Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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.
In last week’s entry on the eighth season, we discussed how the show’s diminished capacity to define itself based on its storytelling led to the institutionalized introduction of self-awareness, which crept into both the stories and the characterizations as a means of projecting relatability, thereby shifting Seinfeld’s identity. Unfortunately, as we saw, such winking camp undermined the relatable realism that the series still relied upon at the core of its idea-based comedy, and further alienated the show from the audience’s current perception of its premise. So, by the time we get to Seinfeld’s final season, we know it’s no longer about a stand-up comic gathering material. But there’s nevertheless sustained uncertainty regarding what it is about… and whether or not the show itself even has an answer. Remember, Seinfeld told us in Season Four that it was “a show about nothing,” and in its seemingly corroborating avoidance of lofty, emotional themes, along with the much-discussed “fetishizing of the trivial,” this suggestion has never been rejected outright by the scripts – never mind the plot-heavy stories and gratuitously complex (but since undermined) storytelling, which I have posited as evidence to this “nothing” thesis’ contrary. Thus, for our sanity, we instead settled on viewing the series within its simple, recognizable “group of friends” construct (with or without dovetailing stories), but noted that the design still resided on top of the requirement that we identify with relatable characters in a mostly realistic universe. To this point, the aforementioned camp, which I believe the show uses to bypass its premise to connect with the audience and assert its legitimacy as a smart non-traditional comedy, destroys our faith in the reality of the players and their world. This, of course, is all exacerbated by the show’s own aesthetic drift into broadness (a figurative cousin to camp), here used to define the series’ tenuous relationship with truth – as less realistic stories, more extreme characterizations, and a heightened tone all help corrupt the show’s integrity.
Now, broadening stories are hardly more of a concern to me this year than in those prior, because we’ve been seeing this progression for a while, and I don’t want to decry the ridiculous plots below without noting that it was the years before these last two that truly gave credence and contributed to this growing trend. That is, I’m used to them getting annually more absurd. But broadening characters – to the point where they lose, not only premise-required relatability, but simply, believability – is of enormous consequence, for although the show has generally been more idea-based than character-based, it’s always been vital for the show’s storytelling that the characters be able to “sell” these comedic ideas to the audience. Here, in these last few seasons, with the regulars (even the most consistent, George) heightened to the point of frequent surreality, and sans a premise-justifying change, we find it harder to accept and then willingly choose to invest time in their narrative shenanigans. (If we don’t believe in Kramer, how are we to care if his ridiculous rickshaw scheme goes awry?) One specific element of these broadening characterizations is the aggrandized moral decay among the foursome, which hit its zenith when Susan died in Larry David’s final episode on staff at the end of Season Seven, but served as a thematic gauntlet that could never be un-run. Now our characters, even if most episodic stories don’t explicitly make use of such ill-adjusted behavior, are existing in a time and place where they’re allowed to be exaggeratedly despicable – giving little thought to that aforementioned relatability that we should have already forsaken (in order to enjoy these final years), despite the series’ constant tacit denial of any changes. In fact, while last season downplayed the darkness, this year sees an acceleration in such motifs – not, as you might guess, in anticipation of the finale, but more so in the continued broadening of the series’ comedic-idea-driven scope.
Meanwhile, the state of the characters is reflected and reinforced through the stories, and while character usage remains most culpable for the comparative inferior quality that runs throughout much of the season, its stories exist as the most visible sign of decay. You see, due to the show’s bent toward the camp-infused ridiculous, this year finds the scripts over-relying on gimmicks (easy stories, cheap gags, burlesqued posturing) that un-uniquely subordinate character in the same way the show used to do, more uniquely, with its complex storytelling. That is, because the show isn’t as good at the complicated intertwining of stories anymore (that seemed to be a Larry David gift – for better or worse), the season does what the last did – but in a manner more egregious – and turns its attention to other character-subjugating sources. The saddest part of this arrangement? The fact that the show, having defined its humor capacity so outrageously (even before we decided, for our sakes, to say goodbye to the original premise), can no longer reach these heights without the “boost” of such foolish and otherwise unfortunate hooks. In other words, when the show tries to be quieter and more down-to-earth (and let’s note that this season, once it’s conclusively determined the last, makes specific attempts to “throwback” to older themes and more character-pure conceits – a self-aware decision, but neither uncommon nor detestable), the results still don’t satisfy like they should, for the series has since set its humor benchmark at a place difficult to reach without an artificial lift. Also, without an ability to handle complex storytelling, the ninth season endures a lot of narrative unevenness, as most episodes operate with only one or two stories that work for their characters and/or deliver needed laughs, while the others, in a word, don’t. As a result, it’s harder to find outings that can be enjoyed in full. Based on this quality, concluding seems wise.
But, of course, Seinfeld was still the #1 most-watched show, which allowed Seinfeld to half-erroneously claim that by ending at Season Nine, he’d be “going out on top.” Top of the ratings chart, sure. But not top of the series’ creative game… Yet, nowadays, I don’t think there’s much dispute here; we may disagree about the nature of the later seasons’ disappointment (and indeed, I’ve evolved during this survey – I’m not as affected by the downturn, which I see as less both surprising and offensive than I had before), but we’ll likely agree that the show was better in seasons past. (Why wasn’t this a more common belief at the time? I think for two reasons. One: the series’ relative superiority; Seinfeld was still more worth watching than Suddenly Susan, for instance. And two: the show was sneaky about its premise, rejecting it always in practice, but never tangibly or outright.) However, the part of this year that still divides critics and fans is the series finale, in which our foursome is arrested and put on trial for “The Good Samaritan” law. For starters, I find the finale to be fairly amusing – naturally, given that it’s a highlight reel of all the show’s most important guest stars over its past nine years – and laudable based on the voices that the returning Larry David restores to the characters. (I don’t think the voices themselves changed dramatically between Seasons Seven and Eight, since they had already evolved so much by Seven. But because David hadn’t written for this foursome in years, he sort of resets them back even earlier, which is refreshing, albeit disconcerting.) Nevertheless, I still consider the episode flawed because it both reinforces the troublesome nature of these last seasons (campy and broad and gimmicky), and insults general ideas I have about what makes for a fine sitcom finale – specifically that it be non-gimmicky, not too self-aware, and a fairly “typical” representation of the series, all of which can allow closure in theme. Of course, Seinfeld’s finale is gimmicky, self-aware and narratively atypical. I mean, in terms of story, it’s shocking…
Yet, in thematic and qualitative terms, is it really a surprise? Okay, the answer is still “yes,” as let’s not pretend that our hindsight hasn’t changed the way we view the series and its ending. But even so, the finale does reinforce many of the themes that have been developing over the course of the series. To be truly disgusted by the finale alone (while ignoring the rest of the ninth season, especially) is to not have been paying close attention. Remember, the show dropped everyday relatability back around Season Six when it seemed no longer interested in exploring the premise of low-concept stories through the prism of Jerry’s stand-up. Since then, we’ve been following funny characters in narratives that are high-concept due to their labored plotting (especially in years Six and Seven) and their “fetishizing of the trivial,” which has been constant. Then, as we discussed, self-awareness invaded the premise, as the show began commenting on itself in the hopes of staying relatable. Also, our belief in the characters’ moral acceptability was eroded when Elaine and Kramer kidnapped a dog, Jerry mugged an old lady, and George celebrated his fiancé’s death (all of which happened under finale-writer Larry David’s watch). Furthermore, the show had spent its whole final season telling us that it’s gimmick-loving – with campy homages to Pinter’s The Betrayal and comedic centerpieces designed to emulate the arcade game Frogger. So why were people disappointed when all signs pointed to such a conclusion – a gimmicky commentary on morality-starved characters buried by plot? Well, I think it’s because no one – not the fans, the press, and most of all, the show – had previously wanted to admit that, by ‘98, Seinfeld had evolved into a very different property than it was in ’93, while the Emmy Voters’ chosen Outstanding Comedy. It was no longer about stand-up or “nothing” or relatable people. It was about comedic oneups-manship and knotty stories and memorable characters. There’s nothing wrong with all that… but this wasn’t the promise.
See, I think viewers would have accepted a new promise if they’d been asked, but they never were — instead we were supposed to maintain faith in the “nothing” concept and the relatability of these characters. Seinfeld’s finale, then, likely would have been better received if the show had made it a point (earlier) to acknowledge its evolution away from those motifs, for then we would have been braced for what to expect. But because the series didn’t, it wasn’t until the end that viewers were forced to admit that such changes had occurred and they were, for the most part, unpleasant (even if some still wanted to believe that the finale alone was the problem). Audiences, long duped by Seinfeld’s own myth, saw some truth when Larry David made his last statement – a self-conscious commentary (which, because it was remarking on the show instead of simply being the show, only invited dissenting points-of-view) based on how he legitimately – and, I think, for good reason — saw Seinfeld at the end of its run. Naturally, David made his statement in a manner broad, loud, and totally disconnected from that long-abandoned-original-premise. So, in effect, the finale simply highlighted everything that had happened after the show peaked, and David, while perhaps not admitting that these developments were unfavorable, was still clear-eyed enough to see the evolution the show only ignored. Too bad no one had alerted the audience, leaving that task for this episode, which delivered the news in a shocking and, due to those extraordinarily high expectations, disappointing non-character-focused (they were literal bystanders in and to the story) package… However, as far as I’m concerned, the flawed finale is nothing compared to the flawed season, and I note this while also freely admitting, again, that this latest survey has made me more forgiving, because I am willing to make certain sanity-preserving conclusions in order to maximize enjoyment — the first being an honesty about the series: in a way that it never was with me. The show was deceptive; in order to enjoy it now – in full — I have to acknowledge this and then forgive.
Also, I think there’s a desire by many critics (and before this survey I’d have counted myself among them) to knock or discredit the series, while using mostly genuine and well-earned critiques in support, primarily because of external factors – like the accompanying smugness that has surrounded the show, for many claimed (including some of its participants) that it was “the best sitcom ever,” all the while, as we’ve explored, being unable to admit to widening shortcomings. After all, arguments like these just beg for rebuttal, regardless of how we actually view the quality. Additionally, I personally find myself taking issue with the series when I view it in the larger context of the sitcom’s trajectory, examining some of the trends/habits that it sparked. (I feel similarly about Friends, which is coming up here next year, by the way.) I trace a lot of elements inherent in today’s situation comedies back to Seinfeld – the move away from a theatrical aesthetic to one that’s cinematic (you know how I feel about this – the latter is NOT what television best offers), the often faulty utilization of multi-narrative episodic storytelling (Friends was also guilty of promoting this, but without the cohesion), an increase in situational irony or self-consciousness that’s often (not always) trotted out as a gimmick, the employment of stories that are idea-focused instead of character-driven, and the reliance on characterizations that have fluid definitions, so that they are simply quirky enough to allow for the “relatable” minutia that’s meant to counterbalance the high-concept structures of serialization and cinematic plotting. But while I curse Seinfeld for inspiring inferior series to try (and fail) using these stylistic choices, it’s important to remember that Seinfeld – for a while, anyway – could do all of this remarkably. It had a voice all its own, and when the writing was at its best, there was scant better. So it’s been a pleasure discussing and working through my thoughts on this classic. As usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season Nine. (As always, they are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Andy Ackerman. Also, installments that originally aired in one-hour blocks are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 157: “The Butter Shave” (Aired: 09/25/97)
George’s new job thinks he’s disabled and Kramer shaves with butter.
Written by Alec Berg & Jeff Schaffer & David Mandel
As the season premiere, I don’t advise watching this installment immediately following one from the Golden Age, for the entry clearly represents the weakened overall quality of the final year — despite, ironically, actually being one of its better episodes. Surprisingly, it treats Jerry to an A-story, of Kenny Bania’s act being a “time slot hit,” that’s connected to the show’s long-abandoned stand-up premise, while also, of course, employing a wink (in reference to NBC shows that were also hits only because of their placement next to Seinfeld). Yes, Kramer’s story is bizarre, but Elaine gets big laughs up against the returning David Puddy (Patrick Warburton), while George walks away with the best, and most morally depraved plot, as he lets his new job falsely believe he’s handicapped. A relatively great showing for this point in time.
02) Episode 162: “The Merv Griffin Show” (Aired: 11/06/97)
Kramer finds an old set from The Merv Griffin Show in the dumpster.
Written by Bruce Eric Kaplan
There’s a sadness I feel here in having to admit that one of the funniest episodes of the entire season utilizes a story that’s perhaps among the most unrealistic and garishly absurd of the entire series, but such is the dilemma faced here in Season Nine. Kramer finding the set from Merv Grififn’s talk show in a dumpster? That requires a leap. Him building it in his apartment. That requires another leap. Him pretending he’s on a talk show? That’s the biggest leap of all, but then again, that’s where we find the most laughs; perhaps it’s best not to question so much in this era of the run — we’re only fighting against the current. However, I would also like to single out Jerry’s story, in which he drugs his girlfriend to play with her antique toy collection, as a noted example of the show’s re-upped moral decay — evidence for David’s adjudication.
03) Episode 164: “The Betrayal” (Aired: 11/20/97)
Jerry, George, and Elaine go to India for Sue Ellen Mischke’s wedding.
Written by David Mandel & Peter Mehlman
Here is the gimmick of all Seinfeld gimmicks: an episode structured backwards as an homage to the classic Pinter play, The Betrayal, which uses this construct as its iconic device. Because it’s specifically an homage, I’m not as bothered by the gaudy structure as I ordinarily am by some of the other absurd things in “normal” complexly plotted episodes. Also, I actually appreciate a lot of what this installment offers, as the backward plotting device only works because the story is centered around the interactions of our characters, meaning that there are many laughs driven by these people and their relationships (couched inside the distracting design). So although it represents something problematic simply by its form, I’d cite this offering as an example of a gimmick made worthwhile — we can enjoy it for character, without awkward rationalizing.
04) Episode 166: “The Strike” (Aired: 12/18/97)
The gang celebrates Festivus with Frank Costanza.
Written by Dan O’Keefe and Alec Berg & Jeff Schaffer
A popular episode, this is not one of my top favorites. In fact, when I think of the ninth season and all that it qualitatively entails, this is one of the first outings that comes to mind. It’s popular because of Frank Costanza and Festivus, his holiday in which one airs his/her grievances, and which, go figure, is indeed based on a real holiday celebrated by Dan O’Keefe’s father. The laughs gotten here are fairly easy though — Stiller is a not-so-secret weapon — and while I enjoy the storyline, I don’t find it especially commendable for the non-Costanza regulars. I also don’t have anything great to note about the subplots, which are middling, except for Jerry’s storyline with the two-faced woman, which is too cartoony to wholly accept. But, in this difficult season, Festivus is enough to bump the episode up from the Honorable Mentions.
05) Episode 167: “The Dealership” (Aired: 01/08/98)
Jerry hopes to get a discount on a new car from Puddy.
Written by Steve Koren
One of two installments on today’s list in which the series is knowingly trying to revisit some magic from its early days for the nostalgia value (the end, by this broadcast, had been revealed as nigh), this excursion is cohesive with a near unity of time and place. (Kramer’s story takes us elsewhere, but it’s still thematically connected.) As a result, the script has more of an opportunity — or responsibility — to predicate the bulk of its humor on the characters and the way they interact. The episode also gives plenty to Puddy, who, again, recurs this season as Elaine’s on-again-off-again love interest (after making a memorable mark in Season Six). But my favorite storyline here involves George and the vending machine — a literal man against machine plot — because it’s so perfect for his character and the kind of conflict he breeds.
06) Episode 169: “The Cartoon” (Aired: 01/29/98)
An old acquaintance creates a stand-up act about Jerry.
Written by Bruce Eric Kaplan
This underrated entry was inspired by a stand-up routine that Suddenly Susan‘s Kathy Griffin, who guest starred in “The Doll,” performed about her experience working with Seinfeld. The metatheatrical incorporation of this true story is overtly self-aware (as is most of the humor employed here — it’s very of this season), and potentially risky, because Griffin’s shtick (even before her most recent controversies, which, if you’re wondering, arose nearly six months after I drafted this list and frankly, have no bearing here anyway) is inherently obnoxious. Fortunately, because the source of the story’s humor is Jerry’s flaws, it remains enjoyable and doesn’t require much on her end. Also, the other plots are remarkably solid — George dates a woman who everyone thinks looks like Jerry (forcing George to do some rare introspection), Kramer takes a vow of silence (easy laughs aplenty), and Elaine gets a job writing cartoons for The New Yorker, a story that neither insults her intelligence nor pretends that her perception of it is accurate.
07) Episode 172: “The Burning” (Aired: 03/19/98)
Elaine learns that Puddy is religious.
Written by Jennifer Crittenden
My choice for the best episode from the ninth season; the reasoning, as usual, is fairly simple: it’s the most ideal blend of narrative satisfaction (again, on behalf of the characters) alongside big laughs. I think the image that best sticks to this outing is Kramer performing as a patient with gonorrhea for medical students to diagnose — a storyline that also involves Mickey — which certainly is hilarious. But I find that the crux of the episode’s strength comes from Elaine’s story, as she learns that Puddy is a practicing Christian who thinks, because she’s not religious, that she’ll be going to Hell. Dreyfus milks all the laughs that this idea has to offer, and it probably serves as the year’s most comedic exploration of the amusing Elaine/Puddy dynamic. Meanwhile, Jerry’s plot is the weakest here, but it connects to Kramer’s in the end and doesn’t drag down the teleplay, while George shines in his “high note” story, which suits him to a T. I wish there was a better MVE, but this is Season Nine’s idea of a no-excuse-needed hit.
08) Episode 173: “The Bookstore” (Aired: 04/09/98)
Jerry rats out his Uncle Leo for shoplifting.
Story by Spike Feresten and Darin Henry & Marc Jaffe | Teleplay by Spike Feresten
Len Lesser returns in this installment as Jerry’s Uncle Leo, who is caught (by Jerry) shoplifting in a bookstore. It’s an easy place to get laughs — Leo always is — but it’s situated on the relationship that Jerry has with his uncle, and that’s ultimately why it works. Equal comedy comes in this episode from the connected story of George taking a book into the store’s bathroom and then having to purchase it — it’s another typical George premise that reminds of so many excellent episodes from the past. Meanwhile, Elaine gets thrown an adequate subplot that does what it needs to do, as Kramer is saddled with another ridiculous story (he and Newman want to operate a rickshaw), which keeps the episode from shining as bright as it otherwise should. Once again, this season is all about uneven delights — evidenced here.
09) Episode 174: “The Frogger” (Aired: 04/23/98)
George tries to keep a Frogger machine on which he has the high score.
Story by Gregg Kavet & Andy Robin and Steve Koren & Dan O’Keefe | Teleplay by Gregg Kavet & Andy Robin
On principle, this is an episode that, just like “The Merv Griffin Show,” I dislike, for it’s plainly evident that the only reason this installment’s A-plot exists is to give the show the opportunity to do a shot of the street that parallels the Frogger game — a single, expensive gag. It indicates that, as usual, the episode is being led by the idea and not anything of actual merit, like the characters. But the teleplay is one of the year’s better offerings. And even though this story (and to be frank, all of the other ones) fail to stand out as exceptional alongside those in better episodes highlighted on this list, there remains enough to enjoy — in all of these stories — that there is a consistency of enjoyment. This ends up making the entry a more satisfying experience than the majority of what we’ve found this season. Good by the year’s standards.
10) Episode 176: “The Puerto Rican Day” (Aired: 05/07/98)
The group gets stuck in traffic during the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Written by Alec Berg, Jennifer Crittenden, Spike Feresten, Bruce Eric Kaplan, Gregg Kavet, Steve Koren, David Mandel, Dan O’Keefe, Andy Robin, and Jeff Schaffer
The last scripted episode before the two-part finale, this is the other installment that I referenced above as attempting to connect to the series’ roots, for like “The Parking Garage” or “The Subway,” the overarching premise of the group being stuck in the Puerto Rican Day Parade gives the outing a thematic cohesion and a unity of subject matter that directly correlates to the structure for which the series remains best known. There was controversy at the time of this episode’s broadcast, and this legend has mired the outing down in expectations both positive and negative. But wrested away from those ideas, we find an installment that illustrates the show’s propagation of a cinematic aesthetic, a self-conscious desire to find some of its initial mojo (with a throwback concept) before the end, and an M.O. in which laughs are prized.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Voice,” which benefits from a unique central story conceit, but loses its delightful smallness as the script goes along, “The Slicer,” which has funny ideas for all the characters (and pairs Kramer with Elaine), but is heavy on story and contorts itself forcibly for structural connectedness, and “The Wizard,” the closest entry to the above list, which features excessive and distracting self-awareness, but consistently strong ideas, as Elaine dates a man whose ethnicity is unknown (the episode’s highlight), George finds resolution in a character-driven storyline featuring Susan’s hilarious (but broad) parents, and Jerry and Kramer spend time with the Seinfelds. The most glaring omission from the above list is perhaps “The Serenity Now,” which boasts the memorable titular quote for the always marvelous Frank Costanza, but is otherwise overrated, serving none of the regular characters (particularly Elaine and Jerry) as it should. Again: uneven delights.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Nine of Seinfeld goes to…
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of Dream On! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!