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.
With fundamental questions of tone and type already answered, Seinfeld enters its fourth season finally able to play. The result is one of the funniest seasons (second perhaps only to its direct successor, which we’ll discuss more next time) of the entire run, filled with classic installments and a supreme base level of quality that tends to define our collective perception of the series and its reputation for consistent excellence. In fact, most fans I’ve met call this season their favorite. (It’s one of mine — the others being both Seasons Three and Five.) However, the year also encapsulates more of the troublesome premise-rejecting that, in tandem with an evolution of the show’s trademark storytelling, threatens and prognosticates series-specific quality-based concerns – related to both the usage of character and to the show’s notions of its own identity. More on that in a bit… First, let’s note that we’re finally ready, in Season Four, to eschew any claims the series has on its Underdog Status, for this is also the breakthrough year in terms of popularity. While the third season successfully cemented the critics’ perception of the show’s uniqueness and strength, the regular timeslot-bouncing had previously inhibited Seinfeld from becoming the hit it was always destined to be. By now, Cheers – which we covered here on this blog last year – was getting ready for its “last call,” and NBC’s quest to find another comedic crown jewel to take the latter’s place gave rise to an opportunity. Luckily, Seinfeld, in the midst of a three-year creative peak – the top of a figurative roller coaster – proved worthy of the royal ascension. The series had already, at several points in its life thus far, been paired behind Cheers (mostly reruns), where it secured better ratings than in its regular Wednesday night slot(s). So in February 1993, Seinfeld was ready to be moved behind Cheers permanently, riding a crest of publicity, popularity, and most importantly, high quality, that made it the most natural successor for the coveted 9:00 position on the network’s Must-See-TV Thursday line-up. Seinfeld had finally made it – and this season shows us why it happened, and deserved to happen, when it did.
I’ve already labeled this season as being among the series’ finest, and there’s not much more that needs to be written here about why; we’ve already explored last week how the show’s enhanced understanding of its characters, its tone, and its storytelling allowed it to be regularly comedic, character-driven, and, so far, connected to its unique premise. Season Four succeeds for the same reasons but on a grander scale, increasing this kind of giddy freedom exponentially, with episodes structured around more of the most remarkably inane ideas (the kind found on no other ‘90s sitcom) and, at several points, subject matter that, even today, seems surprisingly outré and risqué for network comedies. (Most bawdy is an Emmy-winning entry about sexual self-gratification.) All of this reinforces Seinfeld’s claim on freshness and originality, which is even more on display than we’ve seen it in the past, because now the series has enough cachet (both with the network and with its own creative confidence) to take greater risks and earn matching rewards. As you’ll be able to tell from this list (and the honorable mentions – a few of which were difficult exclusions), such risk-taking pays off dividends that we rarely see with consistency in series television, thus earning Seinfeld its illustrious stature. Being good every week – even if some entries are better than others – is an honor not to be taken lightly. (A professor of mine once aptly asked: “When was the last time you did 22 of something in a row and each time it was good?”) And while I believe Season Five is the truest peak of that aforementioned roller coaster (at this year’s same general height – but the last moment before an initial drop), Season Four is the year that earns the series its reputational credibility – not to mention awards for Michael Richards (the only performer to win this year out of the ensemble – all four were nominated), Larry David for the aforementioned “The Contest,” and the season itself – Seinfeld‘s only win for Outstanding Comedy (thanks to the surprising brilliance of Frasier; stay tuned…) So, this is the year where Seinfeld, having discovered itself, discovers its reputation.
While we could discuss what the series’ embracement of its own legend did to its quality, we’ll save that for the years ahead when such talk becomes more pertinent. Rather, I think our critical eye is best focused now on some of the signs that point toward the inevitable descent, for even from this vantage point of “peak,” the show is establishing future hurdles. In past posts (and even above), I’ve alluded to some of the primary critical assessments I make of this series: its tenuous history with its own premise and its subordination of character in favor of story – or, more accurately, storytelling. Season Four offers an especially timely opportunity to discuss both, for this year finds the show taking its largest leap yet into territory that can be deemed story-heavy, and when improperly handled (only a minor concern at this point – but a larger one in weeks ahead), story-driven. This sense of narrative rapidity, in which plot is constant – along with the series’ purposeful desire to make scripts as complex as possible in an effort to both enhance the show’s “reality” and extoll the writing’s ability to “dovetail” complicated narratives – is a fundamental part of Seinfeld’s emerging identity (as seen last year). But every sitcom must be careful not to let its enthusiasm for fast-paced story usurp an elemental appreciation of character, from which everything must stem… Meanwhile, the fourth season also broadens its narrative oeuvre with stories about irascible Bubble Boys and potentially fatal Junior Mints that take us far away from the low-concept premise initially guaranteed — and still, by virtue of the stand-up sequences bookending (no longer interrupting) the action, subliminally promise. Now we’re seeing highly developed, high-concept stories to which not everyone in the audience can relate – as they could, for instance, with waiting for a restaurant table, or making an embarrassing comment at a family dinner – and because the show’s comedy is still supposed to be filtered through the lens of Jerry’s stand-up, which is observational and accessible, we’re finding the show pivoting away from us and into a “reality” more apparently fictional.
Seinfeld‘s successful meeting of its new heightened comedic goals (which become more ambitious with each passing season) can excuse this unspoken premise drift, and one could even argue that the stories are only becoming heavier in response to the show’s refinement of its characters. I’d agree; the show’s reality is becoming specific to its regulars, which is what’s supposed to happen in a situation comedy, even one with Seinfeld’s rebellious narrative objectives. But we still have to be conscious of what is guiding the action: the players or the plot? It’s to this series’ credit that the two are often so intertwined that it’s difficult to cite any story – in the David era, that is – as being “bad” or “wrong” for character. Instead, what we usually see in these lesser outings is prodigious plot, which is often comedic and unique, but doesn’t impress like the character-driven fulfillment of the stand-up-inspired low-concept premise (as seen in our last two MVEs). In fact, the surrealistic Jenga tower that symbolizes many of these artfully crafted Seinfeld narratives, which also increase annually in both volume and number, threatens to do exactly the opposite; as the show becomes more competent at crafting these tightly knotted stories, the further away we’re sailing from reality, for Seinfeld’s world (like most sitcom worlds) can’t escape the sitcom’s curse: broadening. The problem? That lofty storytelling hastens this inevitable trend away from truth, and does so while insisting – throughout its run, even post-David – that reality, reinforced mostly by a focus on minutia, remains the series’ genre-disrupting foundation. This creates a premise-disconnect — how much “everyday life” are we to expect? While Season Four isn’t genuinely hampered by this burgeoning dilemma, with hindsight, one has to appreciate the irony exhibited this year by explicitly introducing the myth of Seinfeld being “a show about nothing” when its storytelling, filled with plot, so clearly proves itself this season to be not nothing. (It’ll suffer for this later…)
Speaking of plot, this entire year is structured around a serialized arc of metatheatrics that finds Jerry and George pitching a show about their lives to NBC. So, to keep track: Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is playing comedian Jerry Seinfeld on a TV show in which he is pitching a TV show about playing comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld is now riffing on its identity and its own fictional constructs! (Talk about a wink…) Fortunately, unlike It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, to which this series was initially compared, Seinfeld doesn’t let the wink jeopardize the integrity of its characters, whose universe is never once supposed to be considered anything other than an official reality (no matter the storytelling’s growing believability gaps). That is, we the audience can laugh that the characters on this show are trying to put on a version of this show, but we’re still going to accept that the characters on this show we’re watching don’t know they’re already on a show; they’re not “in” on the joke. Also, I maintain that story isn’t inherently good for character — that has to be proven; but because this arc is based on true-life experiences had by Seinfeld and David (with characters modeled on real NBC executives), there’s a sense of truth to what happens with Jerry and George that makes the entire plot connectable – so even if we can’t relate, we can still trust its authenticity. And although I also think Season Four predicates a lot of its merit both on heavy story and storytelling (which is why, to be honest, most fans consider it their favorite – it’s easy to like a focused narrative), there are enough character-based rewards, like George’s first serious relationship with an ill-fated gal named Susan, to make the year end on top of the figurative coaster. NBC Thursday’s Seinfeld is now ready to assume its mantle as one of the best situation comedies ever produced — and currently has the necessary “goods” in support. From now on, some will try to knock the series from its pedestal, while others will offer blind worship. I, once again, won’t do either; I just want to recognize the best. So, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. 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 Four. (As always, they are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this year is directed by Tom Cherones. Also, installments that originally aired as one-hour are considered two separate entries (as they would in syndication).
01) Episode 43: “The Pitch” (Aired: 09/16/92)
Jerry and George pitch a new sitcom to NBC.
Written by Larry David
It wasn’t until I’d studied the season and made my selections that I realized this to be the only entry I’m featuring that has direct narrative bearing on the year’s overarching storyline: the pilot. This was truly unintentional, for I do feel, if I’ve not expressed it, that the premise helps deliver many laughs, classic episodes, and an interesting sense of realism that positions Seinfeld as a show that winks at its audience without alienating them. This episode, which introduces the arc, proves these aforementioned pleasures, and is mostly free of the cumbersome story trappings that will follow. It aired first in a one-hour block that constituted the second of three consecutive two-parters (but the only one to air on the same night), and features the iconic and previously mentioned conversation that complicates the series’ own projection of its premise — “a show about nothing” — for this script alone reveals a different truth. (Also, this is the only highlighted entry here with minimal Louis-Dreyfus, who was on maternity leave.)
02) Episode 47: “The Bubble Boy” (Aired: 10/07/92)
Jerry agrees to visit a boy who lives in a plastic bubble.
Written by Larry David & Larry Charles
Following a string of story-heavy serialized episodes that opened the year (some more enjoyably than others), this installment, the season’s seventh, is the first in which the show re-commits itself to telling episodic tales that only use the arc subliminally. While this may seem terribly traditional to those who relish in the serialization, the fact remains that the show is better able to deliver its laughs when the narrative goals are less ambitious. To this point, this is the first truly hysterical installment of the season — and indeed, many would cite it as a beloved classic. I agree; but, as suggested above, I also look to this episode as helping usher in a form of broader, less relatable storytelling (when was the last time you got into a brawl with a man who lives in a plastic bubble?) that diverts the series away from its premise. It’s worth it here, but it won’t be forever. A classic, a game-changer, and a forewarning of where the show is heading.
03) Episode 48: “The Cheever Letters” (Aired: 10/28/92)
George must tell Susan’s parents about the cabin.
Story by Larry David and Elaine Pope & Tom Leopold | Teleplay by Larry David
Season Four boasts a lot of moments in which Seinfeld‘s writers push the envelope in terms of passable material, as the series’ burgeoning quality has allowed them greater license to engage in more risqué and adult storylines. This episode probably couldn’t have been done several years ago — not just because of story structure and positioning, but simply because the censors would have protested. The A-story introduces us to Susan’s parents (who are hysterical and truly make this episode worthwhile) as George must tell them about the fate of their wooden cabin, leading to the revelation that Mr. Ross was in a clandestine relationship with author John Cheever. Even more naughty is the subplot in which Jerry offends Elaine’s co-worker with a bizarre line of “dirty talk” that yields a stellar pay-off. Terrifically funny — but blue.
04) Episode 51: “The Contest” (Aired: 11/18/92)
The foursome engages in a competition regarding sexual self-gratification.
Written by Larry David
When discussing the show’s enhanced ability to push boundaries with its content, there’s no episode that comes to mind as quick as “The Contest,” the classic installment for which Larry David won an Emmy Award. The subject matter, based on a real life occurrence, of a competition over who can go the longest without engaging in sexual self-gratification (I’m going to mirror the show and not say the word either), is both something we’ve never ever seen before and something we probably never expected to see, which therefore makes it incredibly original and delightfully surprising; only on Seinfeld! But the episode really finds its excellence — and indeed, it’s my selection for the year’s best (an easy choice, even in light of all the classics on today’s list) — in the ways that the script utilizes the characters within its stated premise. As the entry does more of the series’ trademark narrative intertwining with Elaine’s pursuit of JFK Jr. and Jerry’s pursuit of Marla the Virgin (Jane Leeves), Kramer earns some of the episode’s biggest laughs as the first to lose the contest (in a hysterical moment), and George finds a treasure trove of comedy as the show introduces Estelle Harris as his mother; she’s a godsend. The story is first-rate. The teleplay is top-notch. The laughs are non-stop. In short, terrific!
05) Episode 52: “The Airport” (Aired: 11/25/92)
Jerry enjoys flying first class while Elaine endures coach.
Written by Larry Charles
With the characters away from their usual haunts, this installment is reminiscent of classics like “The Chinese Restaurant” and “The Parking Garage,” only now it’s more attuned to the sensibilities with which the series will be best known. While the two aforementioned outings were more theatrical (even though the latter was shot without an audience) and played with a definite sense of time and space, this installment is like last year’s “The Limo” (which was also written by Larry Charles but didn’t make my list because it was situational and had nothing to do with character) in that the production aesthetic is more cinematic, the narrative scope is broader, and the characters are sequestered in two separate pairs — not a foursome. So, what ultimately makes this a truly satisfying excursion is its fixation on a simple, relatable idea (the difference between first class and coach) and the ways in which Jerry and Elaine react to said differences.
06) Episode 53: “The Pick” (Aired: 12/16/92)
Jerry and Elaine each find themselves in embarrassing predicaments.
Story by Larry David and Marc Jaffe | Teleplay by Larry David
The latter half of the season is less serialized than the prior, and this is one of the first episodes that feels the most like a “traditional” Seinfeld outing (as we would have known it at the end of last season). However, once again, the series’ ongoing evolution makes differences most evident — not only in the depictions of the characters, all of whom are more comically rendered, but in the general elevation of the series’ humor. In fact, this episode is effortlessly hysterical on all fronts — Jerry and the nose pick that disunites him from his model girlfriend, Elaine and her embarrassing Christmas card nip slip (thanks to Kramer), George’s struggles with a shrink and a jacket, and Kramer’s attempt to model for Calvin Klein — and the narratives weave together with a finesse that’s neither overbearing or forced. Direct and sublime — a quiet(er) hit.
07) Episode 57: “The Outing” (Aired: 02/11/93)
A college journalist believes that Jerry and George are lovers.
Written by Larry Charles
Yet another seminal installment of the series — which like so many here, not only manages to be a hilarious romp, but also produces a line so quotable that it entered the popular lexicon: “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The quote, of course, is in reference to a young writer’s mistaken belief that George and Jerry are paramours, which they profusely attempt to deny — but always with said proclamation as a defensive qualifier. The smart (and network mandated) addition of this P.C. sentiment only fuels the episode’s humor, for although the “mistaken for gay” storyline has been sitcom fodder since the ’70s, we’ve never seen it done with the self-conscious virtue-signaling of the ’90s, which both reflects the nature of these characters’ egos and holds a more honest mirror to our own feelings on the subject.
08) Episode 59: “The Implant” (Aired: 02/25/93)
Jerry has Elaine do some investigating about his girlfriend’s bosom.
Written by Peter Mehlman
As if there weren’t enough classic episodes here, this outing also enjoys supreme writing, delicious comedy, and another catchphrase: “they’re real, and they’re spectacular.” This line is said by Jerry’s weekly girlfriend, played by Teri Hatcher, whose breasts are at the crux of this entry’s A-story when Jerry has Elaine do some investigative work in the sauna as to whether or not Hatcher’s endowments are legitimate. Needless to say, it’s another original premise with beaucoup laughs. And although the stories don’t connect, this plot is matched by an equally comedic subplot, in which George finds himself with two memorable bits — the attempt to cheat an airline out of a bereavement discount (as he goes to a funeral with his girlfriend, played by Megan Mullally), and causes trouble at the wake when he “double dips.” Seinfeld is at its best!
09) Episode 60: “The Junior Mint” (Aired: 03/18/93)
Jerry and Kramer may have given Elaine’s ex-boyfriend a serious infection.
Written by Andy Robin
This outing is full, and while it’s another fan favorite, I consider it like “The Bubble Boy” in that lines of believability and connectability are being breached for not only the humor motive, but also in just a fascination with complex storytelling. This troubles me, even when the results — like here — remain generally worthwhile. For while the idea of Kramer and Jerry being allowed to witness a surgery is a stretch, the notion that they could drop a junior mint into the patient’s open body is absurd, and it only passes because of both its dark humor and its connection to Elaine’s story, as she wants to reunite with her formerly fat beau, said patient. (Also, Richards won an Emmy for both this entry and “The Watch,” mentioned below, where his scenes are the highlight.) Frankly, I find more enjoyment in the Jerry subplot — he’s particularly busy — in which he tries to figure out his girlfriend’s first name. (It rhymes with a body part.)
10) Episode 62: “The Handicap Spot” (Aired: 05/13/93)
The group regrets parking in a Handicap parking space.
Written by Larry David
After meeting George’s mother earlier in the season, this offering finally introduces us to his father, who was played this one time only by John Randolph (you can watch both the original, along with the syndicated version with Stiller, on the DVD), thus further defining both George’s characterization and even more future storytelling possibilities. But I’m drawn to this episode for other reasons. First, it’s a snappy script, with dialogue and tiny beats that reinforce Seinfeld‘s trademark minutia-focused POV. Secondly, I think it’s important because it predicts the places this series will go in its last few seasons with these tragically flawed characters. A few episodes back, this group was semi-altruistically volunteering with senior citizens, but the self-absorbed unscrupulousness that defines this premise (which has the characters breaking the law and doing something morally despicable) will be closer to the template seen in years ahead. This is the first significant step towards this institutionalized tonal shift. Crucial.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Movie,” a lesser version of classics like “The Parking Garage” and “The Airport” that nevertheless came close to the above list due to the high quality inherent throughout this season, “The Shoes,” the first to air after the switch to Thursdays and one of the most story-heavy outings (therefore making it one of the year’s best representations — a close contender), and “The Smelly Car,” which is a hodgepodge of amusing ideas. For serialized metatheatricality, one must honor the year’s two-part finale,”The Pilot,” which encapsulates the entire season with heretofore unseen mastery, and I’d like to recognize Michael Richards’ work in the aforementioned “The Watch.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Seinfeld goes to…
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the fifth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!