By Sarah Rodman
November 20, 2019 at 07:00 AM EST
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Over the years Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt were occasionally asked about the possible return of their Emmy-winning, ’90s comedy Mad About You. But it wasn’t necessarily their characters — New Yorkers Paul and Jamie Buchman — about whom fans were most curious. “People always ask about Murray,” Reiser says in his classic mock-exasperation style of the couple’s lovable mutt. “They don’t ask about me, they don’t ask about Helen. ‘What happened to the dog?’ And then they’re surprised that 27 years later, the good Lord took him.” But sometimes when the Lord taketh away, He also giveth. Twenty years after its seven-season run decorated by 12 Emmys, Mad is back with a new season on Spectrum Originals; six episodes are available now, and six additional episodes will launch Dec. 18.

The Buchmans, who began the series as lovably mismatched newlyweds, are now facing an empty nest since daughter Mabel (Abby Quinn) is heading to college all the way… at NYU. (Yes, everyone involved is simply ignoring that downbeat original series finale.)

Trae Patton/Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum; NBC

“It took us a while to get to ‘yes’ for ourselves, for creative reasons,” says Reiser, sitting next to Hunt on the meticulously re-created, but fully updated, Buchman living-room set. One stage over sits the set for Cousin Ira (John Pankow)’s Italian restaurant, a new setting for the update. “The first thought really was that it would be fun to play together. And then the second was ‘Well, why? What story would you tell?’”

Hunt says that during the original run — all 164 episodes of which were made available on demand on Spectrum prior to the new series launch — “I used to get very anxious in the summer [hiatus] about ‘Oh God, 22 stories that we have to think of, and shepherd the writing through.’ And then, once we would have a theme of the season, I would relax and think, ‘We’ll get great stories. I know we will.’ Similarly, there just didn’t seem like a good reason to do it until we did the math that this would be the empty-nest moment. Then I thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to find 12 stories easily.’ ” 

“It’s funny,” says Reiser of the premise and how it mirrored real life. “I remember my parents rekindled friendships with friends 20 years later, because they were all busy raising kids. And then I remember thinking, ‘Well, they’re your good friends? How come I never saw them?’ ‘We were busy.’ And I realized, that’s exactly the timing that’s happening here, with our audience. It’s like, Helen and I were busy, we raised the kid and now here we are again.”

Trae Patton/Sony Pictures Television/Spectrum

As Jamie and Paul (painfully) detach from Mabel — to the degree that they can when her dorm is mere blocks away — they are learning about each other again, and the new series zeroes in on small relationship moments just as its predecessor did. “That was the arc for this 12,” says Reiser. “How do we rediscover our mojo?”

Mojo recovery was not a problem in real life for the pair who have worked together and been friends for more than 25 years (they kept in close touch). The actors retain an easy rapport, finishing each other’s sentences and gently encouraging the other to speak and tell stories. That connection helped them ease back into familiar roles that required a fresh perspective.

“The first read-through, we had a little private table read with the cast — that was a trip,” says Hunt, who, along with Reiser, was thrilled to bring original series characters like Ira, Paul’s buddy Mark (Richard Kind), and Jamie’s sister Lisa (Anne Ramsay) back to the playpen. Carol Burnett also returns as Jamie and Lisa’s mom. “The biggest part of the trip was how readily we did fall into place,” says Reiser. “And then, when we came on the set, that really locked it and we just thought, ‘Oh yes.’ I think what blew us all away was the thought that this should be harder. I mean, it’s not easy to do, but it’s coming back to us so readily. It is totally a comfortable pair of shoes.”

One major change the pair wanted to make was who was sitting in the director’s chair. Hunt, who had directed episodes in the original run, helmed the first episode of the new series and was insistent that there be diversity and gender parity behind the lens: all 12 episodes were directed by women or people of color including Gloria Calderón Kellett (One Day at a Time) and actress-director Joanna Kerns (Growing Pains).

“That was, I have to say, Helen’s crystal clear focus,” says Reiser. “It’s not going to happen unless you make it happen,” continues Hunt. “I can’t walk onto one more set with 5,000 white men. I just can’t do it anymore.” She praises the slate of directors as “the top, they don’t get any better than this group of people.”

Mad About You directors: Top (l-r): Betsy Thomas, Eric Dean Seaton, Helen Hunt, Phill Thomas; Bottom (l-r): Joanna Kerns, Gloria Calderón Kellett, Kelly Park
Michael Becker/Sony Pictures Television

 

 

Paradoxically, part of what made the revival so appealing to the actors — who serve as very-hands-on executive producers alongside veteran showrunner Peter Tolan (Rescue Me, The Larry Sanders Show) — is the fact that they didn’t need to do it. Neither was hurting for work.

Both had robust careers pre-Mad, with Reiser familiar to stand-up comedy fans, viewers of My Two Dads, and on the big screen in films as disparate as Diner and Aliens. (We may still be mad about Carter Burke’s betrayal.) Hunt was a child actor who appeared in scads of episodic television and films including Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Peggy Sue Got Married. Their résumés only got richer and more diverse both during the show’s run and after it ended.

Hunt, 56, a four-time Emmy winner for Mad, appeared in hit films such asTwister and also scooped up an Oscar during the show’s run for 1997’s As Good as It Gets and was nominated for a second for 2012’s The Sessions. She also dove headfirst into directing feature films and episodic television (recently, Netflix’s The Politician and NBC’s This Is Us). The road recently beckoned again for Reiser, 63, who followed up the original series run by authoring several books, cutting a lovely album with singer-songwriter Julia Fordham, and making something of a cottage industry of working with all the big streaming services, including Netflix (Stranger Things and The Kominsky Method), Hulu (There’s… Johnny!) and Amazon Prime Video (Red Oaks).

“We never take it for granted,” Reiser says of their enduring career good fortune. “But [reviving the show] was not, by any stretch, a career move. This is not part of any plan. This was literally us sitting at lunch going, ‘Would we want to?’ I’ve given up trying to predict stuff. Would we do more? I don’t know. Let’s see where we’re standing at the end of 12.”

We’re guessing this isn’t the final frontier because, after all — spoiler alert! — the Buchmans do have a new dog.

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