“Mad About You” was never the funniest or most popular sitcom of the 1990s. Overshadowed by giants of the genre, such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Frasier,” this gentle and gently humorous show nonetheless garnered a dozen Primetime Emmy Awards, four Golden Globes and seven American Comedy Awards.
Now, more than 20 years after the final episode aired to ever-dwindling viewing figures, the show has been brought back from the dead by Spectrum Originals, which has commissioned a limited series of 12 episodes to be aired on its digital platforms.
Everything that made “Mad About You” such a watchable show appears to have been recreated faithfully in the reboot – starting, of course, with the two main characters, Paul and Jamie Buchman. Paul, a filmmaker, is played by comedian and actor Paul Reiser, while his wife is played by Oscar-winning actor Helen Hunt (“As Good As it Gets”).
Their chemistry is central to the show. When we first meet Paul and Jamie, they are newlyweds, struggling with everyday problems and more significant traumas. The writing is sharp, with Reiser sharing much of the work with Danny Jacobson. Midway through the fourth season, the show got a major boost when Larry Charles – one of the creative forces behind “Seinfeld” and, later, cowriter of Bob Dylan’s much-maligned but star-studded movie “Masked and Anonymous” – joined the writing team.
For many viewers, however, the main attraction of “Mad About You” was its plethora of guest appearances. Politicians, athletes, musicians and even pro-wrestlers have made cameo appearances on the show. From Andre Agassi to Yoko Ono, from Sid Caesar to Rudy Giuliani, if you didn’t make an appearance on “Mad About You” in the 1990s, you didn’t exist.
Some of these cameos were truly memorable. Mel Brooks, who plays Paul’s uncle in four episodes, not only stole the show, but won three consecutive Emmy awards for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
Many of the other cameos that featured on the show are the result of a now largely and thankfully forgotten trend in network sitcoms – the crossover episode. In these episodes, stars from other popular sitcoms would make cameo appearances in another show, usually in character. In “Mad About You,” the common universe, to borrow a phrase from the superhero genre, was NBC’s stable of ‘Must See TV’ stars – primarily, the cast of “Friends” and “Seinfeld.”
In the most famous of these crossovers, Lisa Kudrow played the role of Ursula Buffay, a flaky waitress at a restaurant the Buchmans frequent. Indeed, Kudrow was playing the role two years before the part that would turn her into a household name: Phoebe Buffay. In a later “Friends” episode, as part of a night of NBC sitcom crossovers, Jamie and her sister walk into Central Perk, the iconic coffee shop from “Friends,” and mistake Phoebe for Ursula.
Twenty years on
For this rebooted version, almost all the surviving cast members have returned. Reiser, who was reportedly reticent at first, and Hunt join up with Anne Ramsay, John Pankow, Richard Kind and the inimitable Carol Burnett, all of whom reprise their roles from the original seven seasons. The most notable absentee is Leila Kenzle, who played Jamie’s best friend, but who retired from acting in 2003 to practice psychotherapy.
The first six episodes of the reboot are already available via Spectrum Originals’ streaming service, with another six due to arrive later this month. The opening scene of the first new episode sets the tone nicely. Jamie and Paul are in bed, discussing the dinner they just had with friends they had not seen for 20 years. Jamie is worried that she, like her friend, has not aged well. After insisting several times that she looks as good as she did when viewers last saw her, Paul finally acquiesces to Jamie’s request to put on his glasses and take a proper look at her. When he does so, he gives his caustic verdict: “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
When we last saw the Buchmans, they had just welcomed a baby daughter, Mabel, into the world. In the reboot, Mabel is about to start college and her parents are fretting about empty-nest syndrome – even though Mabel will be studying at NYU and living in dorms five blocks from the parental home. The subject matter – as it was in the original seasons – is banal, but the writing is witty enough, the characters amiable enough and the jokes frequent enough to make it work.
The characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who watched the original, but – obviously – have aged. The writing takes this into account. Jamie asks Paul whether he remembers sex; Mabel tells her father that he’s being manipulated by Jamie and he just shrugs and agrees; Paul needs to pee, but can’t guarantee how long it will take. “That’s no longer up to me,” he admits.
Time has also been kind to “Mad About You” in terms of diversity and inclusion. The original run was whiter than a Trump rally. In the reboot, there are actors of color among the main cast and the show maintains its strong tradition of giving female actors meaty roles.
Indeed, “Mad About You” was groundbreaking in other ways, too. Decades before the Hollywood gender pay gap became a buzzword, Reiser and Hunt both signed contracts ensuring equal pay for the show’s two stars in its final seasons. And the first six episodes of the reboot were all directed by women: Hunt took the helm in the first episode, while Betsy Thomas and Kelly Park directed three and two episodes respectively.
Reboots don’t always work. Just ask the people behind “Arrested Development.” It isn’t enough to have beloved characters, sharp writing and talented actors. That extra ingredient – whatever it is – is elusive. “Mad About You” appears to have captured it, proving that, sometimes, nostalgia is exactly what it used to be.