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In two new shows, celebrities drown in their own garish reflections

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010; C06

Is there enough work these days for celebrities?

I worry, because they keep popping up in such cheap stuff, including two celeb-dependent shows on NBC on Thursday and Friday: "The Marriage Ref" and "Who Do You Think You Are?"

Maybe the Labor Department has new data on this. I mean, I understand why the quasi-famous wind up on celeb weight-loss shows and in Dr. Drew's rehab facility -- those people really are desperate. But what about bigger stars?

In the case of the deeply awkward, mostly unfunny "The Marriage Ref," the only obvious answer is that its creator, Jerry Seinfeld, has called in every A-list chit in his book. Alec Baldwin, Madonna, Kelly Ripa, Ricky Gervais, Larry David -- you've been served.

And what a death march Seinfeld is sending them on. NBC did not provide critics with a full look at the show (always a bad sign), so 14.5 million of us took a look at a half-hour preview Sunday night, overhyped and unkindly squeezed into the Winter Olympics' Closing Ceremonies.

"The Marriage Ref" preview dripped needless condescension and made lame, "take my wife, please" attempts at outdated humor, all regarding the minefield that is legal (and sacred) heterosexual union. Mars and Venus were at it again, with one couple in Georgia arguing over stripper-pole installation in the boudoir and another in Long Island fighting about the husband having his beloved (but dead) pet dog stuffed and mounted for display in the home.

Hosted by Seinfeld pal Tom Papa (who claims that marriage is nothing more than finding someone you can stand to sleep next to for the rest of your life), the show will briefly profile couples with ongoing -- and frankly, unconvincing -- spats.

Although the problems are all trivial, they are presented as somehow quintessentially symbolic of the epic marital struggle. Shamefully, "Today" show news anchor Natalie Morales is on hand, sitting at a computer, ready to Google-up pointless research that might somehow be germane to the disputes.

A panel of three celebs (Seinfeld sometimes among them), all wearing funeral-home amounts of HDTV makeup, then discusses who is right and who is wrong -- the husband or the wife -- in each situation. Here you have a bunch of wealthy celebs, many with their own spotty marital and relationship histories, making jokes about how the middle class lives.

And what bad jokes they are. No double-entendre escapes unhowled at, unpounced upon. Have you ever seen what happens when your company's CEO cracks a joke? (The office EXPLODES with laughter.) Even "The Marriage Ref" audience is guffawing in a way that sounds fake. Some think Seinfeld can do no wrong, but what he's created here is anachronistic, flat and even mean-spirited.

Is this really what married people (or, in the cases of the not-so-married panelists David, Baldwin and Madonna) think of marriage?

* * *

In "Who Do You Think You Are?" Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Spike Lee and other celebrities undertake personal quests to follow the outermost known branches of their family trees.

It's sort of like what Henry Louis Gates Jr. has been doing on PBS with the far more intriguing "Faces of America," only "Who Do You Think You Are?" pulls out the overblown power ballads and "uplifting" moments -- the sort of self-discovery that celebrities bathe in.

Unlike the misuse of celebrity willingness on "The Marriage Ref," "Who Do You Think You Are?" has a purer heart and an underlying appreciation for marriage, family, longevity and memory. Also to its credit, it encourages people to go to libraries and museums and to look for things online besides the latest Perez Hilton gossip.

Thanks to the crueler aspects of American history, Smith runs out of leads in places such as Burnt Corn, Ala., and Virginia's Mecklenburg County, so he instead makes a symbolic voyage to Benin, on the West African coast, based on the results of his DNA sample. There, of course, he sees things that change him.

In the premiere, Sarah Jessica Parker uses all her thespian powers (including tears, rubbing her temples in worry and tossing a head full of hair that is obviously well between Garnier Fructis commercial shoots) to discover details about unknown relatives on her mother's side. "I want this for her. Even more than for me," Parker says.

She's off -- to Ohio, to California, to New England. She finds out that one relative skipped out on his pregnant wife to participate in the Gold Rush and, going back 300 years, how one possible relative escaped conviction in a Salem witch trial. She says "wow" about a thousand times.

A bevy of genealogists and librarians is there, kind as ever, having already made printouts of all the research Parker "discovers." Apparently, none of them points out to her that hundreds, if not thousands, of other people could trace their histories back to the same names.

Too late: Parker has been seduced by the narcissistic narrative that transfixes most genealogy nuts: "It's my people," she declares. "I have stock in this country . . . real roots . . . I belong." (Where did she think she came from? The moon?)

"It's changed everything about who I thought I was," our movie star says.

It's changed what I thought Sarah Jessica Parker was, too. I thought she was too busy for this sort of thing.

The Marriage Ref, (one hour) airs at 10 p.m. Thursday on NBC.

Who Do You Think You Are?, (one hour) debuts at 8 p.m. Fridayon NBC.

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