Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best episodes of Seinfeld (1989-1998, NBC), one of the most popular and critically lauded American sitcoms ever produced. I’m happy to report that the entire series has been released on DVD.
Where does a comedian get his material? From everyday life. Seinfeld stars JERRY SEINFELD as Jerry Seinfeld, JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS as Elaine Benes, MICHAEL RICHARDS as Cosmo Kramer, and JASON ALEXANDER as George Costanza.
Seinfeld’s first full season – its third – finds the show entering a three-year stretch that I would label the series’ “Golden Age.” (Every good show has one, but few can boast an era as lengthy as three whole seasons!) While there will be funnier years ahead – particularly the upcoming two – that make a potent case for being labeled Seinfeld’s finest, the third, which was nominated for nine Emmy Awards (winning two), is unique in that its proximity to the series’ origins ensures scripts that are inherently more connected to the initial low-concept thesis that we discussed at length last week: the everyday life from which this comedian gets his material. This connectedness is important because a premise is a promise to the audience – and a show breaks this promise at its own peril. In Seinfeld’s case, its premise is one especially worth keeping, for it rests on a simple, but focused idea that allows the writing to examine reality through a comedic lens, using creative stories taken from real-life experiences that are both relatable and amusing. The premise is not merely something the show should feel obligated to maintain on principle; it’s also conducive to success. There’s nothing contrived or lofty in the crusade for believable, observational laughs, and Season Three’s lack of false “typical” sitcom pretenses, along with its reality-based trope-defying storytelling, which Seinfeld started to explore last year, is a novelty. And as we’ve seen, there’s a certain time in every show’s life when novelty meets an enhanced knowingness of premise and character; for Seinfeld, that’s Season Three. In the second year, the writers were still discovering style, tone, and narrative timbre, but Season Three appears with an established identity rooted in its core premise – one that’s confident, but not cocky. After all, the series was not yet a runaway hit – that wouldn’t happen until NBC began grooming the show to replace Cheers as the network’s crown jewel. So, Seinfeld is still an underdog, and frankly, now that quality can be guaranteed, this is its most appealing look, with the year’s fidelity to its soon-banished premise forcing the show to use only what it has: its characters and its voice.
To this point, Season Three ushers in an age of extraordinary episodic success – an approximately nine-hits-for-every-one-miss ratio that few shows (like I Love Lucy) can boast – that’ll last until the end of David’s tenure at the conclusion of Season Seven. (Stay tuned…) These Golden Era lists are especially strong, for unlike other otherwise enjoyable shows (such as the just-covered Murphy Brown), adjudicating Seinfeld’s individualized hierarchy of quality is less about disqualifying installments based on missteps than it is recognizing those that boast the greatest and most rewarding results. Truthfully, the culture of Seinfeld is one in which every single viewer has their favorites and least favorites – and very rarely do opinions align. It’s a testament to, if not the show’s consistency, then to its base level strength. In fact, it’s shows and seasons like these that help explain why I choose ten notable episodes out of a 22 or 24-episode lot, for these lists could actually be longer! (Indeed, there’s one particularly strong honorable mention that makes this year, like several others ahead, seem more warranting of an “Eleven Best” list, but alas, I’m faithful to my premise…) Yet let’s not get ahead of ourselves… while Season Three, by any standards, is sublime, there are even better episodes to come, when scripts will be sharper and laughs more frequent. Also, nothing is ever perfect, and when dealing with a show like Seinfeld, whose reputation precedes it, I think it’s important to acknowledge imperfections – without using them to prosecute or crucify the series. That is, we have to consider what “quality” means on this series’ own terms, while also adding context by recognizing when/if it’s operating at a level above the norm (which it usually is). As mentioned last week, part of this involves our examination of how the show uses its own established premise. In Season Three, all is well – we’re still connected. Also, like all situation comedies, I believe Seinfeld deserves to be held to standards regarding its utilization of characters in story. In Season Three, again, where knowingness meets novelty, that’s not really a problem either… yet.
Nevertheless, the roots of Seinfeld’s eventual undoing – okay, I’m being dramatic; Seinfeld goes through a major decline in its aesthetic value, but it’s a descent not readily alienating (think: more like The Golden Girls; less like Night Court) and is only devastating based on its own set standards – are found in the very elements that, here, help the series succeed. Even in a strong collection of episodes like those being highlighted below, sources of future struggles (two, in particular) are evident. First, the show’s perverse emphasis on dark comedy fueled by the nasty, bitter, unflattering thoughts we as human beings naturally have – but often leave unspoken – is forcefully implemented here. (We saw it introduced in last year’s “The Pony Remark,” and explored in a few other key entries, but now it’s a deliberate style being reinforced in almost every script.) This is exhilarating because, for television comedy, it’s a fairly fresh angle (especially on a network multi-cam), and as the show’s gaze remains more on reality than the self-conscious need to maintain its own narrative cleverness (brace yourself, folks, because that’s coming), this wave of dissident darkness aids the show’s reality-inducing thesis instead of counteracting it. The darkness, you might say, is premise-fulfilling. However, this emerging tone does foretell a premise-related issue the show will eventually create for itself by insisting upon a different identity than it’s actually presenting. Ultimately, Seinfeld‘s quality will suffer for ignoring its initial premise (the humor in everyday life), falsely representing itself with an easily disproven one that was never actually adopted (“a show about nothing”), and then by creating a whole new identity that’s inspired, in part, by this developing tone — without ever making proper acknowledgment to the audience of these unrecognized evolutions, thus setting us up for disappointment. (This’ll be a big deal come series finale time; stay tuned…)
The second cautionary omen in Season Three is related to storytelling, as this year finds the show abandoning simple one-premise scripts in favor of the more complicated multi-story narrative structure with which the series was only flirting in the year prior. In other words, Season Three finds the Seinfeld team examining how it can craft outings in which multiple narratives are allowed to converge – either locationally, narratively, or thematically – to justify their juxtaposition. Now, I’ve always believed that a sitcom must explain why several different stories exist within the same half-hour, so I’m delighted by Seinfeld’s commitment to this design – first put in regular practice during this season. However, the problem with this “dovetail the stories” mandate will become the show’s overzealousness to construct episodes in a forced, highly stylized manner. For in a script’s overeager fetishizing of the trivial (for story as much as character), the rigid and unyielding narrative “dovetail” framework (guiding the stories instead of focusing them) only creates convoluted high-concept plots that subordinate character and do exactly the opposite of the simple, reality-rooted promise that these first few seasons make – effectively counteracting Seinfeld’s raison d’être. Because of this intense structure, reality will eventually give way to a hyperreal surreality, and one can debate whether or not this aesthetic is any more connectable than the somewhat realistic, but glossy and convenient “traditional” comedies to which Seinfeld was a reaction… But, let’s not allow this conversation to get ahead of itself (as they often do – sorry, readers!), because Season Three – despite complicated narratives making their presence known – is able to retain its focus through the utilization of the four regulars. As always, character should be the source of every laugh and every story – again, this will also become a concern later, when competitive cleverness occasionally allows ideas to supersede and dictate characterizations – and because this foursome is still so freshly minted in novelty during Season Three, the audience’s own excitement for these richly played and smartly designed characters mitigates all our skepticism over a few too-plot-heavy stories.
So before we get to this list, I want to belabor the point that Season Three is an excellent year, not only because it’s delivering its laughs and is connected to its premise – both of which, by the way, are valuable necessities – but really because of the characters, all four of whom are defined, believable, and funny. It’s through them that Seinfeld becomes a show worth discussing – not the comedic ideas, or the iconic storytelling – and Season Three is the proof. There’s a point in the year (noted below) where the show officially clicks – the tone is established, the storytelling is developed, and the characterizations (most importantly) are set – and even though everything will expand and complicate itself later, this is essentially the Seinfeld we know and love. We couldn’t really say the same last week, even though important strides were being made as the show worked out its kinks. And, once more, because of this year’s sustained connection to the series’ low-concept thesis and its status as a “hidden gem” underdog, this is a season from which immense and specific enjoyment can be derived. Of course, Seinfeld was, from Season Two onwards, great with laughs – the “no hugging, no learning” dictum (which we all should have paid more attention to from the beginning) allows humor to override the thematically lofty stuff that other sitcoms of the era would employ. (The irony, of course, is that loftiness can come not just from stories, but also from the way stories are used… ) Season Three is dynamite because there’s no overly self-conscious posturing going on here; this show simply wants to be the best it can be. Happily, Seinfeld, in being the best it can be, also proves itself to be among the best of the ’91-’92 season, and as more people came to realize just how special this laugh-filled show was and could be, the figurative landscape of the situation comedy would adapt. So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Three. (As always, they are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that all but four of the 22 episodes produced this year are directed by Tom Cherones. Any chosen that aren’t will be noted below. Also, installments that originally aired as one-hour are considered two separate entries (as they would in syndication). And remember that Episode 27, “The Stranded,” was held over from Season Two and discussed last week.
01) Episode 20: “The Pen” (Aired: 10/02/91)
Jerry and Elaine visit his parents in Florida.
Written by Larry David | Production No. 305
An atypical entry, this episode features none of the regular sets and takes place entirely in the retirement community in which Jerry’s parents reside. Although one misses George and Kramer (because the ideal episode of Seinfeld must feature all four of its main “ingredients”), Barney Martin and Liz Sheridan are always divine as the Seinfelds, and because they’re buttressed here with a supporting cast of all-stars that includes Sandy Baron, Ann Morgan Guilbert (yes, Millie!), and the ever-hysterical Len Lesser as Uncle Leo, this installment more than picks up the character comedy slack! Now, I find some of the beats here exceedingly broad — Elaine high on pain pills — especially at this point in the series’ run, but my qualms are allayed by the grounded relatabiliy of the script and the believable way these folks are drawn.
02) Episode 22: “The Library” (Aired: 10/16/91)
Jerry is hounded for a library book 20 years overdue.
Written by Larry Charles | Directed by Joshua White | Production No. 304
One of Seinfeld‘s first truly wacky excursions, this installment points to some of the delightfully surreal places into which the series will progress over the course of its run. This offering, which I consider to be a classic, has several brilliant elements that manage to overshadow the few things that don’t quite hit the figurative mark. What doesn’t work? The flashbacks with Jerry and George — which force us to suspend our disbelief and don’t present anything revelatory or worthwhile in the process. What does work? Surprisingly, the guest stars and the episode’s usage of them. While Kramer has some fun with Marion the Librarian (yes, an homage to you-know-what!), Philip Baker Hall steals the whole outing with his portrayal of the library cop, who’s cracking down on overdue books. He is hysterical — a genius performance.
03) Episode 23: “The Parking Garage” (Aired: 10/30/91)
The foursome searches for their car in a mall garage.
Written by Larry David | Production No. 306
My pick for the strongest episode of this particularly strong season, this offering is reminiscent of last season’s MVE, “The Chinese Restaurant,” in that we’re once again focused on the core players in a singular space where their super-objective (last time, to get a table at the restaurant; this time, to find where they parked the car) is something too trivial to be found on any other sitcom. In this regard, it’s quintessential Seinfeld — and to this point, while I claimed that the aforementioned episode from last week was a perfect representation of the situation comedy, this installment is a perfect representation of this situation comedy, for there are several elements that make this entry seem a more actualized embodiment of the series and its ideals. Not only is it the better written of the two, but it also boasts (because of its ambitious design) the honor of being an audience-less show, thus moving the series slightly away from its theatrical origins to something (ideally) faster-paced and more cinematic — so it looks toward things to come. Also, with all the characters more readily established (and thankfully, Kramer’s in on the fun this time), the show is qualified to give them each story beats, thereby presaging the bulkier narrative motifs we’ll see in weeks ahead. And ultimately, this is just a darn creative and amusing installment — perfect for the show and a treat for the audience. A classic among classics.
04) Episode 24: “The Cafe” (Aired: 11/06/91)
Jerry tries to help a restauranteur and George has Elaine take an IQ test for him.
Written by Tom Leopold | Production No. 307
Above in my seasonal introduction, I mentioned that there was a point in this year where the series finally and officially clicks; it’s this installment. For despite the excellence represented by the offerings highlighted above, this is the first time in which I feel that all four of the characterizations are headed in the direction they’ll take for the rest of the series. For instance, Jerry’s self-serving belief in his own magnanimity is displayed in this week’s A-plot with the immortal Babu Bhatt (whose finger wave and classic line would become a catchphrase — one of the first few to truly explode), while George officially becomes a character whose attempts to overcompensate for a perceived lack of intelligence only confirm that perception. In other words, George brings about his own misery — that’ll be key for his comedy in the years ahead.
05) Episode 25: “The Tape” (Aired: 11/13/91)
Elaine anonymously leaves an erotic message on Jerry’s tape recorder.
Written by Larry David and Bob Shaw & Don McEnery | Directed by David Steinberg | Production No. 308
One of three scripts nominated this season for an Emmy award, this well-liked excursion is one of which I’ve always been skeptical. Frankly, I find the premise ostentatious, situational, and at times difficult to believe — particularly because I find it always a stretch when a show engages in episodic maneuverings regarding its core players and how they feel about one another. (George sexually stimulated for 20 minutes by Elaine — really?) But whenever I watch the episode itself, I’m figuratively blown away by both the strength of the script, which is delightfully funny (coming during this exceptional wave of character-driven, premise-rooted, originally conceived stories) and worthy of all the praise it gets, and by the seamless interaction of all four members of the ensemble, who pull off the gaudy premise with little fuss. Just funny.
06) Episode 28: “The Alternate Side” (Aired: 12/04/91)
George takes a job moving cars across the street and causes havoc.
Written by Larry David and Bill Masters | Production No. 310
Another episode whose excellence I sometimes forget, this classic is probably best known for sparking another iconic Seinfeld catchphrase — “these pretzels are making me thirsty” — the line that Kramer is given to say when he’s cast in a bit role in a Woody Allen movie shooting down the block. This line aside, what really impresses me about the episode is the masterful construction, which weaves its Kramer storyline into the comedic notion of George temporarily taking a job moving cars from one side of the street to the other (which goes about as well as you’d expect) with the deliciously dark (one wonders if they’ll pull it off — but they do) subplot of Elaine trying to dump a man who just had a stroke. The script’s ability to connect them — comedically and effortlessly — is remarkable. The year’s best constructed.
07) Episode 30: “The Subway” (Aired: 01/08/92)
The gang has adventures on the subway.
Written by Larry Charles | Production No. 313
This episode seems similar to “The Parking Garage” because we have four separate stories occurring within a particular space over the course of a set period of time. But the difference is that this space — the subway — is not singular; rather, the eponymous subway is the overarching place from which four separate stories (which never interact and are only connected by the fact that they all involve this NYC staple) spring. Because our players don’t mix, the premise is not as satisfying as the aforementioned’s, but the script is just as comedic — with every character engaging in uproarious hijinks. My favorite stuff goes to Elaine, whose expletive-laden inner monologue is a tour de force for Louis-Dreyfus. Also, the introduction of George’s “Biff” nickname is an essential representation of his emerging depiction.
08) Episode 31: “The Pez Dispenser” (Aired: 01/15/92)
Jerry’s Pez Dispenser leads to a disruption at George’s girlfriend’s event.
Written by Larry David | Production No. 314
When I think about this series’ ability to take small, bizarre real-life occurrences — the kind that no other show would think to utilize because they’re so trivial and ridiculous and “stranger than fiction” — and turn them into comedic classics from which we still quote today, this is one of those installments that first comes to mind. And that’s quite a feat, particularly because this isn’t a perfect outing; the intervention storyline, while an embracement of the series’ new dark undertones, is a comedy suppressant that only pays off tangentially because it serves as the location where the A-story climaxes. But the sheer creativity of the whole Pez storyline is breathtaking (because it’s something that only someone who lived through that would conceive), and with wonderful bits like the tortured “hand” metaphor, we have another essential.
09) Episode 33: “The Fix-Up” (Aired: 02/05/92)
Jerry and Elaine play matchmakers with George and her friend.
Written by Elaine Pope & Larry Charles | Production No. 317
Beloved Seinfeld scribe Larry Charles, along with Elaine Pope, the first woman to write for the series (and whose work we saw on both Murphy Brown and Love & War) won Emmys for their work on this script, which is one of the most solid entries of the season. This is somewhat remarkable because the premise itself is fairly routine — we’ve seen the “matchmaker” bit on dozens of other shows; yet because the show has brilliantly defined characters, not to mention a unique style all its own, the script is able to refresh the premise so it’s like new. (This is one of the highest compliments one could ever pay a series — because that’s NOT easy.) With a fine, human performance by guest star Maggie Wheeler (best known to Friends fans as Janice), I also appreciate the script’s male/female point-of-view, which brings welcome authenticity.
10) Episode 34: “The Boyfriend (I)” [a.k.a. “The New Friend (I)”] (Aired: 02/12/92)
Jerry tries to forge a friendship with Keith Hernandez.
Written by Larry David and Larry Levin | Production No. 315
The first half of an episode that originally aired in a one-hour block, I consider this excursion among the series’ first narratively complicated shows, for there’s a lot happening and the script is trying very hard to make it all fit. If you can’t already tell, I find this well-liked entry overrated, because it doesn’t all come together (and, incidentally, I feel that an appreciation for Keith Hernandez distracts some from an honest look at the writing). However, there are a lot of elements that are outstandingly sublime — particularly in Part I, which (thankfully) relies more on our characters than Hernandez. First, the idea of Jerry treating a new “bromance” as a romance is easily comedic and relatable. Second, the JFK parody (featuring Wayne Knight, who was in this film, now making his second appearance as Newman) is hilarious, original, and memorable. And third, George’s attempts to cheat unemployment, utilizing a callback to Season One (“Art Vandelay”), is perfect for his character, delivering boffo laughs. Better parts than sum.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Red Dot,” which features the hilarious beat of George sleeping with the cleaning woman (and getting confronted about it by Richard Fancy as Mr. Lippman) — it’s the best George scene of the season (if only the other characters were as well served) and the one I most wish I could include above, “The Nose Job,” which works for the wonderful depiction of the totally blunt Kramer, “The Parking Space,” a solid installment that’s great for every character, and “The Keys,” which warrants acknowledgment solely for the brilliant Murphy Brown connection. There are several more worthwhile episodes not discussed here (like “The Note”) — evidence of the year’s high quality!
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Seinfeld goes to…
“The Parking Garage”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fourth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!