Considering its tepid ratings and poisonous critical reception last winter, that a second season of The Marriage Ref exists is bewildering. But through some sort of cosmic cruelty, NBC has brought back the game show, where smug celebrities make nice-enough Middle Americans look like clueless, squabbling yokels.
The premise of the show is intriguingly old-fashioned: A couple presents a domestic dispute—usually of the eccentric variety, like one spouse’s obsession over giant pumpkins—before comedian Tom Papa and a panel of three celebrity “refs,” who toss some jokes around and then decide who’s “the rightest.” Rather than humanize its celebrity guests, allowing them to act like actual, relatable human beings, the show makes them come across as mean-spirited, judgmental, and about as relatable as space aliens.
This season the quarreling couples actually come into the studio, so the panelists no longer have to interact with them from a safe distance, and yet the celebrities display a palpable disconnect that’s cringe-worthy. Most of the show is spent with the contestants laughing at whatever the panel says (refs shift from week to week, but in the case of season two’s premiere, it’s Jerry Seinfeld, Julianne Moore, and Ricky Gervais), and if the norms try a joke of their own, they either get icy, polite laughter or condescending approval from the refs, even when the jokes are actually quite funny. Moore is a wonderful actress, and Papa, Seinfeld, and Gervais are all gifted comedians, but the smugness that oozes from their twisted faces as they pretend to understand what it’s like to share a small, cluttered house with an in-law, or scoff at people who pick up offbeat hobbies to spice up their lives, makes them utterly disdainful.
The Marriage Ref puts contestants in the position of children putting on a talent show for their parents. It doesn’t help that most of the contestants hail from flyover states and the host and panel are haughty coastal elites. At one point, Papa actually asks a contestant what a garden club is. Aside from the total lack of chemistry between the panelists and the contestants, the show’s main problem is how utterly contrived it all feels, even for television. The clips of the couples at home seem coached, the banter is stilted, and everyone is trying tremendously hard to give the appearance of having a good time.
Everyone except Gervais. He’s the best part of the episode, not so much because his rapport with the contestants works (it doesn’t), but mainly because he seems like the only person involved who isn’t pretending that The Marriage Ref is anything but a terrible show. Gervais’s near constant snipes at the show’s expense add a welcome subversive element, making it perfectly clear that he only returned to the panel after an appearance last season as a favor to Seinfeld, who produces the show.
Gervais so thoroughly dismantles The Marriage Ref that it makes my job easy. “There’s a lot of complaining on this show,” he says at one point. Contestants bitch about everything, from how often a wife’s mother-in-law makes spring rolls to how one husband doesn’t enunciate the word “pumpkin” properly. Even Seinfeld (repeatedly) nitpicks the yellowish color of a contestant’s giant, 800-pound pumpkin, not even thinking that it’s kind of impressive to grow a fruit that insanely large.
There are moments during The Marriage Ref where the show manages to lull you into a kind of thoughtless stupor—a trance where you gawk at the screen, mouth slightly agape, and just kind of take in the strangeness of it all with a thin smile. However, getting through an hour of the show is a workout. Were it not for Gervais, the program would be completely unbearable, and judging by how uncomfortable he looks throughout the entire episode, it seems doubtful that he’ll return again. Then again, that’s what people said about the show last year, and here we are.