LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Comedian Jerry Seinfeld's much-anticipated return to U.S. television drew bumper audiences but some scathing reviews on Monday for his new comedy game show, "The Marriage Ref."
Some 14.5 million Americans watched the debut of show on NBC on Sunday as the network ended its coverage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, which drew more than 185 million viewers over the past 17 days.
Seinfeld, 55, who has done little TV since his beloved sitcom "Seinfeld" ended in 1998, is executive producer and occasional panelist on "The Marriage Ref," which has stars weigh-in on the light-hearted arguments of American couples.
The show is intended as one of the highlights of NBC's hastily revamped 10 p.m. schedule after it axed "The Jay Leno Show" in February in an embarrassing retreat from cheap-to-produce talk show fare in the prime-time hour traditionally seen as the home of expensive scripted drama.
Sunday's 30-minute "sneak preview" of "The Marriage Ref" featured one couple arguing about stuffing their dead dog and another about whether to put a stripper pole in their bedroom.
Alan Sepinwall of The Star Ledger called it an "ugly, unfunny, patronizing mess," while National Public Radio's Linda Holmes called it "painfully bad." Time magazine's James Poniewozik said it was "the most God-awful mishmash of a comedy-variety show" and said it had a "corny, low-rent feel."
Other reviewers were kinder and intrigued about seeing pop star Madonna, actress Tina Fey and "Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria-Parker in upcoming episodes.
"Perhaps foremost, 'The Marriage Ref' provides light entertainment at a time when silliness represents a balm to grim tidings elsewhere," said Daily Variety.
Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker was also prepared to give it a second chance, saying "Taken on its own terms, as non-scripted entertainment, 'Ref' is at the very least more fun than 'American Idol' is these days."
"The Marriage Ref" begins its regular 10 p.m. on March 4.
Meanwhile, NBC's coverage of the Vancouver games has been a boon for the network, which is bottom of the four big U.S. TV broadcasters. NBC has said it will lose about $250 million dollars after paying a record sum for U.S. broadcasting rights to the Olympics.
When final figures are released later on Monday, the Vancouver Games is expected to be the second-most watched Winter Olympics on U.S. TV after the 1994 Lillehammer games.
Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte