A critical bomb in America, the Jerry Seinfeld-produced MARRIAGE REF has been remade for the UK and aired its first episode last Saturday. Dermot O'Leary hosts (well, ITV need to keep him sweet in-between X Factor marathons), but this format reveals he's just a safe pair of hands who can't thrive on a show that practically demands a comedian at the helm. He can teeter on his heels and nod his head as much as he likes, but with nobody to hug or call "buddy", O'Leary looked lost at sea.
For the uninitiated, The Marriage Ref sees a celebrity trio pass judgement on real-life marital tiffs. This is primetime ITV, so the arguments are trivial affairs like a wife who won't stop writing her husband to-do lists, or an elderly couple's disagreement over pickles. It would admittedly be a very different, edgier show if the marital strife involved serious issues like infidelity, illegitimate children, and bigamy, but The Marriage Ref goes too far the other way. It's impossible to care about each couple's inconsequential annoyances, and most aren't funny enough to entertain. The whole things ends up feeling incredibly petty and a weak idea to base a TV show on.
It does help that there's a tradition of comedy panel shows on UK TV, which this is a loose example of. Still, while the American show manages a star-studded lineup of refs (thanks to Seinfeld's rolodex), the UK version already looks like a bargain basement version. In the US they had Alec Baldwin, Eva Longoria, Tina Fey, Madonna, Ricky Gervais, Larry David, Donald Trump, Sarah Silverman, Bette Midler, and Demi Moore as marriage refs. For the British remake's big launch we had ubiquitous comedians Sarah Millican and Jimmy Carr and, wait for it, ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. A woman who seemed genuinely puzzled when Carr started cracking jokes, as if nobody told her this was a lighthearted comedy show and her absurd role as "UN Ambassador" was genuinely required to sort out some quarrels.
So while the US version has A and B-list guests the audience may be intrigued to see pass comment on ordinary people's love lives, the UK version's just got some comedians to provide quips. And they're the kind of comedians you see all the time on shows such as this, and it's becoming a real pain watching them conveyor belt their way around TV. Carr was hosting 8 Out Of 10 Cats and Millican was a guest on King Of... just the night before. I'm not sure which version of The Marriage Ref is best. The UK's going more for the funnybone, which probably makes it more regularly amusing, but I think I'd like to hear what Madonna has to say more than Millican. That said, the US version's crippled by that horribly cheesy/dumb production style that infects every American show involving real people. So, surprisingly, the UK version's probably a mild improvement, despite lacking any major star-power. But that just means it resides in an outer circle of TV Hell.