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.
In past seasonal commentaries, I’ve made known my belief that Seinfeld’s third season ushered in a three-year-long “Golden Age” (an impressive stretch) that launched with the series’ funny, premise-connected first full season and culminated in a two-year comedic peak represented by both Seasons Four and Five. While many fans find the former of those two – the show’s fourth season – to be the series’ finest representation, my sentiments are more evenly divided, believing that Season Five may actually have more of a claim to the otherwise arbitrary “peak” label because it generally exists at the same figurative height as its predecessor, but gets to stand situationally tall right before the show’s first recognizable descent in quality – making it the true climax of this hallowed era. But as suggested last time, there are also a few other reasons that I find Season Five more qualitatively comparable to (if not more elevated than) the year prior. First, let’s note that the series is now a success on every front, and perhaps surprisingly, this high qualitative mark exists in tandem with its commercial ascent, as the show, after proving its worth during the strong and forward-moving fourth season, was chosen to inherit the coveted Cheers spot: the linchpin of NBC’s Must See TV Thursdays. With a prime location and several big Emmy wins for last year’s collection (for Richards, David’s writing, and as the Outstanding Comedy Series), Seinfeld shot up to the #3 most watched show of the ’93-’94 season – the lowest it’ll be for the remainder of its run – making it a legitimate sensation with a stature that has maintained to this day. This deserved wave of popularity translates at the start of Season Five into a bigger budget (for more ambitious storytelling) and an even greater creative freedom – a tool that Seinfeld has always considered vital to its anti-traditional narrative success.
Yet, the most remarkable thing about this moment in the show’s life is that while all signs have previously been pointing toward the writing “hanging itself with the amount of rope it’s been given” – and indeed, one might argue that this cliché will be actualized in the seasons ahead (heck, maybe even as early as the next season) – for this singular shining year, Seinfeld handles its newfound peak power appropriately. With few traces of the smugness with which critics (including the envious Roseanne Barr) would soon deride the series (we humans like to knock things off pedestals – even after having put them there in the first place), Seinfeld operates this season with a sense of wide-eyed amazement at its own stature (and the accompanying accolades — like three Golden Globes for Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus, and the series). Although it seems to feel this success is well-deserved (that sense of pride is never allayed), no one is letting this attitude affect the product yet; they’re all just happy to be an undisputed hit. However, as we’ve noted, the main problem with pride as it pertains to this series is that it always comes coupled with narrative ambition, which, like in most comedies, threatens to take the scripts’ focus away from their most reliable asset: the characters. While discussing Season Five, I have little about which to complain because the results are so fine – with just as many classic episodes as seen in our survey of the fourth year (one of the big reasons why I find them very evenly matched) and another successful upping of the comedic ante, just like in every season thus far. My kvetching during years past about critical warning signs will prove necessary later due to some of what we’ll be discussing within the weeks to come, but because we’ve already had that material pretty well-covered over the past few weeks, we’ll pause that topic (for the most part) now and resume it next time, when the ante-upping isn’t a winning strategy…
Actually, in spite of this year’s increased movement with regard to both narrative broadening and David’s complicated plot-heavy storytelling, each of which moves the show further in the wrong direction by continuing to both undermine the series’ believability and counteract its premise (both the original stand-up-oriented thesis and the fallacious “show about nothing” notion proposed last year), I think this season does a better job with its characters than the fourth — focusing on them over the narratives. It’s a bit of a trade-off though, for while Season Five wrests the writing from the engaging, but overbearing serialization of the year prior (that most threatened the show’s projection of its own premise by poising Seinfeld for a story-driven ride), this year features individual narratives that are more convoluted and tenuously realistic. Both modes of operation have to work harder than normal to remain character-focused, and despite the show-defining ingenuity of last year’s arc, I think Season Five triumphs for keeping its story goals episodic, allowing for more nuanced and focused explorations of the core foursome… In fact, let’s do a quick character rundown (at the midway mark )… George is made to move back in with his folks (Estelle Harris and now, the debuting Jerry Stiller), who act as comedic Viagra for every script that needs a lift; Elaine is becoming less morally upright in comparison to her cohorts, which opens her up more for the kind of storytelling into which the series’ tone has been moving (and this demeanor will increase as a result of this season’s finale, in which her life gets turned on its head – more below); Kramer, having reinforced his comedic worth with an Emmy awarded to his portrayer (he’d win another for this season), is more effortlessly placed within the stories and ensemble – his presence is considerably less forced now (in seasons past, he wasn’t as integrated); and lastly, Jerry officially assumes his position as the ringleader of a wacky ensemble. He’s clearly the star, but with the series’ stand-up POV continually minimized, the show now feels less of an obligation to narratively elevate him.
This ongoing liberation from the initial stand-up-wrapped structure, while part of a premise rejection (a trajectory we’ve been following; it’ll be time to update the above logline very soon…), ultimately adds to the comedy — let’s not beat around any clichéd bushes: the other three are much better comedic actors than Seinfeld — and seems to be a natural, unavoidable part of the show’s evolution, for better (Season Five) or worse (no comment). But there I go getting ahead of myself again… Oh well, while I’m on a tangent, I might as well go on another one and briefly mention that the show’s critical and commercial favor did not exist in a vacuum. With Seinfeld looking like NBC’s darling in ‘93 (boy, was Frasier a rude awakening to this crew!), other networks – including this series’ own – were looking to replicate its success with similarly designed “singles in the city” comedies, based around the personal and professional lives of young folks in big cities (either in a workplace or simply their well-furnished apartments). Today we tend to point towards Friends (1994-2004, NBC), which premiered during Seinfeld’s following season and will be discussed here in full next year, as cementing this trend. Yet, Seinfeld did come first and its star – egotistically, but correctly – recognized the major commonalities between the two: same setting, similar low-concept, multiple-stories-per-week structure. (Of course, their tones were wildly different and Friends wasn’t as concerned with narrative dovetailing; also, despite the frustration born out of these accompanying imbalances, the series actually did a slightly better job of prioritizing its character interests over heavy weekly pots… even though it still had other characterization issues: contorting them for preordained arcs and regressing them for cheap laughs – something Seinfeld, for most of its run, seldom did; but I’m not going to talk any more about Friends now or below, and I digress…) So, it’s true that Seinfeld’s concept was already proving impactful – as was its storytelling. Replicating, or even rivaling, the series’ voice, however, was much harder… and the show always remained unique in this regard.
At any rate, it’s clear that Seinfeld is on top in Season Five – no doubt about it — and before we get to this list, I want to revisit this peak analogy once more by partially attributing the crest represented within this year, in particular, to the fact that this season recognizes a meeting of the old and the new. The old being longtime director Tom Cherones (who joined the staff right after the pilot) and prolific scribe Larry Charles (who’d been around since Season Two), both of whom would depart after this year, and the new being writers Tom Gammill & Max Pross (formerly of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) and Carol Leifer (Saturday Night Live), who’ll bolster these upcoming seasons with their strong comedic sensibilities. This combination of newbies and vets adds merit to the peak theory by helping keep the base level of quality high (there’s an occasional dud, but that’s only in relation to the heights reached in the many hits), poising the year for a somewhat – spoiler alert – difficult transition in the year ahead, and guaranteeing that there are, I’ll reiterate, as many classics below as there were last week. And as we reach the end of the show’s Golden Age, before our critical eyes have more with which they must contend in the noble pursuit, as always, of quality (and specifically, the best of the best), Season Five becomes increasingly precious, the last of an era – both Golden, and simply, the show’s first, more novel half. Whether you prefer the narratively bold and reputation-establishing fourth season or the more commercially popular and character-fixated fifth season (I myself admit to being torn), this is still another one of the best collections we’ve had the pleasure to discuss. 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 Five. (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 65: “The Mango” (Aired: 09/16/93)
Jerry learns that Elaine “faked it” during sex with him.
Story by Lawrence H. Levy | Teleplay by Lawrence H. Levy and Larry David
Seinfeld opens its fifth season with a more laid-back attitude than ever before, and considering that the series has just become a television sensation, it’s almost odd to see how casually the show is able to justify its statutes without dropping the figurative ball. What is particularly appealing about this installment is the effortless way in which all the stories converge; after two years of, let’s face it, some clumsiness in this regard (and, let’s also be fair: it ain’t easy), there’s something awe-inspiring about what many installments this season manage to do with their narratives. Kramer’s stand-off with a fruit grocer connects to the primary story via an aphrodisiatic mango after Jerry learns that Elaine “faked it” (read: faked orgasms) with him. Meanwhile, George turns to the mystical fruit to cure his own problems with the Risotto Broad, played by Lisa Edelstein. Fluently conceived, tightly written, and simply comedic. Great opener.
02) Episode 66: “The Puffy Shirt” (Aired: 09/23/93)
Jerry inadvertently agrees to wear an embarrassing shirt on national TV.
Written by Larry David
To be perfectly honest with you, this installment is overrated, for it predicates so much of its enjoyment on the singular sight gag of Jerry wearing the eponymous puffy shirt (or “pirate shirt”) during a live interview on national television. It’s a naturally comedic notion and it easily succeeds; what’s troublesome is the way this story is motivated — through Kramer’s “low talking” girlfriend, which is the epitome of a decent, relatable idea presented to an extreme that’s too ridiculous to be believable. And in this era in which logic is fairly well-modulated against laughs, it’s glaring. What ultimately redeems the episode is the George subplot of him becoming a hand model, as the structure of his finding strange success and ultimately losing it completely is, obviously, a winner. The good here is worthwhile enough to justify the leaps.
03) Episode 68: “The Sniffing Accountant” (Aired: 10/07/93)
Jerry suspects that his accountant has a cocaine habit.
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
There are so many really strong episodes in the fifth season that if you’d asked me months before I made this list and finished my chronological survey of the series, I wouldn’t have been certain about this installment’s inclusion. And now — I don’t know why that was, for this episode is recommendable on many points. Not only do I love the George storyline of him almost becoming a bra salesman (with the help of his father — which means plenty of delectable Frank and Estelle moments), but I also appreciate the dynamic of Jerry, Kramer, and Newman on a “sting,” which yields some of the biggest laugh-getting of Richards’ career (check out the outtakes too). This comedic construction saves the A-story, which is appropriately dark, but rawer (more along the lines of Season Three) than most of Season Five.
04) Episode 70: “The Lip Reader” (Aired: 10/28/93)
George uses Jerry’s deaf girlfriend to spy on his ex.
Written by Carol Leifer
Leifer’s first script on Seinfeld is one of the most creatively premised yet! (Sorry, Jake Jarmel!!) Oscar winner Marlee Matlin guest stars as a tennis lineswoman who, because she’s deaf and reads lips to communicate, is solicited by George to help him spy across the room at a party on one of his ex-girlfriends. It’s an ingenious, creative story (we haven’t seen this one before, folks) with a natural humor that — best of all — is perfect for these characters, particularly George. Meanwhile, the subplots are, again, wonderfully tied to the prime theme when Elaine fakes deafness so she doesn’t have to talk to the chatty driver of her company’s car service and Kramer wants to be a tennis ball boy: a story to which Jerry’s girlfriend is also directly connected. One of several offerings on today’s list that is easily MVE fodder. A series classic.
05) Episode 76: “The Stall” (Aired: 01/06/94)
Elaine unknowingly has an argument with Jerry’s girlfriend over toilet paper.
Written by Larry Charles
I truly enjoy this busy episode, but I find it uneven. I have little tolerance for the subplot with George, Kramer, and tangentially, Elaine, because the whole rock-climbing sequence with Elaine’s boyfriend (and the events before and after) feel out-of-place within the rest of the outing and season: it’s big, broad, and not connectable. The only saving grace here is the accompanying vapid depiction of Elaine as a result of her boyfriend’s facial disfiguration — she’s clearly going through some transformation and right now, it’s comedic; let’s see how long it lasts… However, the primary plot, with Jerry dating a woman (Jami Gertz) who’s secretly a phone sex operator (counting Kramer among her clientele) and who gets into a bathroom argument with Elaine over toilet paper (she couldn’t “spare a square”), is fantastically fun.
06) Episode 77: “The Dinner Party” (Aired: 02/03/94)
Bringing gifts to a party proves difficult.
Written by Larry David
Although I’ve credited this season with being generally great for the characterizations, there’s no doubt that the series is moving to a figurative arena in which frantic, complex narratives are prized (made obvious by many episodes on today’s list), so amidst all of this hectic fare of a similar type, I’m drawn to these simply designed outings both because they’re more theatrical (and you know how vital I find that to the situation comedy’s thesis) and because they become a relative novelty — just like the more cinematic entries were in early years. This outing is all about character, as the foursome has trouble securing a cake and a bottle of wine for a party they’re attending. Jerry and Elaine head to a bakery for amusing situations of comedy, while George and Kramer get broader, physical bits that serve them well. Easy, distilled, refreshing.
07) Episode 78: “The Marine Biologist” (Aired: 02/10/94)
George courts a woman under the pretenses of being a marine biologist.
Written by Ron Hauge & Charlie Rubin
A fan favorite, this is another more complexly plotted outing that, thank goodness, manages to all come together in a way that satisfies and justifies all the narrative machinations. It’s a stroke of brilliance — although, with hindsight, it seems so obvious (a mark of good writing: the clear solution that we never would have anticipated) to tie-in Kramer’s small gag of hitting golf balls on the beach with George’s lie of being a marine biologist, which Jerry, while embracing his inner troublemaker (a fundamental part of his emerging identity), created. The final reveal of the golf ball that George pulled out of a whale’s blowhole is a triumphant moment both for the character and the series, as it’s emblematic of the mastery the show has been able to achieve in its storytelling. Unfortunately, trying to best this height will prove difficult…
08) Episode 84: “The Fire” (Aired: 05/05/94)
George helps host his girlfriend’s son’s birthday party.
Written by Larry Charles
Despite the fact that the episode utilizes two distinct trains of thought without ever connecting them meaningfully (which Seinfeld has told its audience, by this point, is part of its mission), this episode is a winner because both ideas are supreme. The story that earns this episode its title has George dating a woman with a son, and when a fire erupts during a birthday party for said son, George pushes past women and children to get out the door first. It’s another hysterical idea and so fitting for George’s characterization in this season. The more involved story (which, doesn’t get the title, but is more prominently featured), weaves Kramer’s coffee table book about coffee tables into a story of Elaine being denied a promotion in favor of an obnoxious co-worker (Veanne Cox), who milks the sympathy she gets after losing a toe — which happens after Jerry heckles her for payback from her heckling him. Whew — it’s a lot, but laughs abound!
09) Episode 85: “The Hamptons” (Aired: 05/12/94)
The group heads up to the Hamptons to see an ugly baby.
Written by Peter Mehlman & Carol Leifer
This installment doesn’t play in realtime, but it has a unity of space that simplifies its whole conception and harkens back to previously highlighted classics like “The Chinese Restaurant” and “The Parking Garage,” both of which were MVEs. Not surprisingly, this is another favorite, and if not for the episode below, it would have so easily been my choice for the year’s best, because it’s near perfection. The premise has the core four going up to the Hamptons to see their friends’ ugly baby. (Hilarious already!) Joining the group are George and Jerry’s girlfriends, and the A-story conflict arises when everyone sees George’s girlfriend topless. In retaliation, George wants to see Jerry’s girlfriend topless — but the brilliant teleplay turns the proceedings upside down by having Jerry’s girlfriend walk in on George naked after he’s been in the pool (and endured shrinkage). From there, comedic fireworks erupt, with a tight intertwining narrative (involving Kramer and lobsters) and strong depictions of all the principals. A classic.
10) Episode 86: “The Opposite” (Aired: 05/19/94)
George reverses his instincts and finds success, while Elaine suffers.
Written by Andy Cowan and Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
The season finale, this is my pick for the year’s best episode. If you’ve read above, you already know this wasn’t an easy choice, given the strength of many other offerings highlighted here (particularly the direct predecessor). But the reason this installment is so gobsmackingly spectacular is that I think it physically represents that oft-discussed peak, as this specific episode is that point where the series is most fully realized and perfected with regard to character, comedy, and creativity. As Kramer comes close to seeing the actualization of his coffee table book (and gets to guest on Regis And Kathie Lee), big developmental changes are happening for all the characters in the culmination of everything we’ve known to be true about them over these past few years. George, the chronic failure who hasn’t been regularly employed in three years, finds a streak of good luck hinged entirely on his calculated decision to do the opposite of all that his instincts have told him. And as George rises, the script finds a parallel in the descent of the formerly superior Elaine — a story that has been quietly brewing throughout the season, as her non-admitted egocentricity costs her a beau, an apartment, and a job. In this moment, Elaine becomes just as much a loser as the rest of the bunch, and the series officially bids welcome to the cartoonishly moralless places it’ll take this foursome in the years ahead. And finally, this episode reinforces Jerry as the series’ core, as he remains “Even Steven” during the process — thus defining a source of his comedy over these past few years: bemused ambivalence towards life. Seinfeld has figured itself out, and now it can deconstruct…
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Pie,” a wonderful excursion for all the players that came the closest to making the above list and was a tough exclusion, “The Non-Fat Yogurt,” which is a grand gimmicky episode (because it ties into the New York City mayoral campaign) with some big laughs, and “The Cigar Store Indian,” an underrated outing that features every character brilliantly (including George’s parents) and utilizes a worthwhile Jerry premise (another really tough outing to exclude).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Seinfeld goes to…
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the sixth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!