The Hamptons (Season 5, Episode 20)
Original airdate: May 12, 1994
Written by Peter Mehlman & Carol Leifer
Directed by Tom Cherones
In the wake of season four, Seinfeld had become the jewel in NBC’s crown. Despite their worries about episodes centered around the television industry and making meta-fictional jokes about the sitcom, it worked. Audiences wanted something different from the saccharine sitcoms they’d been given for so long. For the rest of Seinfeld’s run, the writers would refer back to older episodes without any fears of audience members not getting it.
Here, the quartet goes to the Hamptons to spend a weekend at the beach house of Carol & Michael (played by character actors Lisa Mende & Mark L. Taylor). They insist on the trip so the characters can see how the baby has grown. This references the season three episode The Boyfriend where Jerry & Kramer go to see the baby, and Kramer accidentally drops it. Additionally, this episode includes Rachel (played by Melanie Smith), who had appeared in three previous episodes making her Jerry’s most-dated girlfriend other than Elaine. The writers trusted the audience to have paid attention for quite a while or not being bothered by references to episodes they hadn’t seen.
The conflict in the episode begins when George’s new girlfriend Jane (Melora Walters) parades around the beach and back deck topless. George isn’t present and remarks earlier that the two haven’t become intimate yet. When he finds out his friends have seen her topless before he has, in typical George-fashion, he explodes, demanding to balance the scales. He decides upon popping in while Rachel changes, but times it wrong and just gets yelled at. Moments later, she barges in on George, fresh from the pool, and sees him bottomless. She laughs and apologizes, and George knows she saw that his member was smaller than usual. This leads to the discussion of “shrinkage” when a penis retracts due to cold temperatures.
This term has become used relatively widely in American culture to refer to a penis retracting, and it was coined in this episode. Larry David reportedly loved the inclusion of this term and let Peter Mehlman know he was impressed. Like The Contest, it showcased some clever wordplay to talk about something network censors might not otherwise allow on television. Mehlman was also responsible for the term “sponge-worthy” from The Sponge in season seven, referring to those who were worthy of Elaine’s use of a contraceptive product that had been discontinued.
The Opposite (Season 5, Episode 22)
Original airdate: May 19, 1994
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld and Andy Cowan
Directed by Tom Cherones
As I’ve gotten older, I find more appreciation for the episodes of Seinfeld that play with the tropes of the series. I don’t think there is an episode that does this quite as beautifully as The Opposite. I believe there are a lot of people who agree with me as it’s the highest-rated episode on IMDB. George Costanza had been stuck in a character rut for several years, and it was definitely time to move him into a new space. The same could be said about Elaine Benes. The writers cleverly flipped their situations, with George suddenly seeing an upswing in life while Elaine hit her lowest lows. This was the season five finale, so it let the writers tease a new status quo for season six.
George remarks to Jerry that every decision he’s made for as long as he can remember has been the wrong one. From here on out, whatever his instincts tell him, he will do the opposite. It has an immediate effect as when George orders the opposite of his regular at Monk’s, a woman sitting at the counter starts looking his way. It turns out he ordered the exact same thing as her. Instead of lying about his situation, he tells her he’s unemployed and lives with his parents; she is impressed, and they begin dating. It turns out her uncle works for the New York Yankees, and they have a position open for the assistant to the traveling secretary. George interviews and gets the chance to meet team owner George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David). Instead of trying to impress him, George launches into a tirade about the mismanagement of the Yankees. Steinbrenner responds enthusiastically, “Hire this man!”
The comedy of this comes out of our own lot in life. How often have we sat around and questioned life decisions that led us down a path we might not be entirely happy with? This episode’s absurdity is that in reality, were we to behave like George does, it wouldn’t open new doors & opportunities. Yet, it still leaves us wondering, maybe it would? It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to see George acting in antithetical ways to the core of the character. The same can be said about Elaine in this episode, whose confidence dissolves as everything in her life seems to be falling apart. Sitting right in the middle is Jerry, who finds for every loss, he gains something of equal value, leading to Kramer nicknaming him “Even Steven.”
The Soup (Season 6, Episode 7)
Original airdate: November 10, 1994
Written by Fred Stoller
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Season six of Seinfeld was an odd creature. It was two years out from season four’s success, but it feels a little lackluster with some of its plots. The four main characters get separated often when a lot of the earlier episodes’ comedy came from the way they played off of each other. The plots also become more high concept, a typical development with popular television shows. Jerry dates a Miss American contestant, Kramer dates an Olympic gymnast, they got to the Superbowl, and even get involved in a Tonya Harding-parody involving Bette Midler. Seinfeld was becoming less a show about the mundane things in life and now a live-action cartoon show. That did give us the Jon Voigt’s Le Baron episode, which remains one of my personal favorites, but it did feel like the series’s tone had shifted.
“The Soup” is an excellent episode because its storylines are simple. The standout for me is Jerry’s annoyance about fellow comic Kenny Bania (Stephen Hytner). While we haven’t been stand-up comedians, we all have worked in places where there are fellow employees we can’t stand. Bania is this transparently desperate & tone-deaf person who wants to worm his way into a friendship with Jerry. It begins with him offering Jerry a brand-new Armani suit that doesn’t fit him anymore. You see, Bania has been working out; he’s huge now. Elaine pressures Jerry to take it, and despite his best efforts, Bania dumps the suit on him with the caveat that he can buy Bania dinner some time.
This leads to the episode’s title, where at the swanky dining establishment Mendy’s, Bania chooses to order soup. This is after he badgers Jerry about getting the swordfish; it’s apparently the best in the city. When ordering the soup, Bania says he’ll just get the meal another time. From this explodes the debate of “Is soup a meal?” Elaine implores Jerry if Bania crumbled any crackers in it, as that would change the soup’s intent. It is these arguments over minor bits of life where Seinfeld shines. It’s always fun to see a grandiose plot that becomes messy, but ultimately, I remember moments like this the most. It’s also the best part about Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The Soup Nazi (Season 7, Episode 6)
Original airdate: November 2, 1995
Written by Spike Feresten
Directed by Andy Ackerman
I don’t know if any character introduced in the series has had as significant a cultural impact as this one-off antagonist. Writer Spike Feresten, who also wrote for David Letterman, would have his own late-night talk show on Fox for three seasons, in what I assume was an attempt to recreate Conan O’Brien’s magic (i.e., promoting a talented writer into a lead talent position). Feresten’s Soup Nazi is such a bizarre concept but certainly fits with real-world equivalents like The Weiner’s Circle in Chicago or Dick’s Last Resort. Unlike those eateries where the berating is part of the charm, this soup maven is a serious artist, crafting quality soups.
His name is Yev Kassem (Larry Thomas), an Arabic man who is strict about behavior inside his surprisingly popular soup restaurant. There’s no dining in, just order, pay, and leave. Of course, our quartet of characters find ways to behave so that they get chastised by Kassem or outright banned. One of them even manages to get Kassem to leave the soup business altogether. Rewatching the episode for the first time in a few years, I was struck with how understated Thomas’s performance as Kassem is. He doesn’t play things over the top; he feels like a natural person, albeit very intense about soup, who runs afoul of these self-centered people. Of course, Kramer is the only one who understands him & is also allowed to hang out casually in the store.
Season seven ranks up there with season four for me because of its masterfully handling of a season-long storyline. In this instance, the show brought back Susan and had her get engaged to George. Seeing George in a relationship that will lead to life-long commitment is such a perfect ground for comedy to build. In this particular episode, he’s annoyed at the baby-talking PDA Jerry, and his current girlfriend Sheila (Alexandra Wentworth) engage in. To fight back, George initiates the same behavior with Susan, which ends in her wanting to continue that way, even after Jerry breaks up with Sheila. Once again, George is getting screwed!
The Rye (Season 7, Episode 11)
Original airdate: January 4, 1996
Written by Carol Leifer
Directed by Andy Ackerman
I was always delighted to see Susan’s parents show up on Seinfeld. They were played wonderfully by Grace Zabriskie & Warren Frost (rest in peace). If those names and their faces seem familiar, it was because they both played critical roles in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Zabriskie was Sarah Palmer, while Frost was Doctor Hayward. They were perfectly cast here as Susan Ross’s dysfunctional WASP parents. Even better, we get to see them contrasted with George’s parents, Frank & Estelle (Jerry Stiller & Estelle Harris) when the engaged couple’s parents meet for dinner. You can see where this would go as you have a clash of cultures (Manhattan aristocracy vs. working-class Queens).
Frank brings a marble rye loaf from one of his favorite bakeries as a gift to the Rosses. On the ride home, he notes that they never sliced it up and served it, which led to him sneaking it out with them. George is aghast because he knows the Rosses will notice, and that is a major faux pas. George decides he has to get an identical rye into the apartment without the Rosses knowing. Kramer happens to be filling in for a handsome cab driver for the week, and a plan is concocted. George will get them a ride in the carriage for their anniversary. While they are out, Jerry will arrive with a marble rye. George will meet him on the stoop and bring the bread up. This is complicated when the last loaf is purchased by an elderly woman (Frances Bay). Now she might also look familiar as she was another cast member on Twin Peaks, playing the mysterious Mrs. Chalfont in Season Two & Fire Walk With Me.
The Rye is another episode centered around food. It’s not just the marble rye, but Kramer has recently started purchasing in bulk from the shopper’s club. This leads to him feeding Rusty the Horse beans & franks and a flatulent end to the Rosses otherwise lovely handsome cab ride. The story of the marble rye came to writer Carol Leifer from a high school friend, and the stealing of the rye from an old woman was unsurprisingly a Larry David contribution. I also want to note replacing the bread feels very similar to the answering machine cassette tape from season three. I also think there were some interesting class & culture dynamics that never got fully explored for as much fun as they could have been. The Contanzas and Rosses should have more screentime together, but alas, it will never be.