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.
With past posts extolling the charms of the years I consider part of Seinfeld’s “Golden Age” – Seasons Three, Four, and Five – it was only inevitable that this entry on the sixth would have to contend with some sort of descent in my perception of the series’ base level of quality. The fundamental question is “by how much?” and the answer, of course, is subjective. The reasons for this dip (which we’ll discuss in a figurative moment) have been explored throughout the past few weeks in musings on “warning signs” and “cautionary omens,” and now the time has come for those issues to no longer be just signs and omens. Seinfeld has been headed in this direction since Season Two, and every year thereafter has represented an uptick in elements that would eventually prove destructive to the show’s ability to improve upon itself – or even just maintain the same high standards. But the increased understanding of character and the continual “upping” of the show’s comedic ante with each ensuing season have heretofore rendered null any significant qualms, for Seinfeld has always been able to rise to the challenge and deliver worthwhile returns, improving upon its laughs in the process. The placement of this rhetorical line where the previously discussed (and mostly identity-rooted) problems officially handicap the show from either improving (or even plateauing) will always be debated – some fans won’t draw it until after Larry David’s departure at the end of Season Seven, while some already consider Five less stellar than Four. Personally, as discussed last week, I find Four and Five commensurate – we trade Four’s premise-undermining serialization for Five’s complicated episodic narratives, and while Four is more show-defining, Five does more for character. Plus, I think the show continued its comedic and character-building ascent from the first three seasons throughout both Four and Five – creating a trackable build. That all stops in Season Six, which, simply, isn’t funnier than its predecessor (despite trying harder) and represents the first time Seinfeld, because its quality isn’t enhanced, finally finds its mounting problems ready to inflict damage.
Before we get into more specifics on quality and identity and yada yada, I want to mention two other things (tangential to merit) that help suggest Seasons Five and Six as being part of different eras. First, Andy Ackerman joins the company at the start of this season as the show’s new resident director (replacing the departed Tom Cherones, who’d been around since Season One), making for a clear-cut personnel change. Does this impact quality though? Not really. While the year opens with a weird energy that could perhaps be ascribed to this shift, the transition likely appears seamless to the casual viewer. In fact, Ackerman does what all great TV directors should – he trusts his cast – and so, pretty quickly fits right into their ensemble, never distracting from their good work. Any changes in Season Six with the way the show is visually telling its stories has less to do with Ackerman than with the on-going evolution of the storytelling, which is becoming more ambitious, more cinematic, and therefore less rooted in the characters and premise. (Hold that thought…) Second, I think there’s an attitude pivot between Seasons Five and Six that separates the two – and it corresponds to one of the elements that clouds the show’s reputation: its pride, which borders on smugness. Yes, this is the year in which the show officially embraces its newly received reputation for greatness and in turn reflects a (perhaps) smug self-satisfaction that can sometimes be alienating. In Season Five, the show was on top, but the self-love hadn’t quite permeated the scripts; here, it does and it’s difficult to ignore just how much confidence Seinfeld has. Not that there’s anything wrong with confidence, mind you, although, it is easier to like a humble show: an underdog. That noted, the degree to which this pride affects the product is nebulous – more likely, the aggrandized attitude invites enhanced criticism, forcing skeptical audience members to notice growing missteps.
However, with this pride comes that unwieldy and oft-mentioned ambition. For Seinfeld, this drive for bigger and better is almost single-handedly confined to its storytelling (although the super-objective is still to get bigger laughs through these complicated narratives). We’ve ruminated on the troublesome relationship between the storytelling and the series’ premise at length in past commentaries, for this has been a consistent theme – and one that, therefore, can’t solely be attributed to Season Six. That is, the year doesn’t bear the total responsibility for these issues; rather, because the show doesn’t (or maybe even can’t) become any better within this ever-emboldened narrative trend, this is the year where it becomes routinely bothersome (in ways that past seasons weren’t). So what exactly is happening? Well, the series branded itself a few years back as a “show about nothing” (although it never was), which rather than motivating the series to simplify its use of story, instead has served as an excuse to continue, what I call, “fetishizing the trivial.” I use this to refer to the way the show fixates on trivial ideas to the extent that the ideas build and no longer remain simple or trivial, but instead become as big, as broad, and as claustrophobic as a high-concept premise-driven story that we might find on any other series. What begins as a funny, relatable episodic idea is then pumped with so much showmanship adrenaline, and forced to intertwine with other funny, relatable, adrenaline-pumped ideas (sometimes strained or haphazardly), to create a string of absurd events that are so unbelievably manufactured that the wonderful, relatable comedic ideas used as foundation are buried in the process – along with reality. Through this storytelling, we lose the low-concept premise and the connectable realism-based humanity that made the show stand out in the beginning – the latter being a harder loss to justify than the “where does a comedian get his material?” premise, whose irrelevance has become increasingly obvious.
As a result of said changes, I think it’s finally time to say an official goodbye to that first premise. If the show won’t be honest about itself, then it’s up to us to do it. In fact, maybe in admitting that the premise has changed, we’ll be freer to accept the show’s failure to continue delivering on its promise. After all, with the stand-up set pieces reduced to the opening credits only — gone are the closing credits’ (and the season finale is the first installment to actually feature NO standup: a sign of things to come) — the show can no longer pretend to be about a comedian getting his material. Now it’s simply about the comedian and his group of friends, who, like a lot of fictional characters, endure a lot of surreally tragic (and dark) consequences as a result of choices made in everyday, initially relatable scenarios. This format isn’t particularly unique – when boasting a low-concept premise, the show could actually claim some originality – but this new direction certainly broadens the storytelling scope (which, by the way, is the reason that the premise evolved in the first place), and helps to rationalize why the show puts so much stock in the way it plots and tells its stories: these complicated narrative jumbles are how the show is now choosing to differentiate itself. I have no problem with storytelling becoming the show’s new source of originality, and I understand why it’s happened. But I do have a problem when the episodic storytelling – or even the singular comedic idea upon which the hijinks are situated – is given precedence over the characters, as the utilization of character in story must always – say it with me now – be the paramount concern; stories work for character, not the reverse. In this new era, Seinfeld seems perfectly happy to contort its players for the good story idea – not necessarily the good joke (as they’d often charge lesser sitcoms), but the good story idea, which means that characters aren’t changing through story (as happens when they evolve organically), but are changing for story. That’s not character-driven, that’s writer-driven. However, nothing’s false yet… only forced.
One of the elements that alienates many Seinfeld lovers is the seemingly unmotivated character shifts, which tend to occur alongside unspoken tonal changes that also have a bearing on the show’s premise (and the inability to ensure that our perception of its thesis is aligned with what it’s actually delivering). While this season finds Jerry and Kramer essentially staying the same — although, when they’re put in more absurd stories (as Kramer is), they subtly adapt — it’s George and Elaine who are actively changing. George’s new job reduces some of his tragedy, and while he remains a loser, the stable employment anchors his neuroses in a way that better intimates genuine evolution. New conflicts are thus explored for George, one of them being an arc in which his parents separate – a wonderful excuse to see more of Stiller and Harris, who always bring the comedic heat! Surprisingly, he has another good season — I have no problems with his depiction here. Elaine, on the other hand… well, I noted weeks ago that her character can be used as a barometer for the show’s overall health. Now, she’s in flux, as the choice to put her in a subservient position to the buffoonishly dictatorial Mr. Pitt allows the show to further destroy her character’s sanity to make her more fit for the scripts’ emerging sensibilities. Elaine’s prime flaw – her sanctimoniousness — is now starting to be supplanted with a warped integrity that rescinds her moral high ground and allows her to be as socially stunted and emotionally maladjusted as her friends. (This moral decay is a theme throughout the rest of the series – reflected through everyone, but oddly positioned within the supposedly relatable premise.) It turns her into a more comedically ripe being, and this is a great season for Louis-Dreyfus, the comedienne. But for Elaine, the character, she’s losing her believability in favor of broader, less connectable traits – a trend that parallels what’s going on in the season itself… Now, as for quality, there are still a lot of terrific episodes here in spite of the descent, and while the show will grow to better support its commitment to this new form of storytelling next year (and thus better justify the changes), we’ve not totally forsaken Seinfeld‘s credibility regarding character… So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Six. (As always, they are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that 23 of the 24 episodes this year are directed by Andy Ackerman. (The sole dissenter is not highlighted below.) Also, installments that originally aired as one-hour are considered two separate entries (as they would in syndication).
01) Episode 88: “The Big Salad” (Aired: 09/29/94)
A big salad puts a wedge in George’s relationship.
Written by Larry David
Following an overblown and unsatisfying season premiere, this episode is a return to a more simpler form, while pointing towards what we can expect throughout the rest of the season. What works especially well about this outing is that the stories — well, two of the three main stories (the Kramer O.J-inspired plot is too lofty) — are rooted in fundamentally small and digestible ideas. The first, of Jerry’s disgust when he learns that his girlfriend once dated and was dumped by Newman, is completely rooted in character (and thus, sublimely employed). The second is ideal for the now money-making George, as he becomes fixated on the notion that his girlfriend was attempting to take credit for the big salad that he himself bought for Elaine. It’s trivial, it’s absurd — but it’s utterly George Costanza. My favorite entry from the fall of 1994.
02) Episode 93: “The Soup” (Aired: 11/10/94)
Jerry owes an obnoxious comic a meal.
Written by Fred Stoller
Most of the episodes from the first half of the season only save themselves from total disappointment by utilizing one or (at best) two initial ideas that are comedic and worthy of exploration (with said explorations sometimes complicating enjoyment). This one stands out as better because the intentions are less ambitious — no O.J. references or abortion parallels — and the results remain more uncomplicatedly rendered. (I’m sure you’re by now noticing a pattern in how I feel this show best operates.) The introduction of Kenny Bania, a humorous recurring nuisance for Jerry, is even less exciting than the completely conversational debate (and heretofore unexplored fodder for situation comedy) about whether or not a soup qualifies as a meal. This has always been what Seinfeld does best, and this solid episode reinforces its strengths.
03) Episode 96: “The Race” (Aired: 12/15/94)
Jerry agrees to race an old high school rival.
Story by Tom Gammill & Max Pross and Larry David & Sam Kass | Teleplay by Tom Gammill & Max Pross and Larry David
A popular entry, this is one of those episodes than I find significantly better than the sum of its parts. This is, of course, because I find the parts so uneven. I love the Jerry storyline, for it utilizes his history with George, his love for Superman (which the show gets to parody), and just generally works well for his character. But I am decidedly less amused by the communist subplot(s), which attempt to be irreverent, but just like the abortion parallels in “The Couch,” become ham-fisted and heavy-handed partly by virtue of the fact that the show feels capable and compelled to incorporate such subject matter (instead of, you know, prioritizing the characters over the gimmickly gray themes). It represents an overabundance of ambition, which stifles both character and comedy, and stands as territory that the show could only cover when it was still a less pompous underdog. But, although uneven, it’s an ultimately worthwhile showing.
04) Episode 97: “The Switch” (Aired: 01/05/95)
Jerry schemes to date his girlfriend’s roommate.
Written by Bruce Kirschbaum and Sam Kass
As with the above, this episode isn’t uniformly strong — which is often the case with shows that frequently employ multiple narratives — but because the disparity between the stories is smaller, it feels less uneven. I’ll only mention what I like, and why this episode was an easy choice to include here. First, I like the strong Jerry story of his wanting to dump a woman because she never laughs at his jokes (great — connected to premise), and the idea of a “switch” feels very in-keeping with the David/Seinfeld sensibilities that launched the show. And secondly, this is an important Kramer episode; not only do we learn that his first name is Cosmo, but we also get to meet his mother, played by the delicious Sheree North, whose unique comedic presence would have earned this one mention here no matter what. Fortunately, she’s well-served too!
05) Episode 98: “The Label Maker” (Aired: 01/19/95)
Jerry thinks Tim Whatley is a re-gifter.
Written by Alec Berg & Jeff Schaffer
Bryan Cranston, whose Q-score has elevated exponentially since his Seinfeld days, makes the second of three appearances this season as Dr. Tim Whatley, D.D.S., a figure who grows increasingly darker as his episodes progress — in tandem with the series’ own identity. He’s at the crux of this memorable outing when he’s labeled a “re-gifter” by Jerry, who is convinced that Whatley gave away the Label Baby, Jr. that Elaine had given the dentist before they became an item. It’s another case of the show creating expressions that break through into the popular culture, and thankfully, it’s not all hype, because there’s a strong teleplay in support. The Kramer/Newman subplot, along with the George subplot, aren’t as delightful, but they do manage to hold their figurative own, making for a much more solid excursion.
06) Episode 102: “The Beard” (Aired: 02/09/95)
Elaine tries to turn a gay man straight.
Written by Carol Leifer
Carol Leifer is one of my favorite Seinfeld writers for she seems to have a strong understanding of how to take casual observations or occurrences and make them funny without going overboard — at least, that’s the case in the A-story involving Elaine and the gay man for whom she’s serving as a “beard.” Less ordinary and more heightened is the episode’s comedic centerpiece — in which Jerry dates a cop who makes him undergo a lie detector test to prove whether or not he’s indeed seen Melrose Place. It’s a story we’ll never see anywhere else, for it’s something that would likely never happen in the real world in which the series was once set. But because it consequently proves to be so amusing, we excuse the leaps in logic. Leaping logistical hurdles is pleasurable to do on occasion, especially when writers like Leifer can justify it. (Also, there’s both a toupee-clad George and his disdain for a bald woman — need I say more?)
07) Episode 103: “The Kiss Hello” (Aired: 02/16/95)
Jerry’s aversion to a “kiss hello” makes him disliked.
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
Wendie Malick guest stars in this episode as Elaine’s big-haired physical therapist friend who seems to have a hand in all the stories — she allows the show to address Jerry’s disfavor for the “kiss hello,” she refuses to give George a refund for an appointment she missed, she gets Elaine injured by deciding not to drop her off in front of her apartment, and she encounters an expectations-eschewing Kramer. The way the script utilizes her is brilliant and it’s enough to make this episode a winner, although I also appreciate the primary story of Jerry’s disgust for the “kiss hello” and the problems it causes within his own building; it’s perfect for his character and also indicates the way the show can make him suffer as a result of personality failings without condemning him in the ways it does George (and soon enough, Elaine).
08) Episode 104: “The Doorman” (Aired: 02/23/95)
Jerry is addled by Mr. Pitt’s doorman.
Written by Tom Gammill & Max Pross
Seinfeld’s real-life friend plays the eponymous Doorman in this well-liked episode that, like the entry directly above, stands among the season’s better examples of the show being able to handle its complicated plotting (not surprisingly, because again, they’ll get better at this next year too). I’m actually less drawn to the Jerry/Doorman story — and I’d wager that most people feel the same — because it’s dwarfed in hilarity by the Kramer/Frank Costanza subplot (already a comedically lethal combination) of them trying to manufacture a bra for men, called either the “bro” or the “manssiere.” It expectedly delivers stratospheric laughs, especially when Estelle gets in on the action and enters George’s apartment to find Kramer putting a bra on her estranged husband. Some of the series’ best laughs are housed in this memorable storyline.
09) Episode 105: “The Jimmy” (Aired: 03/16/95)
Kramer is mistaken for a mentally disabled man.
Written by Gregg Kavet & Andy Robin
Were I to pick the single funniest episode of the season, it would likely be this entry, which I seriously considered making my MVE. The A-story of the gang having encounters with “The Jimmy,” a man who refers to himself only in the third person is ingeniously comedic, particularly because it allows the peripheral character to supply the absurdity, while the other regulars can play it fairly relatable. (George does go a little over-the-top here, but I digress…) What really takes this installment into excellent territory — it’s not the twisted and go-nowehere Tim Whatley story, over which I have mixed feelings — is the circumstances used to have Kramer mistaken for a mentally disabled man, and then chosen to be the guest of honor at a benefit hosted by Mel Tormé. It’s shocking that the show could get away with material that might be charged as un-PC today, and my goodness, it’s truly hilarious; Richards is supreme!
10) Episode 107: “The Fusilli Jerry” (Aired: 04/27/95)
Jerry feuds with his mechanic over a stolen sexual move.
Story by Marjorie Gross & Jonathan Gross and Ron Hauge & Charlie Rubin | Teleplay by Marjorie Gross
This is my choice for the year’s best episode because it’s the most universally hilarious. In other words, there’s an inflated sense of comedy that permeates every single story, making it the most collectively laudable installment of the season. Also, it represents one of the most masterful interweaving of stories in the series’ history — as always, it works because our qualms are allayed by the bounteous laughs — when Kramer’s swapped license plate (he gets one meant for a proctologist, with the tag ASSMAN) is connected to the story of a “Fusilli Jerry” (a Jerry made out of pasta) that gets lodged up Frank Costanza’s rectum. It’s as bizarrely uproarious as it reads here. Of course, Frank only enters the picture when he believes that Kramer has stolen his “move” of stopping short in the car and groping a female passenger (in this case, Estelle) and comes to confront Kramer. This “move stealing” plot has substance because it’s also the subject of the A-story, when Jerry accuses his mechanic, David Puddy (Patrick Warburton) — in his first appearance — of stealing Jerry’s favorite sexual “move” and using it on Elaine, whom Puddy is now seeing. (And, of course, George begs to learn the move too, which gets him involved in the action.) It’s particularly well-plotted, uses everyone divinely — including David Puddy, who’ll always be a welcome addition — and claims ginormous laughs. The year’s best.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: the uneven “The Couch,” which was nevertheless the closest to making the above list, featuring a memorable sight gag (a pee stain) and a terrific George subplot (the book club), but suffering from engaging a topical story (abortion) that, despite actually having something to say about a character (Elaine and her over-performed virtuousness), is ruined by contrived narrative-driven parallels, “The Mom And Pop Store,” which introduces Whatley and delivers its laughs, “The Doodle,” a solid excursion for George, and “The Understudy,” which features a game appearance by Bette Midler, a hilarious story with Elaine and Frank Costanza, and the debut of J. Peterman.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Seinfeld goes to…
“The Fusilli Jerry”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the seventh season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!