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.
Life is strange… and funny. Seinfeld stars JERRY SEINFELD as Jerry Seinfeld, JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS as Elaine Benes, MICHAEL RICHARDS as Cosmo Kramer, and JASON ALEXANDER as George Costanza.
If you’ve sampled last week’s discussion on the seventh season of Seinfeld, you’re already pretty well-versed on where I stand regarding the series’ final two years, which constitute the post-Larry David era (as the co-creator had finally made good on his threat to depart – now leaving the show in the hands of its star, Jerry Seinfeld). In adding context to Season Seven’s place within the series’ trajectory, we examined how the year was both like and unalike those following. Rejecting some commonly held beliefs about these final seasons, we noted that the previously ever-elevating utilization of the series’ now identity-defining interweaving, plot-heavy structure had reached its pinnacle in Season Seven – not Eight or Nine. As suggested last time, these final years do rejoice in being able to “dovetail” their stories, and still indeed keep this a primary narrative goal (which it also was during the Golden Age of Seasons Three through Five, mind you – but with less of the character-suppressing fervor as seen in the “post-original-premise” scripts of years Six and Seven). Yet, post-David, the show is no longer able to craft these complexly plotted tales with the same mastery, and I think this is because Seinfeld’s focus remains, where it’s always been, on comedy – not character, and not even story. Like David, he’s drawn to the comedic idea (over the character-driven idea), but has less of an understanding (than David) of how to support a solid comedic notion with a structure or focus that can then be used to build towards the intended “dovetailing.” As a result, motivating stories’ connectedness becomes a more labored endeavor in these final seasons, which means several things. First, the dovetail maneuverings become more contrived, because that skill has diminished. Second, the dovetail maneuverings become less important in deference to Seinfeld’s individual strengths, which are, again, connected to the comedic idea. And third, the show’s identity, once again and without notice or explanation, shifts. Let’s discuss…
To the first two points, let’s keep in mind that the show is still plot-heavy and willfully complex. In fact, its ambitions continue to grow – offering more scenes per episode, greater narrative scope, and an enhanced emphasis on the series’ cinematic interests (as opposed to its “traditional,” as the show might say, stage-bound multi-cam charms). So even though these last two seasons will subtly devalue the importance the past couple of years have placed on Seinfeld’s narrative structure (not entirely, but significantly), character is still often subordinated for episodic story, which itself is usually predicated on Seinfeld’s love for the comedic idea – not necessarily a joke, but a joke-situated story. (ex: “Wouldn’t it be funny if Elaine found a Bizarro World?”) The mitigated relevance of the show’s structure is, theoretically, smart, because it offers the opportunity to concentrate on substance (as opposed to form) and define the season based on its material – not how its material is packaged. But with three or four plots per script, story still runs rampant, and without the guiding focus of a regularly replicatable template (regardless of its own shortcomings), the results end up just as bad for character. You see, this year’s scripts remain story-driven; they’re just not as enamored of, and designed for, structure (at least, not as often and not as successfully). As for Seinfeld’s love for what’s funny – which, for the laugh-seeker can be respectable, even though it’s no more inherently character-rooted than structure or story – the results of this shift are often disorienting, for these years, in their employment of ideas whose values are only concentrated within laughs, bounce between plots that are both high and low concept, creating a lack of cohesion and aesthetic oneness within individual episodes. (Before, the high and low rarely mingled – usually everything started low and then became high as a result of the lofty, writer-imposed structure.) Now, every episode has something small to enjoy, while few can be enjoyed largely and in full. Unevenness is common.
I taunted you above with my belief that these final seasons see the show’s identity again shifting. We noted several weeks ago that the series supplanted its stand-up driven low-concept premise in favor of a generic “group of friends” construct with a sustained focus on minutia (somewhere around the transition between Seasons Five and Six – its timing can be debated; here, we said goodbye to it after “The Opposite” because of the accompanying character shifts, which seemed linked to how story was thereafter crafted), while proposing the complicated structure as the new identity-forming source of its originality. So if the complicated structure is losing its importance, then something has to come along and fill the vacuum – at least for the purposes of our identity analysis. (Remember, I’m a natural categorizer – like most of you, probably.) Let me tell you what this era isn’t defined by: the moral decay of the principals, best embodied by Elaine, whose characterization has altered the most since its inception. After all, as we discussed last time, the belief that the series continued to ratchet up its characters’ despicableness throughout the entirety of its run is not totally accurate, for aside from a tribute to this theme in the surprising series finale, it actually reached its height in Season Seven (with Susan’s death serving as the climax). Naturally, the darkness suggested last year lingers in our collective conscious going forward (Elaine, especially, is too far gone to restore), but with hindsight, seems more potent because of the series finale. Actually, Season Eight backs away from this story-sculpted trend towards rottenness… perhaps as a reaction to the extremeness of Susan’s death. Effort is even made this season to “punish” George for her passing (via the Susan Ross Foundation), although his suffering is mostly story-driven and irrelevant until the year’s finale (discussed below), which offers a more potent justice. Through it all, however, the year and its characterizations are intentionally less dark than what was seen and discussed last week.
So, if it’s not rottenness specifically than defines these years, could it be the accompanying broadness? Well, yes and no. (Hold this thought…) Last week, I posited that the real problem with the characters’ growing despicableness was not the nastiness itself, but simply its extremeness, which was so caricatured that it threatened both relatability and realism – two elements the show still needs to maintain its purportedly low-concept “group of friends” thesis. Seinfeld may no longer be about a stand-up finding material, nor was it ever a “show about nothing” – although it was perfectly happy to never deny this self-perpetuated allegation as long as the audience was happy (more next week…) – but it’s always tried to connect with viewers based on relatability; this was the type of comedy in which Seinfeld specialized, serving as the source of his show’s uniqueness (for a while, anyway). Eventually, as we’ve seen, both a routine narrative fetishizing of the trivial, which tried to reinforce realism but did the opposite, and a regular employment of the aforementioned contrived structure, which then became the show’s new calling card, has made “reality” harder to guarantee. This movement towards broadness and surreality – with stranger stories and more extreme characterizations – is the single most sustaining development throughout the series’ run. (Heck, it’s often the most sustaining development in every series’ run.) In fact, last week I suggested that this ongoing absurdity was the most obvious link between Seasons Seven and Eight, for it has, and will continue to, become more of a problem as the show progresses. For a lot of fans – myself included – there’s never a bigger loss in the show’s grasp on truth than in between Seasons Seven and Eight, which is, I think, the meatiest reason why many cite a major difference in enjoyment between the with-David years and the post-David years. Our regard for the series has changed, so a line is drawn – and it’s predicated on the identity-disrupting broadness, whose enhanced presence causes more disconnects in our perception of Seinfeld’s raison d’être: relatability.
In this regard, I think our perception of these final years is most defined by the broadness – the lack of relatable truth – and when I think about how the show failed to deliver on behalf of its audience in these final years (for it never changed its stated objective, despite changing what was being delivered), I come to this sad development. And yet, the loss of reality is an effect. While it does define the way we view the series, it doesn’t define what the series is doing in these final seasons to distinguish itself – in the same way the show once did with its premise, and then later with its storytelling. Rather, I think these years attempt to define themselves through a telegraphed sense of self-awareness – a theme we’ve been exploring since the beginning, but one that got buried in the show’s obsession with its ballyhooed storytelling. Remember, the very idea of Jerry Seinfeld playing comedian Jerry Seinfeld is self-aware and born within the late ‘80s’ convention-busting aura. Yet every direct attempt at self-acknowledgement, including the beloved pilot arc of Season Four, has aimed to uphold the reality of the realistic “universe” it created. Now, however, when the stylistically unsure series trots out more routinized metatheatrics in an attempt to connect with the audience (and project its uniqueness – “look how smart we are about who we are”), it’s at the expense of the show, for Seinfeld’s truth has come under fire. The easy jokes and gimmicky stories don’t speak to truth, but rather to the show’s identity problems (does it really know who it is?), along with its inability to deliver upon its premise – the original one (stand-up), the fictional one (nothing), and the lingering realism-dependent one (group of friends). In these final years, the show is forever winking at the audience, inviting a sense of burlesque into its stories, its storytelling, and sadly, its characterizations. Thus, the last two years of Seinfeld aren’t defined by storytelling, as the prior two were; they’re defined by the introduction of camp. And although we’ve seen this motif creep into many long-running comedies (like The Golden Girls and Married… With Children), never on this blog has camp been so antithetical to a show’s identity than Seinfeld‘s.
So far, this could be considered a pretty harsh critique; I’ll temper it by telling you that I probably would have been harsher several years ago. After having done this chronological survey (and gone through several decades of shows with similar problems), I’ve been able to retain more of the appreciation that I once lost. Yes, Season Eight is qualitatively far from the series’ Golden Age, but it’s also positionally far – at least three years. The issues and disappointment I’ve had and felt in the years since – Six and Seven – have cushioned my sentiments for Eight and Nine, as I recognize that the show has had a more fluid trajectory. These identity-based, story-over-character, believability issues are not unique to this season, even if this year is more plagued by them and is less enjoyable than its predecessors. And because I want to derive as much enjoyment as I can from this series, I’m going to use this fluidity to be less harsh on the these last few years (all the while maintaining my favor for the prior years as well – I’m not shifting my problems with Eight onto Four). As for the commonly held opinion – at least, the one I see most frequently – about Season Eight being the series’ weakest, I’m only going to note that believing so involves discounting both the utter lack of comedy and, even worse, character in that initial first season (which still counts as a year unto itself), along with the perhaps unbearable and much more forced lunacy of the final season (my thoughts on which I’ll save for next week – stay tuned), which builds upon this mounting believability conundrum. So, despite my sadness over the show’s inability to be more honest about what it’s actually become (a bigger problem next week, obviously), I want to end this commentary with a few more positives. One, I still laugh regularly – unlike in the final eras of other classics. Two, some narratives, though story-driven, remain good for character – especially George’s, whose depiction has been the most consistent. And three, we’ve seen a lot worse on this blog – no comment. On this note, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Eight. (As always, they are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode featured below is directed by Andy Ackerman. Also, installments that originally aired in one-hour blocks are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 137: “The Bizarro Jerry” (Aired: 10/03/96)
Elaine finds the opposite versions of Jerry, George, and Kramer.
Written by David Mandel
Assuming you’ve read my above commentary, you already know that I find this year’s particular appropriation of metatheatrics to be problematic — indicating both a shortcoming within the show’s ability to craft character comedy and yet another gulf between the series’ own self-awareness about its identity and its quality. But, given the nature of this comparatively inferior season (and let’s always contextualize that it stacks up badly next to its predecessors), I find myself highlighting a lot of episodes that, in addition to meeting basic enjoyment standards, offer great representations of the year and its storytelling — however flawed. This is one of those examples, because I fundamentally don’t like the utilization of this story, but think it shows exactly what this season is like, while fortunately delivering some memorable laughs.
02) Episode 138: “The Little Kicks” (Aired: 10/10/96)
Elaine’s dancing makes her a laughing stock.
Written by Spike Feresten
Why beat around the figurative bush? This episode is here almost solely for the sight gag of Elaine Benes’ dancing, which is probably among the most notorious sequences of the entire series. The storyline is a perfect illustration of the places that the series is going with Elaine — they’ve backed off her lack of conscience and instead are emphasizing her kooky fallibilities. But this episode is also good for George, who pretends to be a “bad boy” to date one of Elaine’s co-workers. It’s an ideal story for his character, who has, generally, a good eighth season. (In fact, check out the honorable mentions — there are several times that he singlehandedly elevates an installment’s quality.) I’m less enthused about the Kramer/Jerry subplot, but I appreciate how the script attempts to connect it to the dancing, which indeed fosters humor.
03) Episode 140: “The Fatigues” (Aired: 10/31/96)
Jerry learns that his girlfriend’s mentor is dating Bania.
Written by Gregg Kavet & Andy Robin
Season Eight is hit-and-miss for the Jerry character, as the new showrunner’s attentions are so diverted that he’s, understandably, throwing most of the material to the other players (about which I’m not going to complain — this is a talented ensemble). But I consider this one of the better Jerry episodes here, for it’s his story, of dating a woman whose mentor (itself a funny, relatable idea) sees the obnoxious Kenny Bania, a perennial thorn in our protagonist’s side, that sells the whole outing. I also find lots of humor in the Elaine subplot with the co-worker wearing the eponymous fatigues, along with the single-joke story of George scheming to get books on tape. I’m not as delighted with the Kramer/Frank Costanza plot, as I find it asks for too much of a believability leap, but it marks an early eighth year attempt at narrative cohesion.
04) Episode 142: “The Chicken Roaster” (Aired: 11/14/96)
Jerry and Kramer switch apartments — and personalities.
Written by Alec Berg & Jeff Schaffer
As with “The Bizarro Jerry,” I don’t think there’s much to this episode’s enjoyment beyond the fact that it plays against the character’s types. I find it all, naturally, a gimmick that is beneath a show of this reputation. But I also think that a long-running show deserves the opportunity to derive comedy from the inversion of expectations. This is actually a well-liked entry, for it offers fans the opportunity to see Jerry and Kramer switch roles; Seinfeld isn’t up to the challenge, but seeing him try is actually the source of my enjoyment. (The problem here, of course, is the extreme broadness.) I, frankly, appreciate this episode equally as much for its utilization of the others, especially George, whose scheme to leave a hat at a paramour’s house (as an excuse to return) is a great story for his character, whose definition hasn’t wavered in David’s absence.
05) Episode 143: “The Abstinence” (Aired: 11/21/96)
George and Elaine’s individual abstinence has different results.
Written by Steve Koren
Yet another installment in which the entire premise is situated on the inversion of expectations regarding the characterizations, I actually think this episode is a credit to masterful construction (the kind reminiscent of seasons past), and even, in a broader and less thoughtful manner, reminds of “The Opposite,” which I’ve posited as being the series’ precise peak. The story finds George and Elaine enduring different consequences as a result of abstinence: George becomes smarter and Elaine becomes dumber. The former is the funnier, because it’s the biggest change (after all, Elaine has lost a lot of brain cells over these past four years), but the story uses a brand of self-awareness that doesn’t grate on our nerves as some others here — see, it actually wants to say something about these characters. Also, this installment features Jackie Chiles in one of his more modulated appearances. Among this rocky season’s sharpest offerings.
06) Episode 149: “The Susie” (Aired: 02/13/97)
Complications arise when Elaine is called the wrong name at work.
Written by David Mandel
This may actually be one of the broadest episodes in the series’ history, and yet, for as much kvetching as I’ve done (and still might do next week) about how this is both an affront to our personal preferences and to the show’s own aesthetics, I have to also note that this is one of the funniest episodes of the eighth season, with a lot aiding its enjoyment. For starters, I like that the crux of the farce is the simple, relatable “Elaine doesn’t correct a co-worker who calls her the wrong name.” It’s a small, truthful place from which hijinks can flow — and with J. Peterman, you know they do! Also, there’s a lot to enjoy on the peripheral, especially in the George/Kramer story, which is one of those one-note comedic ideas (that nevertheless delivers) of Kramer acting as a proxy for a woman who wants to dump George. The part of the installment that bothers most is the use of Mike — despite the rewarding continuity of seeing him again — who is the agent used to tie together disparate stories, but in a manner too absurd.
07) Episode 150: “The Pothole” (Aired: 02/20/97)
Jerry panics when his girlfriend uses a toothbrush that was dropped in the toilet.
Written by Steve O’Donnell and Dan O’Keefe
A complicated installment, I actually think this is the most reminiscent of last season, which represented the apex of the series’ ability to handle complex, fast-moving storytelling and narrative intertwining. Indeed, this was one of the most laborious episodes to produce of the entire series, but as with several others here, there’s ultimately a lot of individual elements to enjoy. First, Jerry gets a great story when his girlfriend, played by Kristin Davis, uses a toothbrush that he’s accidentally dropped in the toilet. This is perfect — the humor is based on what we know of Jerry’s personality. (The installment also gains points for the thematic cohesion afforded to the George and Kramer stories.) But I must give specific credit to the very funny Elaine subplot, in which she tries to scam a restaurant that won’t deliver to her location.
08) Episode 151: “The English Patient” (Aired: 03/13/97)
Elaine can’t understand the praise given to The English Patient.
Written by Steve Koren
Another installment that seems to have a lot of favor among the general fanbase, I think this one works primarily because of the Elaine story, which is focused on minutia — the fact that she hates a film (The English Patient) that everyone else, including her boss, absolutely adores. It reminds a lot of the argument Jerry had in Season Two with a girlfriend over a cotton Dockers ad. It’s this kind of small, but connectable interaction that allows us to relate to the show and these characters — even during a time when familiarity is forced to overcompensate for evaporating relatability (especially in Elaine). Also, why deny that a good part of this entry’s appeal is the Jerry story, which features Lloyd Bridges as an old codger who oversells his strength, and then suffers (comedically) as a result. A solid entry from an often unsolid season.
09) Episode 153: “The Yada Yada” (Aired: 04/24/97)
Jerry is bothered when Tim Whatley converts to Judaism.
Written by Peter Mehlman & Jill Franklyn
My choice for the strongest episode of the season, this installment earns its title by virtue of the simple fact that it’s the year’s funniest excursion — there’s no competition — with every single idea employed working in some capacity, and not forsaking an inordinate amount of logic in the process. In fact, I have nothing but compliments to pay here. I love seeing Tim Whatley return, and I think his storyline is stellar. The “anti-dentite” label is a classic Seinfeld quotable, the jokes he tells are memorable, and the scene with Jerry in the confessional is an all-time standout. I also like seeing Debra Messing again, particularly because vindictive Elaine returns, as she costs a couple their baby and then stoops so low as to fornicate with the guy from the agency in an attempt to switch the verdict. (Very Season Seven!) I also find a lot at which to laugh in the Kramer/Mickey double dating story (they always do great physical comedy together). And, last but not least, I love the episode’s use of “Yada Yada Yada,” which impacts every storyline and gave the expression a national exposure. So this is one of the few installments here that I enjoy unequivocally — a true classic and indicative of the series still doing its single job: entertaining.
10) Episode 156: “The Summer Of George” (Aired: 05/15/97)
George vacations and Elaine gets into a catfight.
Written by Alec Berg & Jeff Schaffer
In the season finale, as mentioned above in my seasonal commentary, the show finally sees fit to punish George for inadvertently leading to Susan’s death. (The Susan Ross Foundation, which was a funny idea but really went nowhere, wasn’t enough.) Thus, there’s the anticipated amount of humor in the parallels of invitations leading to George’s (literal) downfall. But the episode also utilizes a throwback Jerry/Larry story of Jerry and George teaming up to create the perfect boyfriend (because, as they conclude, it takes more than one man to satisfy a woman). And yet, there’s nothing better in this installment than the wonderful intertwining that the script manages — featuring Elaine’s conflict with a co-worker who doesn’t swing her arms (played by the always funny Molly Shannon), Kramer’s role in the Tony Awards, and the catfight that erupts on the street between Elaine and Raquel Welch. Broader than I’d like, but hysterical!
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: four installments with terrific George stories, “The Package,” which features the “timeless art of seduction” and an appropriate (for this season) Elaine idea, “The Andrea Doria,” which benefits from having George attempt to out-suffer a shipwreck survivor, “The Comeback,” a popular entry that works marvelously in the George scenes (and the pay-off in Elaine’s story), making it the closest contender for the above list — despite being saddled with a dreadful story for Jerry (and an uneven teleplay that holds it back), and “The Nap,” which gives George one of his most memorable subplots — napping under the desk in his office — and would have been fodder for this list if the rest of the stories were up to its level. As you can see, this is, at least, a good year for George.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Seinfeld goes to…
“The Yada Yada”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the final season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!