The fifth season of Mad About You was coming off what had been its darkest, most complex season yet. The previous year had seen Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt take their sitcom about young marrieds into rocky shores. Both of their characters, Paul and Jamie Buchman, flirted with infidelity and nearly split up for good. The season finale showed their reconciliation, and ended with a kind of cliffhanger: some time after the couple made up, Jamie took a pregnancy test, and it came up positive.
Mad About You: The Complete Fifth Season begins with a reprise of this scene, and then picks up immediately after. The whole first episode is devoted to their decision to keep this development a secret from their friends and family until Jamie is farther along, and also to find a new OBGYN--who ends up being Joan (Suzie Plakson), the girlfriend of Paul's sister (Robin Bartlett). As if the 1996 premiere didn't have enough going on, it's also Debbie's coming out, and the Buchman parents, Sylvia and Burt (Cynthia Harris and Louis Zorich), meeting Joan for the first time. This goes hand in hand with the pregnancy storyline, which will dominate the fifth season, as the coming baby will inspire an added focus on family. In particular, this is the season where Paul, a documentary filmmaker, starts making a history of the Buchman clan. This will give opportunities for the show to explore how parents affect their children, and how traits and traditions are passed along.
Don't worry, Mad About You doesn't go all warm and fuzzy. The problems of the previous season aren't so easily dismissed. In episode 3, Jamie realizes that she never cancelled a couple's therapy appointment she hand made for her and Paul, and despite their insistence that they don't need it, the meeting reveals that some issues have no yet been dealt with. So, the Buchmans balance baby doctor appointments with therapist appointments throughout the season. The excellent Mo Gaffney (Absolutely Fabulous, That '70s Show) has a recurring role as the therapist. Also joining the cast for multiple appearances is Carol Burnett, taking over the role as Jamie's mother. Archie Bunker himself, Carroll O'Connor, comes on as her father, with both being introduced in episode #6 (previous seasons had different actors in these parts). Gus Stemple wants to hit the road in an RV, like many a retiree, whereas Theresa Stemple does not, and their split gives their daughter and her husband much to ponder. If these two can be together for nearly forty years, only to eventually tire of one another, does that mean "forever" isn't everything it's supposed to be?
In terms of other guest stars, Mel Brooks makes two appearances as Paul's Uncle Phil, including giving him the idea for the Buchman movie. Brooks is very funny, if not a little hammy. His energy apparently was hard to contain, as some of his ad-libbing is shown over the second episode credits. Ed Asner, Seth Green, Bruno Kirby, Shecky Greene, and Sid Caesar also show up for an episode each, and Lisa Kudrow reprises her original role as the waitress Ursula (who later was turned into the sister of her Friends character, Phoebe). Comedian Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) makes repeat appearances as an employee in the sporting goods store run by Ira (John Pankow). He's a welcome addition, as this season actually has a deficit in its regular supporting cast. Jamie's best friend Fran (Leila Kenzle) doesn't show up very often, Hank Azaria only comes on mid-season, and Richard Kind only appears once, and that's playing Fran's husband Mark as a disembodied voice over the phone.
Garlin turns out to be the crux of one of my all-time favorite episodes. Episode #17 of the season, "On the Road," has Paul needing to get out of town because he can't stand all the touchy-feely baby stuff. He and Ira and Garlin's character, Marvin, head out on the road for a guy's weekend. On the drive, they start to share, and after Marvin drops a personal secret, Paul makes an inappropriate joke. This annoys Marvin, who abandons Paul and Ira in the middle of nowhere, setting off a series of mishaps where Paul annoys other people in a similar way. Seeing this back in 1997, and seeing it again now, it hit close to home each time. As someone who suffers from an inappropriate sense of humor, I sympathized with Paul's constant explanations that the point of the bad jokes was they were so wrong, they were funny for their very wrongness. No one believes him--except Jamie, who he doesn't have to explain anything to. She gets him, and it's a perfect example of what makes the romance on Mad About You so different, sweet, and more believable than the average sitcom. It also doesn't hurt that the bond between Reiser and Hunt as actors is so strong, it's easy to believe in them as a couple.
One of the things that Mad About You does so well is the escalation of a comedic situation. For instance, this season, episode #15, "Her Houseboy, Coco," features a screwball plot beginning with a broken heater and Jamie being ordered to several days of bed rest and Paul being in charge of taking care of her. As the day progresses, more and more people come to the apartment: Paul's mother, Jamie's sister (Anne Ramsay), the plumbers, the dog walker, movie investors. Paul tries to organize and balance, but it's a madhouse. The place is packed wall to wall, and it's only emptied out by Joan, Jamie's doctor, shutting the whole thing down. Other episodes play with the same technique: more people finding out about the pregnancy when Paul and Jamie are trying to keep it a secret, an astrologer's predictions sending the group into a tizzy, etc. There is even one, episode #14, "Citizen Buchman," that plays on Citizen Kane, as Paul tries to unravel the last words of an uncle who dies in the interview chair.
That escalation humor also plays a part in Mad About You: The Complete Fifth Season's two-part finale, directed by Helen Hunt's father, Gordon Hunt (who also directed "Her Houseboy, Coco" and went on to do several more episodes in the next couple of seasons). Naturally, it revolves around Jamie going into labor. The star-studded event has guest cameos by Estelle Getty, Eric Stoltz, Michael Moore, and Bruce Willis. The plot of the show begins with a fairly predictable sitcom scenario: false labors causing false alarms. Each false alarm gets worse and annoys the family more and more until by the time the real thing stalls and the due date passes, no one can be bothered any longer. Which isn't so bad for Paul, he wants to be alone with his wife when the time comes. This, of course, won't happen. Things only get more out of control when Jamie finally does go into labor and forgets her wedding ring at the apartment. Paul goes home to get it, only to get blocked from the hospital by Willis shooting a movie in New York. As he tries everything he can to get back, a parade of other relatives make their way to Jamie's bedside.
Surprisingly, when the baby is finally arriving, Mad About You mostly avoids the usual birth scene clichés. The joke with Jamie squeezing Paul's hand is a bit predictable, but there is a good gag about when he can and can't talk. The comedy is also ditched for the actual finish, instead giving viewers a dramatic, tear-filled payoff. Again, it's the actors who make this work. Reiser and Hunt are more than gifted comedians, they are seasoned actors who know how to work realistic expression in amongst the punchlines. It's a nice payoff for everything we've put in this season. The Mad About You addiction is, in large part, down to our feeling like we are a part of this relationship, and so the quiet intimacy is exactly what we needed to make it all come together.
English Closed Captioning is available for those who desire it.
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