It’s a question that haunts any marriage, especially once anniversaries start to become marked not in years, but in decades. Is there still a spark?
When it comes to the revival of the ’90s sitcom Mad About You, launching Wednesday on Spectrum cable’s on-demand platform 20 years after the original series finale, it is the question. But, you see, Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser like each other. A lot. It’s why their marriage works.
Fictionally, that marriage is between Paul and Jamie Buchman, that bantering, bickering Manhattan couple that, from 1992 to 1997, were the entertaining avatars for the inescapable truth that marriage is hard, constant, sometimes unpleasant work that’s only survivable when you and your partner, to say it again, like each other—even at those times when you don’t.
In the real world, it’s a partnership between two actors and creatives that saw them weather the powder-keg of TV stardom at the height of the network ratings bonanza and the zeniths of their respective celebrity notoriety together. They realized that if they were going to survive, they were going to need to survive together.
“As the show originally progressed, we had wonderful writers who came and went and wonderful directors who came and went, and at the end of the day there were just two people who were going to be stuck there and it was us,” Hunt says. “Paul and I somewhere along the way locked arms and went, we better keep this ship afloat.”
Hunt and Reiser are together, talking over the phone from the Mad About You revival’s living room set, which has been slightly updated and redecorated but remains largely the same, envy-inducing Greenwich Village apartment. “We’re calling from pretend New York in California,” Reiser quips.
Loosely inspired by his own experience, Reiser co-created the original series with Danny Jacobson, centering it on a recently married couple who, after the wedding and the hoopla dies down and the apartment door shuts behind them, are confronted with their new reality: Now what? We follow them as they experience the mundane joys and gentle aggravations of weathering everyday life together.
Reiser also co-created the revival and wrote its pilot. Hunt, who directed several episodes of the show’s first run, directed the new series’ first episode, too. At a time when you can’t blink without missing the news of another reboot or revival, the pair, at the very least, stands out for how creatively involved they wanted to get.
“Because his and my sensibility has just been so unwaveringly in sync, questions like ‘who would be best to help us write it’ or ‘who would be best to help us direct it,’ it just became our job,” Hunt says.
And that’s how an Oscar-winning, Emmy-dominating actress (four wins in a row for playing Jamie on Mad About You) who is currently also an in-demand director, and the creator of one of the seminal ’90s NBC sitcoms who is currently enjoying a career resurgence on Stranger Things and The Kominsky Method ended up elbow-deep involved in the revival of their hit show. It just happens to be a revival that not one person involved in the project ever wanted.
Before he had been contacted about working with Paul Reiser on possibly bringing back Mad About You, Peter Tolan had been storming around town on a tirade.
“I had just spent the last year or so railing against all these reboots and the paucity of creative thought,” Tolan, who created Rescue Me and had worked as a writer on Murphy Brown and The Larry Sanders Show, says. “Shouting about how this is what’s wrong with television today. And then of course I did one, too. So a little embarrassing…”
For a span, it seemed like there was no genre, era, or kind of series that wasn’t ripe for reviving or rebooting. Dynasty, Dallas, Hawaii 5-0, Magnum P.I., Boy Meets World, The Hills, The Twilight Zone, American Idol, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Twin Peaks, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls, Charmed, and so much more: It was all fair game.
They all, generally speaking, followed the same trajectory. There would be much hoopla, fanfare, and debate when they were announced, intense interest and solid out-the-gate ratings for the premiere, and then a trailing off into respectable, if not eye-popping, viewership.
“It seemed like the worst idea in the world,” Hunt remembers. Then other shows started doing it. It seemed to be going well. “So then I thought we missed the train, that we were too late to reboots, let’s skip it.”
Then she and Reiser did the math and realized that now, 20 years since the show last aired, Jamie and Paul’s daughter Mabel would be at the age when she would be leaving home for college. They realized they could write to that. “Paul and I had the same allergy to the idea of doing this that gave way at the same moment for the same reason.”
The crux of Mad About You 2.0 is that Mabel goes to college. Built into that major life moment for Jamie and Paul is the same DNA that kicked off the series originally. The door shuts behind them. Now what? They had spent the last 18 years devoting all their energy to raising their daughter, perhaps neglecting their relationship at its expense. What happens now?
Of course, there’s a joke there, too. Mabel is going to NYU. Her new dorm is five blocks away. (No one said a Mad About You revival was going to have high stakes.)
The passage of time and returning to the show kicked off its own kind of existential crisis for Hunt and Reiser as well. Much like the original series had mirrored what he was going through in his life with his new marriage, Reiser had also just sent off his youngest son to college when talk of the revival first began.
“I didn’t realize how much I really missed having a forum to rewrite my life funnier and better,” he says. “It was nice to come back and remember that, if I had a room of writers, I would think of a snappier comeback to my wife. So that’s a big plus.”
But as several other TV revivals found before, there was an elephant in the writer’s room to contend with: the original series finale.
The two-part “The Final Frontier” flashed forward in time to the year 2021, stopping at various points along the way. It’s all narrated, documentary-style, by Mabel, who is in her early twenties and played by Janeane Garofalo.
She reveals that Jamie and Paul at one point break up and spend years harboring bad blood with no contact, before getting back together in the final moments. On that timeline, it would mean a 2019 version of the Buchmans would be divorced.
“We made a really good choice for our mental health and for the most part are ignoring the finale,” Tolan says. “Or we’re at least saying, if those things happen, it will happen down the line.”
The episode was at the very least helpful for Abby Quinn, the young actress who was cast as Mabel in the revival and who was—sit down for this, folks—not born when Mad About You originally premiered. (She was saying her first words around the time of the finale.)
Seeing Garofalo’s take on Mabel “definitely helped going in for the audition,” Quinn says. But after spending time with Hunt and Reiser, she’s been able to make the role her own—and, actually, more like her fictional parents, too. “Just being around Paul and Helen I’ve been trying to pick up on, on a level maybe I’m not realizing, their cadences and the way that they speak.”
As the one person who wasn’t around to watch the first series, she also brings an interesting perspective to the looming question of why it’s worth bringing back in the first place. “It’s an incredible show and I feel like people my age missed out the first time,” she says. “It’s just as funny for me when I watch the old seasons as this new season will be.”
Remarkably, Quinn was only slightly more unfamiliar with the original series than Tolan was. He had barely watched the show when it was on, but was excited to help Reiser man the revival because he felt like he could write in Reiser’s voice. To better familiarize himself, he asked Reiser and Hunt to give him a list of their 10 favorite, or at least most important episodes, and he dabbled in a handful of others from there.
“The funny thing is that in terms of remembering the original series, Paul and Helen were, for the most part, absolutely useless,” he says. “I’m not kidding. We would have them in the room and go, maybe we could do a story like this, did you guys already do that? And they would just stare at me like dogs. They would just do that head cock like they had no idea what I was talking about.”
That doesn’t mean that they were rusty on what made the show work at all. In the two decades since Mad About You went off the air, plenty of harried wife/schlubby husband sitcoms have come and gone, but few have managed to capture with comedy what a marriage is really like. Only Amazon’s Catastrophe really comes to mind.
The key to this on Mad About You has always been the fast, lived-in chemistry between Hunt and Reiser—that aforementioned spark—and that returned immediately, even if institutional memory was slower to come back.
“I used to take some kind of strange offense when people asked how much I’m like the character I play on Mad About You,” Hunt says. “I'd be like, I'm an actress! And then I broke it down and was like, eh, it's pretty much me.”
“Over the last 20 years we've been friends and got together and kept up with each other's families and everything,” Reiser says. “So it wasn't like we were strangers and we just turned the cameras on.” He laughs. “Sometimes we'd be out in a restaurant. People go, God, you sound like yourselves. We are. So it wasn't that hard.”