The Marriage Ref: NBC’s Next 10 p.m. Revolution?

The post-mortem on the Jay Leno failure has been extensive. According to pretty much everyone, the 10 o’clock hour is safe for scripted drama again. Already the Law and Order and CSI clones are flooding into the networks for this development season. All is right in the world.

Or maybe not. As the goofy closing ceremony of the otherwise stellar Vancouver Olympics ended abruptly on NBC, the network unveiled its latest effort to revolutionize almost-late-night TV: The Marriage Ref.

The Marriage Ref is the most bizarre hybrid of a show that I’ve seen in a long time. It is everything that the 10 p.m. iteration of Jay Leno was not. It manages to feel both familiar and original. It is comforting and a bit weird. It is fitfully funny and, for a show about married couples fighting, strangely devoid of conflict.

This is a mash-up of the highest order. At its core, The Marriage Ref is a reality show. The basic premise is that married couple who are in the midst of an argument allow the Marriage Ref — comedian Tom Papa — to decide who is right. It is one part Judge Judy and one part Jon and Kate Plus Eight (minus the horrific meltdown of the family unit).

In the pilot, the two couples are arguing about, in turn, whether the husband can keep his dead stuffed dog in the foyer, and whether the husband can install a stripper pole in the bedroom. Right there you have the first right move of the show. Clearly, the couples’ arguments are all going to be sitcom plot lines that are so ridiculous that neither spouse could be truly mad about them. As long as we’re not watching marriages dissolve before our eyes — hello again, Jon and Kate — we can all enjoy ourselves.

And at least in the first episode, the two couples were fun to watch bicker and they actually seemed to love each other. It is a little hard to imagine though that the show is going to be able to find enough couples who have both the ability to argue playfully and have bizarre things to argue about. If the producers can pull that off, they’re in good shape.

That concept on its own would probably make for an interesting enough show, but The Marriage Ref added a second important element: celebrities. This is where Jay Leno should be kicking himself for not being more innovative with his own opportunity. After all, providing a platform for A-list celebrities to supposedly be themselves is kind of his thing.

In the first episode, you had Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa and Seinfeld himself riffing on the video footage they had just seen. None of them mentioned a single project of their own. Obviously, anytime a celebrity is on TV it is self-serving, but by not actively shilling for a show or movie like on the late night talk shows, the audience doesn’t feel quite as used. Dare I say, I was even entertained and reminded why people like celebrities in the first place. It was kind of like watching the ’70s game shows that I used to love like Hollywood Squares and Match Game where a group of celebrities helped a poor shlub win something. And they were happy to do it.

The clips of future shows included stars such as Ricky Gervais, Madonna, Larry David, Tina Fey, and did I actually see Sarah Silverman? Let’s just say that Jerry Seinfeld has a much more interesting Rolodex than the rest of us. I left wanting curious about what they had to say. (Just as an aside, I personally would much rather hear celebrities talk about stupid arguments than “important issues of the day” like you get on the kissing cousin panel shows that Bill Maher specializes in.)

If The Marriage Ref is successful, it could start a revolution at 10 p.m., but don’t mistake that for being in any way revolutionary. This is throwback comfort TV. Stupid jokes rule the day. There is no cutting edge here. It’s like a warm glass of milk that gets you ready for bed.

Which is what Jay Leno was supposed to do at 10 p.m. and is now doing again at 11:30. Of course, NBC doesn’t actually want everyone to go to bed before the local news and Jay. Their solution seems to be that just before the show ends, for some inexplicable reason, Marv Albert appears and scares the living daylights out of everyone. Seriously, where did he come from? Yikes. OK, I’m awake.