TV Review – The Best of Seinfeld Part One

The Best of Seinfeld Part One

The Phone Message (Season 2, Episode 4)
Original airdate: February 13, 1991
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
Directed by Tom Cherones

You’ve probably heard the story of Seinfeld’s creation before. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friend Larry David co-developed the series for NBC. They focused on Seinfeld’s comedy routine, observations about mundane aspects of life and used it as a foundation for the sitcom. The result was a show that didn’t teach a heart-warming lesson in each episode or even have morally redeemable characters. It was a clear break from the direction the American sitcom was going in the 1970s and 80s. The result was that it became the highest-rated program of its day and had a tremendous influence on programming even today. It also has developed its fair share of people who dislike the series. They see it as grossly cynical & part of an out-dated mindset. They aren’t wrong, and revisiting it with a modern lens does illuminate problems I couldn’t see as a kid. However, I argue it is still a hilarious show and was just the sort of things a segment of the population needed who wasn’t interested in something like Full House or other family-oriented sitcoms.

The first season of Seinfeld was not good. It was a show trying to find its tone in a landscape where nothing was like it. There were only five episodes in that first run as it was a mid-season replacement. With season two, it was back a mid-season venture but with a larger order of 12 episodes. It was still rough waters with episode pacing and characters being murky. “The Phone Message” was one of the first entries into the series that hit upon what Seinfeld would be. That meant it would be centered on George Constanza (Jason Alexander) getting in over his head and making a simple situation all the more complicated. The episode for this slot originally had been about Elaine buying a handgun for protection and the other characters’ reactions to that. Production deemed that too dicey of a topic, and so a quick rewrite was done. Larry David decided to write about something he had attempted in real life once.

George and Jerry have dates on the same night. Everything is going fine for both dates until the conclusion of the night. George is dropping off Carol at her place, and she invites him up for coffee. He responds he can’t drink coffee at night because it keeps him up; Carol looks a bit letdown but heads inside. Then George realizes Carol was using coffee as a euphemism for intimacy. Meanwhile, Jerry is bantering with Donna and learns she likes a Dockers commercial airing at the time. Jerry thinks the whole thing is pretentious, but Donna says she thought it was smart. As would become common in the series, this minor irk would mark the beginning of the end for Jerry and a romantic partner.

The episode’s title comes from the fact that George leaves a series of increasingly more irate messages on Carol’s answering machine after he fails to hear back from her. Then he learns she has been out of town all week and decides he has to get in her apartment and swap out the tape in the machine. He recruits Jerry as part of the operation, and they stake out the front of Carol’s building on the evening she is set to arrive home. The impetus of the episode came from Larry David’s own experience of leaving phone messages that ended his relationships with women. During his short tenure on Saturday Night Live, he had written an unaired sketch about a man sneaking in to switch out phone message tapes just like in the episode. Because David and Seinfeld only had two days to develop a new episode, this would suffice and become one of the best early entries into the show.

The Chinese Restaurant (Season 2, Episode 11)
Original airdate: May 23, 1991
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
Directed by Tom Cherones

In television, there is something called a “bottle episode.” These usually occur near the end of a season when the production budget is getting low. They put the characters in a single setting for almost the entire episode to save costs and tell a story, usually in real-time. If you remember those 1980s sitcom flashback episodes or when someone was stuck on an elevator, bottle episodes were made to save money. Leave it to Seinfeld to take a format considered a cast-off and make it one of the most highly-regarded episodes in the series. “The Chinese Restaurant” would become a touchstone for people trying to explain Seinfeld to those unfamiliar. It doesn’t sound like something that would work on paper, but it is still incredibly hilarious.

Jerry, George, and Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) go to get dinner at a Chinese restaurant before seeing a revival of Plan 9 From Outer Space. The maître d (James Hong) tells them it will be “5, 10 minutes,” and they settle into the lobby waiting for their names to be called. They only have a short time until the movie starts, and numerous things happening in their personal lives. George confides in Jerry that he ended sex in the middle of the act because he had to use the bathroom. He knew the woman’s apartment was too small, and she would know exactly what he did, so he went home. She is, of course, angry with him. Jerry notices a woman in the dining area who he knows but can’t place. He also tells Elaine he lied to his uncle to get out of having dinner with him that night. Elaine is profoundly hungry, and that leads to her behaving in increasingly absurd ways.

The idea came from Larry David after he and Seinfeld waited for a table at a Chinese restaurant for a long time. They thought a lot of comedy could be mined from such a simple premise, letting the character’s personalities guide the episode. NBC executives thought otherwise and hated the idea. They were convinced there was no story here, and viewers would be turned off. David argued back that each character has their own storyline with an arc and clear resolution. NBC eventually relented but kept making the series push the episode further and further back until it became the second to last one to air in season two. What “The Chinese Restaurant” does so well is emphasizing the existential nature of Seinfeld. The early seasons were all about working through the mundane struggles of life without any sentimentality. There’s also a continuation of the characters’ relationship with food; they always go to the corner diner or engage in debates about food. While so many sitcoms of the day were about idealized suburban life, Seinfeld said that the lives of single people, working people, grumpy people had just as important stories to tell and were more resonate with the human experience.

The Pen (Season 3, Episode 3)
Original airdate: October 2, 1991
Written by Larry David
Directed by Tom Cherones

This is the only episode where George does not appear. When Jason Alexander attended the table read and found he had no lines, the actor threatened to quit. Alexander later admitted in an interview that this was caused by deep insecurity that Elaine’s character would eclipse his role in the series and that George would be written out. Never again was there an episode that didn’t feature all four of the leading players. The episode isn’t any lesser for George’s absence, and this ends up being a tightly written & hilarious entry.

Jerry and Elaine arrive at the retirement community in Florida, where Jerry’s parents, Helen & Morty, live. Morty is being honored for his tenure as community president the following evening. Jerry and Elaine are staying for two days with plans to go scuba diving, attend the honorarium, and then fly back the next morning. Immediately, Elaine remarks on how hot it is in the Seinfelds’ home as they don’t turn on their air conditioning. Things worsen when Elaine sleeps on the fold-out couch bed whose center bar leaves her with horrendous back problems the following morning and taking painkillers that make her incredibly loopy. Jerry also meets Jack Klompus (Sandy Baron), one of the great recurring characters in the show’s history. Jack has one of the pens used by the astronauts, meaning it can write upside down. Jerry expresses how cool that is, so Jack tells him to take the pen, which Jerry reluctantly does. This becomes the spark of all the problems in the rest of the episode as it becomes the center of all the gossip in the community.

This episode was one of the earliest I remember watching in the first run. I would have been ten years old, and it reminded me so much of older relatives who, while not Jewish retirees, exhibited some of the same eccentricities as Midwestern Irish-German retirees. The lack of air conditioning, the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, the gossip. It is all so entirely on point and never mean-spirited, or the annoying “old people are cute” trope. It’s a very pointed observation of the insular senior communities and just some great comedy moments. Shouting out “Stella!” became a thing my siblings and I would do throughout our childhoods.

The Alternate Side (Season 3, Episode 11)
Original airdate: December 4, 1991
Written by Larry David and Bill Masters
Directed by Tom Cherones

This is an excellent example of each character having their own storyline and the writers finding a way to merge them all together in the finale seamlessly. Jerry’s car is stolen, and he gets a call on the car phone from the thief with questions about the vehicle. It appears Sid, a neighborhood man who is paid to park cars, accidentally left the keys in Jerry’s car, which led to the theft. Jerry goes about getting a rental while George overhears Sid is going out of town for the next week. It’s been a while since George had a regular job, so he asks if he can take the gig for that time. Simultaneously, director Woody Allen is shooting a picture in the neighborhood, and Kramer (Michael Richards) has secured an extra position which becomes a small speaking part. His line is, “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” Finally, Elaine has entered into a relationship with one of the authors that write for her publishing company. He’s 66 years old, which makes their relationship a little out of the ordinary.

“The Alternate Side” is a beautiful Rube Goldberg plot machine that lets each character’s story operate seemingly independently to culminate in the finale. It never forces the plot but puts characters in situations that underline their core aspects. George cannot handle pressure, so having the Woody Allen film on the block while he is filling in on a job he hasn’t done before is immediately going to show him losing it. Elaine is very blunt in ending things with a partner, so the situation she ends up in makes it that much harder for her to extricate herself. Jerry deals with the circular logic of a car rental service. Kramer seems to stumble into lucky situations but then will get himself kicked out. These basic character tenets would inform the entirety of the series.

The Boyfriend (Season 3, Episodes 17 & 18)
Original airdate: February 12, 1992
Written by Larry David & Larry Levin
Directed by Tom Cherones

After a workout, Jerry & George are dressing in the locker room and run into New York Mets player Keith Hernandez. Jerry and Keith strike up a friendship with the comedian becoming very concerned about impressing Keith and making sure he likes him. Elaine finds this amusing as Jerry talks about Keith like he’s dating him. That takes an exciting turn when Keith asks for Elaine’s number and cancels going to a movie with Jerry to go on a date with Elaine. Meanwhile, George’s unemployment benefits are coming to an end, and he is desperate to get an extension. He tells his caseworker that he just applied and interviewed with a latex company called Vandelay Industries. This company is, of course, fictional, and the phone number he gives is Jerry’s. This leads to George staking out Jerry’s apartment, waiting for the call to keep up the ruse. Kramer meanwhile reveals an encounter he and Newman (Wayne Knight) had with Keith Hernandez. 

The two significant notable elements of this episode are the story told by Kramer and George’s panic over his unemployment scheme. Kramer and Newman’s retelling of the time Keith Hernandez spit on them is filmed in the Zapruder film style, the footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. At the time the episode came out, Oliver Stone’s JFK was a cultural phenomenon. Jerry’s breakdown of the spit’s trajectory mirrors Jim Garrison’s magic bullet theory presented in the film. Here, it is the “magic loogie theory.” 

Then you have George’s subplot, which has him in a situation where he becomes increasingly manic over a problem of his own creation. George’s unemployment was a multi-season story that reaches a zenith in this hour-long episode. We get to see the fake charming George as he tries to weasel his way around the caseworker’s office. The Vandelay scheme fails to work, and so he starts to go on and on about how beautiful the caseworker’s daughter is and going on a date with her to avoid his benefits ending. This idiocy makes George one of my favorite sitcom characters, always railing against perceived injustices against him while trying to find loopholes.

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