One of the more complicated end-of-the-television-season rituals is saying goodbye to one-time hit series that have overstayed their welcome.
In recent years, that list has included "Murphy Brown" and "Roseanne." Tonight, in that category comes "Mad About You" with Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser in a one-hour finale titled "The Final Frontier."
The episode opens with Paul (Reiser) and Jamie (Hunt) Buchman in bed introducing a clip reel of some of their "favorite moments from the last seven years." The two come across as somewhere between distracted and lifeless during the introduction, and the reel of clips doesn't score much higher on the emotional register.
It's a lame way to open the hour, and the sequence ends on one of the very episodes that sunk the series. It is the episode that found Paul and Jamie sitting outside the door of baby Mabel's room as they let her cry herself to sleep for the first time. A full half-hour of a baby crying was a sitcom first. It was also, according to Nielsen audience measurements, one of the last for many former "Mad About You" fans.
Unlike "Murphy Brown," which ditched the baby once the ratings started to drop, "Mad About You" stuck with Mabel to the bitter end. Tonight's finale is told by Mabel, and for the first time they have finally found a way to make the kid a plus rather than a minus: They fast-forward to the future and give us Mabel as a twentysomething filmmaker who has definite issues with her parents. The best part: Mabel is played by Janeane Garofalo, who is as funny and winning as Reiser used to be.
It's a clever conceit, this film within the film. After the reel of "moments," we see the opening credits for a film titled "The Reason I'm Like This" by Mabel Buchman. After the credits, we see Mabel speaking to us in direct address as a narrator of documentary might. Her first words, "I blame my parents. I've been engaged four times to three different men, and, if you're doing the math, that's a lot of angry people."
Mabel's film jumps about from 1999 to 2005, 2010 and 2020 and shows us her parents through her eyes. We see them finding out from guest star Lyle Lovett that they are not really married. We see them explaining "about boys and girls" to Mabel. We see them hiding the death of Murray, the dog, from her by getting an identical dog and pulling off the charade for six years. We hear their reaction to her decision to change her name to Sonya. We see them in their 1,000th hour of therapy. Most of all, we see their relationship come to a moment of crisis that seems insurmountable.
Beyond Garofalo's comic charm, the hour is further sweetened by Hunt, who remained the best actress in series television despite the misguided turns and ultimate nose-dive the series took. She is so good at romantic comedy that you don't notice the shortcomings of her partner.
The final scene tonight takes place at a screening for yet another film within the film within the film. This is another angry movie by Mabel Buchman, titled "Stabbing Bobby." Funny stuff, but for the episode to work, it has to take a sudden dramatic turn following the end of "Bobby." Reiser fumbles the dramatic moment, but Hunt steps forward and absolutely nails it without saying a word. She really is quite marvelous and will be missed from weekly television.
But I have to be honest, I stopped watching after the series started obsessing on Mabel. The half-hour of wall-to-wall crying episode and Reiser's defensiveness about it in a subsequent interview convinced me the producers had lost touch with much of the audience and had given into the self-indulgence of Reiser. The only times I watched were those that featured Mel Brooks in his brilliant guest-star turns as Uncle Phil.
"Mad About You" has been called "NBC's Titanic" this year because of the way it sunk in the ratings while paying Hunt and Reiser each $1 million per episode. With 22 episodes this year, that comes out to $44 million spent just on the stars of a series that hasn't won its time period on a regular basis in two years.
Up until last week, the money didn't bother me. Then, NBC told "Homicide: Life on the Street" producer Tom Fontana that it was canceling his series because it could program the hour for $200,000 a week less with a new drama.
NBC said it couldn't afford the extra $4.4 million for a socially relevant, critically acclaimed drama that didn't win its time period, but it could afford $44 for a tired sitcom that didn't win its time period. This is the sort of thing that pushes me toward despair over the future of network television.
'Mad About You'
What: The final episode of "Mad About You"
When: 9 to 10 tonight
Where: WBAL (Channel 11)
Pub Date: 5/24/99