Who really needs a referee?

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

"Marriage Ref"

Tom Papa addresses the panel during the pilot.

The problem with single people is that they are busy looking for their soulmates. Host Tom Papa instructs them to “Find someone you can tolerate…find someone who you can sleep next to and not throw up and marry them.” A seemingly insensitive comedic introduction to a show about marital problems.

The Marriage Ref considers you an expert on marriage, “If you are, been, just got, or are getting out of marriage.” The pilot’s panel of experts includes Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa and the show’s producer Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld and Ripa are both married with and Baldwin is past the “getting out of marriage” phase, having divorced from Kim Basinger in 2002.

The pilot of the show featured the couples we had seen on commercials throughout the Olympics, the Ridolfis whose issue involved a deceased pet, and the Hunters’ disagreement about a stripper pole.

Unfortunately the show was not much more than what we had already seen from the commercials and advertisements that had made us want to tune in. We had already heard many of the wittiest comments and had already predicted the verdicts. The only surprise was the introduction of the “Just the Facts Ma’am,” Natalie Morales, who serves up obscure statistics or facts about the issue at hand. For example, stripper poles are an accepted form of exercise and around 1,000 people have their pets stuffed every year.

Both couples won a second honeymoon, though we were told at the beginning of the show only one would be winning. So no one had the craziest, worst or most complicated issue; everyone is a winner in the end.

Later, in the series premier, it was evident that the show would not be much more than one spouse with a crazy idea and one with a sane argument.

The experts of the premier were Tina Fey, who is married and has a daughter, Seinfled, in a return appearance, and Eva Longoria Parker, who is in her second marriage. They weighed in on three couples from all over the country.

The Rios, who actually brought two issues for the panel and ref to decide, seemed to be a happy couple and experts in fighting. Their issues were titled “The Forbidden Table” and “The Possible Porch.”

Dalia Rios has a formal dining room.  It is only to be used at Thanksgiving and for reflecting. Luis thinks that this is ridiculous.

The panel had some lively discussion on the issue. Fey thought the idea was crazy and that it was like saying: “The bathroom is only for Easter.” Longoria Parker however, confessed that she also had a formal dining room, AND a formal living room.  This resulted in a hilarious debate that centered on the issue: if royalty might be stopping by your house in your lifetime or not.

Dalia also wants Luis to build a “do-it-yourself” porch but he maintains he cannot “do-it-himself.” She berates him for being unable to do what all men should instinctively know how to do, and he shoots back that her comments are sexist. The facts from Just the  Facts Ma’am: studies show that women are better at assembly than men.

The panel was split on both issues but did not address the sexist issues and decided that couples that fight well are happily married.  The wife and husband each “won” one issue, but Papa merely gave the verdict with no helpful thoughts or insights on the deeper issues.

The Ramundos also had a conflict that had to do with gender issues.  The husband Joe is a self proclaimed “metrosexual” who spends more time going to the salon than with his wife and kids.  The couple awkwardly discussed the fact that Paula is not attracted to men who are not “manly men” and that Joe is more of the woman in the relationship.

The panel seemed to regard this as a superficial issue. Longoria Parker though Joe probably “watched too much Jersey Shore” and Tina commented that the problem was probably Joe’s desire for more “shnookie” and that Paula should give it to him if she wants to get her way.

This couple’s problem was uncomfortable to watch.  It seemed like they were not attracted to each other because of this issue. Papa and the panel assumed that we all thought men should be manly but well-groomed.  Though the call went to the husband, the audience was left in a strange place, unsure what to think.

The final couple, after a brief look at the Wizas and their flossing dispute, were the Kohlenbergs, who had an issue about wedding rings. Howard refuses to wear it while “playing basketball,” an image we were privy to that resulted in bouts of laughter and insults from the panel.

The panel sided with the wife solely based on the fact that her husband was a terrible basketball player and no woman would be interested in him after they saw him play.  It was strange to see the panel bully Howard, who seemed uncomfortable and embarassed.

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NBC entertains us but ultimately misses the bigger picture with The Marriage Ref and gives us a show void of insight and advice. As Papa said on the pilot, “Is this a perfect system? Not even close!”

The couples and their problems were treated superficially and did not address any of the underlying societal issues that were brought up by the discussion.  Though Papa was fully of generic advice for couples to get over their disagreements, ending the season premier with “Your marriage is worth fighting for! Now kiss and make up!” the show does not deal with love at all.  It merely tells us to suck it up, tolerate each other and get on with our lives; happiness is not THAT important.

The Marriage Ref airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on NBC. For more information visit www.nbc.com/the-marriage-ref.