Seinfeld’s back on TV — sort of — for ‘Marriage Ref’

By Frazier Moore

NEW YORK — A few things seem reasonably certain about NBC’s new series, “Marriage Ref”:

It probably won’t spotlight Snooki from “Jersey Shore.” It probably won’t get any politicians riled up. It probably won’t do any worse in the ratings than most of NBC’s shows.

But all this is raw conjecture. No more than a handful of video bites have been released to critics, even though the show was announced a year ago. Despite incessant promotion by NBC (hey, viewer, you like a little Olympic coverage with your “Marriage Ref” commercials?), vagueness cloaks the whole high-profile project.

One sure thing: Jerry Seinfeld is the high-profile draw. He’s the driving force whose very name conjures up a certain series that ended a dozen years ago after transforming TV comedy and helping fuel the glory days NBC never will know again. No wonder “Seinfeld,” even after all this time, is the magic word for a new show viewers might otherwise not even have noticed.

Trouble is, Seinfeld will mostly stay out of sight in his primary duties as a co-creator and producer. Instead, he has bequeathed the on-camera role — the title role of Marriage Ref — to actor/standup/not-a-household-name Tom Papa.

One other sure thing: “Marriage Ref” will be unveiled with flourish as a so-called sneak preview Sunday at 10:30 p.m. — a half-hour version strategically following the Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony. Finally, for better or worse, “Marriage Ref” goes public.

After that, starting Thursday, it will air for eight Thursdays at 10 p.m.

But for now, random clues must suffice.

The network pitches the show as a humorous, all-in-fun hour where “disputes between real-life couples are revealed, examined and ultimately judged.”

In front of a studio audience, a rotating panel of celebrity “experts” will screen prerecorded clips of those real-life couples having real-life spats: Should the wife let her husband park his Harley in the living room? When the family dog dies, should or shouldn’t it be stuffed and displayed?

Then, after pondering the evidence and hearing panelists’ arguments, Papa will make his call in favor of either the husband or the wife.

Panelists announced thus far will include Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa, Tina Fey, Eva Longoria, Charles Barkley, Larry David, Madonna and Seinfeld (who appears on the sneak preview).

That’s “Marriage Ref.” Sounds simple enough.

Or not.

As Seinfeld articulated (or tried to) at a Los Angeles press gathering last month, “There’s no way here today that we are going to be ... able to explain to you exactly what the show is. ... I don’t even think we could nail down the type of show it is.”

It’s a hybrid form, he insisted, “never brought together in this recipe before.” And he promised “there’s no question that you’re going to watch us and go, ‘Well, this feels unlike anything I’ve ever seen.’”

Wow, Jerry makes “Marriage Ref” sound even cooler than curling!

“We’re going to end fights all around the country, once and for all,” cracked the Ref himself, Tom Papa.

But Seinfeld quickly jumped in to set the record straight: This show is all about laughing, not helping.

“We’re not presuming to help these people,” Seinfeld declared. “We’re not going to fix your marriage!”

So, in a TV landscape saturated ad nauseam with how-to advice, one thing seems refreshingly clear about “Marriage Ref”: At least, it’s no “Dr. Phil.”

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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