By Judy Berman
November 20, 2019

Over the course of seven seasons that spanned most of the ’90s, Mad About You aired 164 episodes. I must have watched almost all of them, some multiple times, once the show went into syndication later in the decade. During those years, I was in junior high and high school; though as a rural teen I couldn’t exactly relate to its central couple—newlywed New York yuppies Paul and Jamie Buchman (Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt)—the sitcom’s upbeat, unobtrusive banter made it the perfect thing to put on in the background as I did homework or drifted in and out of wakefulness on a sick day. That might explain why, even though its rhythms and running gags have stuck with me since it went off the air in 1999, I couldn’t tell you the plot of any particular episode. Then again, maybe my memory is so lopsided because the show never offered much in the way of plot.

Seinfeld was famously envisioned as a show about nothing (a conceit that falls away the moment you recall the memorable storyline that revolved around Jerry and George creating a show about nothing). Friends—which made early adulthood in New York look tranquil, easy and cheap—was so low-key that in its second life as the holy grail of licensed content, it essentially functions as an audiovisual benzodiazepine for teens and 20-somethings. But it was Mad About You, another one of NBC’s many ultra-popular ’90s series set in a whitewashed, upper-middle-class Manhattan, that really delivered on the promise of mundanity. What was the pitch for this smash hit that eventually earned its stars $1 million per episode: “Man and woman are married”? More to the point, in an era when many would dismiss the original show as a soporific chronicle of “rich people problems,” do we really need to check in on the uneventful lives of the Buchmans?

The answer is, unequivocally, no. Sadly, that hasn’t stopped Mad About You from returning to TV as a limited series from Spectrum Originals (the nascent original content division of cable giant Spectrum). Twelve new episodes that will be released in two parts, on Nov. 20 and Dec. 18, reunite viewers with Paul and Jamie on the day their daughter Mabel (a believably neurotic Abby Quinn) goes off to college. The fact that her dorm happens to be five blocks away from their apartment, because she’s going to New York University, doesn’t keep the Buchmans from agonizing over her absence. Now—well, once Jamie musters the self-control to stop sneaking into Mabel’s dorm room as she sleeps—they have to get used to being alone together again.

For Paul, that means puttering around the post-production studio he’s run since giving up his career as a filmmaker. It’s the perfect setting to stoke his insecurities, filled with bright young rising stars of cinema like deadpan editor Yasmeen (Kimia Behpoornia) who make him feel like a doddering old fool. After years as a stay-at-home mom, Jamie battles menopause while taking shaky steps toward rejoining the workforce. “I thought Mabel would grow up and leave, and I could just go back to being who I was before,” she confesses to her husband in the first episode. “I don’t even remember who that person is anymore.”

One major problem with Mad About You past and present is, I can’t remember who she is either. Together, Jamie and Paul are a study in soft contrasts: She’s a pragmatic blonde WASP with an Ivy League degree; he’s a nervous secular-Jewish New Yorker. The archetypes are familiar from When Harry Met Sally and a raft of Woody Allen films. Like the couples in those movies, what distinguishes the Buchmans is how good they are as a couple—how adorably they banter over tiny observations, how sweet they sound speaking in their own invented slang. That might make them pleasant dinner-party guests, but it’s hard to be nostalgic for such underwritten characters. And though Hunt and Reiser (whose reinvention as a character actor in recent roles on shows like Stranger Things and Fosse/Verdon has been fun to watch) still have an endearing, companionate sort of chemistry, none of what little happens in the first six episodes of the revival fleshes out the Buchmans any further.

Instead, we get a lot of surprise visits from friends and family, broad characters who apparently have never heard of making plans with a cellphone. Anne Ramsay is back as Jamie’s oddball sister Lisa, who “borrows” designer clothes from the celebrities for whom she housesits. Paul’s cousin Ira (John Pankow) has found success with an Italian restaurant that has become the Buchmans’ new hangout—and late-in-life love with its cartoonishly hot-blooded Italian chef (Antoinette LaVecchia). The highlight of the new episodes, for me, was the return of the wonderful Richard Kind as the couple’s melodramatic pal Mark, who makes his entrance exclaiming, “A child leaves home, it’s like a death.” Kecia Lewis, the first-ever nonwhite actor in the show’s main cast, balances out his hysteria as Mark’s new wife Tonya, a therapist. (Leila Kenzle, who played Mark’s ex-wife Fran in the original seasons, has since quit acting to become an actual therapist.)

None of these performances save the new Mad About You from feeling like a relic of a more innocent, easily amused time. And that’s not just because so many younger viewers are sure to be alienated by scenes such as the one where a full class of nasty NYU film students berates poor Paul for omitting women from a decades-old documentary profile of a man. (An alarming number of screenwriters these days seem to think that college now consists solely of teen social justice warriors bellowing “You’re just a misogynist who doesn’t get it!” at any adult within earshot. As the kids say: ok boomer.) The bigger issue is that Mad About You has stayed the same amid a television landscape that keeps changing. Without the goofy roommate capers of Friends, the inventiveness of Seinfeld or even the timeless pseudo-intellectualism of Frasier’s Crane brothers, Mad About You doesn’t feel distinctive enough to become a streaming phenomenon. It worked in the ’90s because it was often the most inviting option on offer—something gentle and inoffensive for when there was nothing else to watch. Now that practically everything is available on TV, all the time, the Buchmans might be too polite to make themselves heard over so much noise.

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