Here’s How Much Critics Hated Jerry Seinfeld’s Matrimonial Panel Show ‘The Marriage Ref’

Seinfeld’s spectacular failure to make a watchable reality show spawned some of the most creatively ruthless reviews in TV history
Here’s How Much Critics Hated Jerry Seinfeld’s Matrimonial Panel Show ‘The Marriage Ref’

Any Seinfeld fan could have told NBC executives back in 2010 that a panel show produced by Jerry and centered around relationship advice was doomed to fail — the man never kept a girlfriend around for longer than four episodes.

Before Seinfeld found the formula for his first (and only) post-Larry-David success with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, he and NBC decided that a panel game show about the real-life petty arguments between romantic partners similar to those that typified most Seinfeld episodes was the perfect project to highlight Seinfeld’s talents in the new millennium. In fact, The New York Times reported that, when Seinfeld first pitched the premise of The Marriage Ref to NBC executives, they gave the show a greenlight “within minutes.” 

And, on paper, you could see why the network thought the show would work — thousands of hours of hit reality TV had already proven that there’s nothing the rabble enjoys more than watching complete strangers argue about inane bullshit. 

The premise of The Marriage Ref was simple: Tom Papa, Seinfeld’s touring partner and an accomplished clean comedian in his own right, served as the titular Marriage Ref who oversaw a panel of celebrity judges that weighed in on three real-life couples’ long-running arguments over relationship issues large and small. Papa, on the advice of his celebrity guests and, later, considering the input of the in-studio audience, named a “winner” in each dispute. Then, at the end of the night, Papa chose one of the three fight-winners to be crowned “The Rightest” and receive a $25,000 cash prize as well as a billboard in their hometown celebrating their defeat of their dear spouse. 

However, as soon as the first episode hit the airwaves, it became clear that the ultimate loser of The Marriage Ref was the audience.

On February 28, 2010, NBC aired the inaugural episode of The Marriage Ref featuring celebrity judges Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa and Seinfeld himself directly after their coverage of the final night of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. By the next morning, just about every news outlet in America had released a review so scathing, so disgusted and so thoroughly unamused that many culture critics and TV enthusiasts found the discourse around The Marriage Ref’s awfulness to be far more interesting and entertaining than the panel show itself. 

For instance, Gawker ran its review of the trainwreck that was the first episode of The Marriage Ref with the provocative headline, “Jerry Seinfeld’s New Show Almost Cancels Out Seinfeld.” Simultaneously, the amateur TV critics of Twitter offered their own ruthless reviews punctuated with the popular hashtag, #marriagereffail. 

But the backlash to The Marriage Ref’s complete failure to make a single watchable episode of reality TV — a bar so low it could give 90 Day Fiance’s Big Ed a concussion — wasn’t contained just to the internet crowd that craps on everything in mainstream that attempts wide appeal. Veteran TV critics from reputable outlets were even more eloquent in their dismantling of the show, as demonstrated by now-New York Times chief TV critic James Poniewozik in his review for Time, titled, “The Marriage Ref: Grounds for Divorce,” in which he called The Marriage Ref “the most God-awful mishmash of a comedy-variety show.” 

Wrote Poniewozik of the first episode, “It proved that, if you are Jerry Seinfeld, NBC will put any program you want on the air, and will give you no network notes. For the sake of my fond memories of the sitcom Seinfeld, I am going to make myself believe that Seinfeld knew this, and was deliberately punking the network.”

Among the many problems with The Marriage Ref that reviewers pointed out was its production value, which, thanks to the overload of awkward half-segments and unnecessary commentary from famous figures like Today correspondents Natalie Morales and Maria Menounos and sportscaster/convicted sex pest Marv Albert, wildly oscillated between overwrought and underfunded as non sequiturs and superfluous flashbacks destroyed what little pacing the show had. Poniewozik theorized, “It was as if someone thought that, if you just piled more and more elements on, somehow they would magically turn into an entertaining show.”

“Who knew Seinfeld could be this unfunny?" The Baltimore Sun wondered of The Marriage Ref, with Huffington Post reviewer Greg Evans asking similar questions in his review, which he hilariously titled, “Seinfeld’s Marriage Ref: Nada Nada Nada.” “How could a man as funny as Seinfeld produce such a remarkably unfunny show?” Evans asked, closing out his immensely negative review with the banger line, “Jerry Seinfeld already gave us the greatest sitcom in TV history. He owes us absolutely nothing, and delivers it in spades with The Marriage Ref.”

Alan Sepinwall of The New Jersey Star-Ledger called The Marriage Ref an “ugly, unfunny, patronizing mess,” writing, “When no Marriage Ref review screeners were sent out, I assumed it was NBC being high-handed, as the network tends to be even though it’s been doing so poorly for so long. ‘We’re premiering this show after the Olympics! We don’t need reviews!’ And while I’m sure that was a part of their thinking, seeing the final product revealed an equally obvious motivation: ‘We are gonna get killed by the critics when they see this fiasco.’”

Keep that detail in mind when Seinfeld’s new project, the Netflix comedy film Unfrosted, releases on May 3rd — Seinfeld didn’t give out press screeners for this one, either.


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