how these two characters feel about it make for unprecedented television. It's painful to watch, and strangely invigorating, as well. As much as I liked Friends, Ross and Rachel arguing about what it means to be on "a break" doesn't even have a match to light the candle it might try to hold against Jamie Buchman saying, "It's not working."
Again, the acting here is stellar. That comic chemistry pays off in gravitas, as well. The anger and the fear--Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt look like they might shatter if the other raised his or her voice just a decibel more. It's one of the truest portrayals of a relationship in crisis to ever hit television. I write that knowing it sounds like hyperbole, but also walking away from the devastation still feeling the wounds--and feeling a reverberation that goes back more than ten years and realizing how much of an impact this sitcom had on me as a young writer. Mad About You: The Complete Fourth Season is an unsung hallmark of the sitcom format.
These intros are not new. They appear on two episodes, the Yoko Ono episode and the three-part finale (the packaging is misleading and suggests there is an intro for each part, but it's one all-encompassing segment), and feature the stars chatting with NYU film professor Richard Brown. Owners of the stop-gap 2005 Mad About You Collection will recognize these as segments recorded for that set. So, too, are the other extras: a featurette about the theme song and some vintage promo spots. These are commercials for the early seasons and the first season material in particular features exclusive bits of comedy. (Man, how many timeslots did this show have early on?) So, all of the extra features are recycled--which is too bad, but not the end of the world.