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TV Series Review

When a married couple wanders into an intractable argument, who's the tie breaker? How about a panel of three celebrities, plus a comedian host tossed in for good measure. That's the premise behind NBC's Jerry Seinfeld-produced show The Marriage Ref.

Each episode of this offbeat reality/talk show hybrid features video vignettes of four couples describing the impasses they've reached. "Tonight we're going to watch real couples in the middle of real-life arguments, obviously augmented for television," host Tom Papa tells us before one first-season episode. "And we're going to give them the one thing they've always wanted: a winner."

As you might expect given the medium, the conflicts being dealt with here are hardly toilet-seat or toothpaste-tube related. No, the roadblocks these couples are ostensibly trying to navigate are a lot, um, weirder.

Susan wants her husband to get rid of couches from a previous marriage because she doesn't like the thought that Don had sex with his ex on them … but she's unwilling to part with the prosthetic leg of her deceased first husband.

Paula withholds sex from Alan, her husband of 28 years, until he agrees to clean up the house. Tony claims that Laura treats their five-foot-long pet iguana better than she does him—including bathing it in the tub, making it gourmet salads and dressing the lucky lizard in hats and scarves. Amber is upset with Jamie for spending more time with his giant pumpkins than he does her. And on and on it goes. It's a silly, often tabloid-esque (read: made for reality TV) collection of marital minefields.

Which begs the question: Who would you want to resolve such critical conundrums? Maybe a high-powered team of proven marriage counseling professionals like … Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa and Cedric the Entertainer?

If you're a regular reader of TMZ—or even if you're not—it's obvious that Hollywood celebrities are probably not the first folks you'd go to for marriage advice. And in Season 2, The Marriage Ref seems in on its own joke. When panelist Ricky Gervais says he's been "living in sin" with his partner for 25 years ("What's the point in getting married?" he asks) and Julianne Moore says she married her husband only after her second child was born ("It seemed kinda messy not to," she admits), it's pretty clear that these judges actually aren't the best judge of anything related to marriage. "A lot of celebrities like to do everything backward," Jerry Seinfeld says. "They like to put the wedding at the end of the relationship."

But judge they do, poking fun at struggling couples (each show features three pugilistic pairs) and sometimes themselves along the way. After these star-studded tribunals dissect and mock the merits of each aggrieved party's case, they render individual verdicts. Once a "winner" has been chosen in each case, the three righteous spouses stand before the studio audience, who then votes one of them, in the words of Papa, the "rightest of the right." Winners get a $25,000 check—and a billboard in their hometown proclaiming their No. 1 status.

In theory, all of these reality TV shenanigans are ultimately pro-marriage in their message. The show takes pains to illustrate how much the aggrieved hubbies and wives love each other (minus that one thing), and most of the conflicts seem to be played for laughs. Likewise, most couples appear to take the celebrities' verdict with all the gravitas (or lack thereof) it deserves.

But for some couples, appearing on The Marriage Ref may be more serious—and far more damaging. According to The New York Post, former contestant Howie Kohlenberg blames the dissolution of his 14-year marriage on the show. After he and his wife, Christine, were guests on the program, she became obsessed with fame and eventually ran away with a Canadian producer, he says.

"Jerry, Mr. Billionaire, I blame," Kohlenberg says. "And his show."

Clearly, then, The Marriage Ref isn't necessarily a boon for marriage—and that's true for folks watching at home, too. The show's bizarre, voyeur-friendly conflicts are matched only by the equally bizarre jokes and advice dished out by each episode's guest celebs. (One man has already been "advised" to trade sex with his wife for sex with a prostitute … or his mother.) You know things have wandered far off the beaten path when Gervais observes, "This is the weirdest show I've ever been on."

But as Papa says, that's kind of the point. "Does this really make any sense?" he asks. "None that I can see. But it's fun to do, and someone wins a prize."

That someone, though, isn't you.


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