GRIN AND BEAR IT
IF THE sitcom of the 1990s, like that of other decades, reflects the angst of its inhabitants, then this is the era of relationships - the messy, complicated man/woman variety. Some of the best of the current crop of American sitcoms, like Seinfeld, Mad About You, and Love And War, play on neuroses about safe sex and nostalgia for the golden age of the '60s.
But the '90s is also about realism: generation X has seen it all before. NYPD Blue and Cops are examples of this desire to strip off the fancy '80s packaging and get to the gritty heart of the matter.
Two relationship sitcoms airing at the moment show the differences between the '80s approach and the '90s approach: Anything But Love and Mad About You.
Anything But Love is an early '90s show, but the style is pure 1980s. Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, A Fish Called Wanda) plays up-and-coming journalist Hannah Miller on the Chicago Weekly magazine. The friendship interest sits next to her: star reporter and angst-king Marty Gold (Richard 'how's my hair?' Lewis). Most of the story-lines revolve around the rather cliched premise of friends who have fallen in love but don't really know it. So, surprise, surprise, the comic stuff comes through misinterpreted feelings and verbal flirting.
They are surrounded by a supporting cast of bizarrely stretched stereotypes, ranging from closet bondage Englishman Brian, camp puppy-dog assistant Jules and Catherine, the editor-in-chief and self-styled queen of the roost, whose fashion fantasies would make Jean Paul Gaultier cringe.
For all the easy laughs, however, the whole is too slickly packaged and predictable. There is a strong reliance on stereotypes and the gags aren't exactly state-of-the-art (think Allo, Allo). The show is going the same way as Britain's Just Good Friends in the '80s - on a slow road downhill. The premise of 'almost in love' simply does not lend itself to the long term. But, more importantly, the show is just not gritty enough for the '90s.
The producers realised this and tried to inject some development into the relationship. That didn't work either. Once the relationship went biological, so to speak, the show finished; killed by the injection of '90s realism.
Mad About You, on the other hand, has nothing forced about it. It is a show made for Generation X - realistic, down-to-earth and nit-picking. On paper it looks terrible. Two newlyweds are on the brink of nothing more than dinner together. The couple buy furniture, worry about clothes and try to fix up friends with each other. But excellent comic timing and acute observations make this show a cut above the rest.
The on-screen chemistry between Paul and Jamie is sharp-edged and natural. Paul's gentle sarcasm ('Your sister,' Paul says to Jamie, 'she's so sweet . . . you two are so different') is usually parried by Jamie, who tends to win in the end. But the beauty of it is that both are neurotic in a very identifiable way. They are not misfits, nor are they stereotypes.
They are real people, and sometimes the observation of the foibles of a relationship strikes you right on the funny bone, especially when it comes to couple-talk. Halfway through watching a video of themselves in youthful abandonment (next episode), Jamie says: 'It's nearly over.' 'How do you know it's nearly over?' cries Paul. 'You're getting that look,' she says. 'What look?' 'That intense look, you know,' says Jamie and puffs up her face in a piece of understated sexual mockery.
The secret of the show's success and its contemporary feel must lie with Paul Reiser (who plays Paul Buchman on the show). Reiser (remember him as the double-crossing company man in Aliens?) made his name - and still does - as a stand-up comedian whose act feeds off just the sort of relationship material that Mad About You is tailored around. 'When I was doing stand-up, I noticed that the marriage and relationship stuff got the biggest laughs. I knew that the closer the TV show was to my life, the funnier it would be.' He has also been very generous to Helen Hunt's character (the two get equal air-time); a wise move because Hunt is perfect for the role, and proved as much by winning a Golden Globe at the recent American TV awards.
It is telling that two of the best '90s 'relationship' comedies, Seinfeld and Mad About You, are driven by stand-up comics. This is what really sets Mad About You apart from Anything But Love. The quick wits and observational skills of stand-up comedians, honed in the uncompromising arena of live comedy, are what define the '90s sitcom: sharp-edged and realistic. As Hong Kong catches up with the rest of the world in disillusionment, the TV networks might even get around to buying the new series of Seinfeld. But don't hold your breath.