Trying to derive maximum value from its Olympic bliss, NBC previewed “The Marriage Ref” Sunday to draft off the Vancouver closing ceremonies. The resulting half-hour offered a breezy, inexpensive approach to comedy that brought to mind the panel shows of yesteryear. The concept is helpfully simple-minded – essentially, allowing celebrities to riff on the stupid little fights married couples engage in. It all worked well enough thanks largely to the presence of Alec Baldwin, who – if NBC wants “Ref” to stay on the court – ought to become the equivalent of Paul Lynde’s center-square on “The Hollywood Squares.”
It hardly felt like an accident that these initial squabbles were both exaggerated, with the scales of justice obviously tipped toward the wives. One guy wanted to display his stuffed dog in the living room, while the other sought to convince his spouse to install a stripper pole in the bedroom.
The weakest element – a poor throwback to “The Newlywed Game” – came when the couples bickered about the dispute for the camera, before giving way to host Tom Papa and a trio of “experts,” who would weigh in and take a side. Producer Jerry Seinfeld joined Baldwin and Kelly Ripa in this first airing, but it was the “30 Rock” star who stole every exchange, at one point quipping that a stuffed dog should at least be posed in a “useful or attractive position.”
Granted, not all the garnishes in this marital version of “Judge Judy” worked equally well. Having sportscaster Marv Albert pop in to replay highlights seemed modestly inspired, but incorporating NBC News’ Natalie Morales to relate facts about the couples not only felt like gratuitous synergy but provided yet another reminder of the evaporated gap between news and infotainment, as if we needed another one.
Still, having a comedic slugger like Seinfeld back batting clean-up to NBC’s current sitcom block Thursday nights – filling the 10 o’clock hour – does appear beneficial, even in this low-impact format. Perhaps foremost, “The Marriage Ref” provides light entertainment at a time when silliness represents a balm to grim tidings elsewhere, and like another new NBC reality show, “Who Do You Think You Are?,” simultaneously humanizes the high and mighty, here as they laugh at the simple folk’s strange customs.
If Seinfeld’s eponymous sitcom was famously about nothing, “The Marriage Ref” is shrewdly about the reassuring notion that despite couples’ differences and dysfunction, everything is ultimately going to be OK. And while relying on a celebrity triumvirate for marital mediation might sound peculiar, hey, at least it’s cheaper than therapy.