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. HEIDI SWEDBERG recurs as Susan Ross.
Let me tell you something I’ve discovered on this blog: our natural inclination to divide and categorize sometimes obscures the truth that change, at least in series television, is seldom abrupt. Often, winds of change (to be poetic) are blowing long before we feel the big show-turning, line-drawing, gust. At the risk of pinning too much analysis on the inevitable benefit that is hindsight, we’ve often found here that most of the unfortunate developments (and even the fortunate developments) that we observe in long-running situation comedies (and also the genre as a whole) are rooted in choices made prior to the moments in which we, as rightfully subjective consumers and connoisseurs, decide that something has happened to alter our enjoyment-deriving capabilities. I’m opening the commentary on the seventh season of Seinfeld rather abstractly, I know; but the end of this year marks the point where many viewers craft another figurative line, for this, as the last year with co-creator Larry David (whose annual threat to leave the series finally became reality), offers a handy moment to stop and reflect on what’s already happened and what happens ahead. Generally, most conclude that what’s to transpire over the next two seasons (again, with the wonderful and now hard-to-ignore benefit of hindsight) is inferior to the majority of what was produced in the preceding years. It’s a point-of-view to which I too, a natural categorizer, will subscribe. However, dividing the post-David years from the with-David years sometimes makes it seem like there are bigger differences between the two eras than there might actually be. Over the remaining weeks of my Seinfeld coverage, there will indeed be plenty of differences to discuss – mostly in how trends are accelerated or regressed – but maybe not as many as one might initially assume. Yes, the show will be continuing without Larry David’s direct influence, but it’s still Seinfeld… and Seasons Seven and Eight flow into one another just as much as Six does with Seven, regardless of how perceived differences impact our notions of their quality. I note this in advance to contextualize Season Seven’s place within the series and why I feel about it in the various ways I do.
We’ll begin with this: Season Seven is more enjoyable than Six. I won’t be excessively flowery or pedantic as to why, for the reason, as usual, is fairly simple: it seems like Season Seven contributes a greater number of classics. (Actually, in study, I think the number of above-and-beyond-stellar contributions is equal in both years, but the seventh appears stronger because it boasts even higher highs – including the beloved “The Soup Nazi,” which, you may be surprised to note, I believe deserves most of the praise it receives; more below.) Now, I’m of two figurative minds as to the relationship these so-called “higher highs” have with the rest of the season. The argument towards which I currently lean is that, because the writing has grown better equipped to support the complicated narrative style with which the previous year often struggled (when inorganically accelerating this trend), the seventh season has an elevated base level of quality that yields a greater episodic success rate, therefore finding more consistency in our enjoyment. However, as someone who finds this mode of storytelling not only antithetical to Seinfeld’s identity (its original outmoded premise, its false “show about nothing” suggestion, and the lingering realism/relatability on which it continues to bank), but also destructive to a genre dependent on character-driven comedy, it’s tempting to cite the many instances here in which story is abundant, character is second fiddle, and the laugh quotient may not be peak level, as constituting lows lower than past lows. Ultimately, however, when I look at both Six and Eight, I find that, in spite of how I feel about this narrative aesthetic (that began in Season Two, mind you), there’s a mastery here in Seven that we don’t regularly find elsewhere (aside from, of course, the “Golden Age,” which nevertheless isn’t comparable now because those years didn’t take the structure to such extremes) – and that’s something that deserves praise, for this doesn’t represent a failure on the show’s terms, but rather, a victory. After all, this structure is how Seinfeld is projecting its identity in the with-David, post-original-premise, era.
Please see that I qualified this current story structure as defining the series specifically under the with-David era. For while the story-driven problems that often plague the show’s fascination with the comedic idea (over, once again, the primary regard for character) will only increase in the years ahead – becoming more detrimental, I believe, to the show’s quality – Season Seven actually represents the pinnacle of Seinfeld’s complex, interweaving design. The show, under Seinfeld alone, will still delight in engaging this structure, but it won’t do it as well, and therefore won’t do it as often, as it does under Seinfeld and David. This may be a surprising idea to some, for we tend to imagine that this trend towards complicated narratives becomes louder with each passing season – leaving the final post-David years to represent its most extreme application (alongside the other extremes of this era – discussed more below and in future weeks). And it’s not wholly accurate, for the premise-killing, character-suppressing storytelling is not the biggest narrative concern in these remaining seasons. Actually, I’d cite the biggest problems for Seinfeld going forward as character and believability: two interconnected identity-rooted issues that help link the with-David seventh season to the post-David eighth. With regard to believability, it’s hard to deny the mounting broadness that’s been tinging all of the initially relatable (before they’re pumped full of absurdity) narratives ever since Season Four’s days of Bubble Boys and Deranged Clowns. But, as with most series, this broadening has never been curbed, as the search for new story – and bigger laughs – only welcomes a continued drift into lunacy, where realism gives way to surrealism. The shift is ongoing and its negative impact on our enjoyment – as humans who inherently connect better to truth (for even when our gaze is adjusted for farce and folly, we seek to find what’s relatable), and especially with a show requiring realism as the foundation of its minutia-focused idea-based comedy – only builds in tandem with this trend. Here in Season Seven, Seinfeld is better connected to truth than in the years ahead, but there are still troubling leaps made in many of this season’s stories and story points – more than in Six.
Now, before we discuss the mostly worrisome changes reflected in the characterizations (one especially), let’s note that this is the season where George is engaged to Susan, making it a unique year in Seinfeld lore that’s narratively (and even visually) distinguished from the rest. Yes, for the first time since Season Four’s pilot arc, the series utilizes a serialized story to structure the year — from premiere to finale. As we often discuss here, such narrative focus is attractive to many viewers, for “arc” seems to be shorthand for “character-driven storytelling.” Of course, we’ve seen on this blog (time and again), that this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, serialized arcs often prize narrative over character. (Just like any story, an arc must prove that it’s good for character by prioritizing and delivering on behalf of character.) Fortunately, with regard to George’s reignited relationship with Susan, his characterization remains at the forefront, as the show commits to exploring George’s dimwitted, but connectable, growth-seeking decision to enter into an engagement that he – no shock to anyone – quickly comes to regret, but is too cowardly to break. From his misery? Great comedy. What’s more, the narrative itself never impinges upon a script’s ability to be character-driven, for if it’s not connecting directly to George’s warped humanity (when the arc has direct bearing on the weekly happenings), it’s usually serving as a structural backdrop – a subliminal development that informs a story only in Susan’s occasional participation and the added context given to George’s current existence. Also, I think this arc was benefited by Susan herself, to whom the audience was already accustomed, because she saved narrative time, allowed the show to better rationalize George’s motivation, and provided an established platform for comedy. (That is, the bizarre and tragic state of their shared chemistry was already known.) As for the decision to kill her at the end of the season, I love it – and more of my thoughts will come below – because it’s unpredictable, tonally appropriate (the show has always been dark – that element has just been broadened over time), and affords the audience an honest up-to-date look at the show and its characters.
Of course, the current state of the characters may be troubling, and one of the themes that tends to creep up on Seinfeld viewers is the moral depravity that’s been given greater weight within each of these characterizations — all the while seeming to reflect the show’s shifting, but never stated thesis. We’ve noted in past weeks how the foursome’s growing propensity for rottenness was to cause a disconnect in the audience’s perception of the show’s ill-defined premise, for despite the series initially launching the aforementioned tonal darkness (long ago in Season Two) as a way to beget greater realism and relatability, its existence has become more prominent – alongside the show’s broadening narrative scope and humor – and it’s now begun to have the opposite effect: alienating us from a connection with these characters and jeopardizing our belief in their, and the show’s, truth. I’ve seen a good many viewers use Susan’s death as a symbol for the moment in which Seinfeld pivots away from relatability to become a show that, had audiences in the ‘90s been paying more attention, suggested the conclusion that Larry David returned to deliver. (Stay tuned…) In other words, I’ve seen it argued that Susan’s death marks the point-of-no-return, if you will, for relatable morality — the gunshot that starts the “race of rottenness” for these characters in the final two seasons, leading up to, and explaining, the series finale. But… I don’t think that’s true. Once again, I think the tendency to categorize the post-David era as a radically different enterprise than the preceding years has caused us to overstate the presence of this trend in upcoming seasons. In fact, as with the complex narratives, I’d go so far as to say that this season, until the series finale, reflects the peak of the characters’ moral decay, and while a fired gun can never be unfired, the next two seasons won’t overplay this trend in the same way as Season Seven. In other words, while Susan’s death does symbolize the way the show and these characters have changed, thus impacting our perception of them in the years ahead, the type of evolution we’re discussing now – their realism-killing depravity – is at its greatest and most institutionalized here in David’s last season.
The truth of this matter is that Susan’s death isn’t the gun shot that launches the series’ exploration of the characters’ moral shortcomings; rather, it’s the climax of an entire season that, continuing from long-gestating trends, spent the most time exploring it. Heck, no character is depicted as anywhere close to rational or well-intentioned here – even our ambivalent protagonist finds a rescission of his nobility in episodes like “The Sponge” and “The Rye” (both discussed below), where Jerry embraces, and perhaps steps over, the line of general decency. And yet, it’s neither Jerry or the arc-centering George who best embodies the year’s utilization of its characters. That distinction goes to our ol’ barometer, Elaine Benes, who bookends this season of darkness (concluding in Susan’s death) with her plot in the season premiere (also discussed below) to kidnap and abandon a neighbor’s annoying dog – in which Newman and Kramer also participate. I consider this the moment that Elaine settles into her last characterization, in which she’s often the most obnoxious and mean-spirited of the group. We’ve seen it developing gradually, but the figurative gloves are off now, and although the storytelling in the next two years may not put her in positions that are as narratively unflattering as this season’s, her characterization is the ensemble’s most trackable (between this year and the next), for as the barometer of the show’s own health, the evolution of her personality mirrors the problems we’ll continue to have with the series itself – the prime issue being, not nastiness, but sheer unbelievability. You see, not only has this characterization changed the most from its origins (making her evolution the most difficult to fully comprehend), but it’s also become saddled with abject broadness – and an unmotivated mercurialness that matches the nature of these surreal, fast-paced, and often un-connectable stories. Elaine’s depiction, like the series at this point, is now routinely unrealistic and prone to extremes. Season Seven reinforces this notion alongside its two successors – regardless of our own external era delineations.
You may now be wondering why I’m as positive about Season Seven as I am. Well, aside from the aforementioned points made about the year’s high highs, its relative consistency, and the mastery in its storytelling (with which I have a forthcoming caveat), we have to return to one of the guiding truths that informs Sitcom Tuesday coverage: we come to these shows looking to be entertained – to laugh – and if the end justifies the means, then a multitude of sins can be forgiven. In the case of Seinfeld’s seventh season, the ends are pretty well-justifying, especially in comparison to the years ahead (a fact that helps rationalize why a line regarding merit can be drawn between this season and the following — stay tuned). Additionally, after decrying the problems within Elaine’s characterization – and suggesting that, although her depiction maintains for the rest of the series’ duration, its overt narrative presence is never greater than in Season Seven – it’s equally important to remember just what a brilliant comedic performer the series has in Louis-Dreyfus, who is not only able to ring laughs from a troubled characterization, but can deservedly win an Emmy for this collection of episodes. The sheer comedic force of her presence allays many concerns, and since David’s scripts are naturally stronger than most of what we’ll see later, Elaine – even at the height of her nastiness – still entertains… Now, before we get to the list, I want to address the caveat I mentioned regarding the year’s storytelling, which I find masterful. I stand by that claim – but I also must remind that my preferences (for both the show and for the sitcom genre) ensure that I’m not as enthused by excessively plot-filled outings. What’s solid, perhaps, by the show’s standards may be less so by mine. As a result, several popular narratively complex outings are ignored on this list in favor of underrated entries that I feel are better for character, and therefore, the show. (In fact, this list was the toughest to make and may surprise you the most.) So, although idea-based, plot-heavy, and with some unbelievable characterizations (where nastiness is thus a comparatively minor concern), its many classic outings, character-rooted arc, and regular big laughs make this year triumphant.
As usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every outing this year is directed by Andy Ackerman. Also, installments that originally aired as one-hour are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 111: “The Engagement” (Aired: 09/21/95)
Jerry and George both feel the need for maturation.
Written by Larry David
Setting the course for the season, this premiere not only introduces the serialized story arc involving George’s engagement to Susan that will last throughout these 24 episodes, but it also cements the aforementioned depiction of Elaine (see above) that will last beyond these 24 episodes. Regarding the former, this episode is unique because it opens with Jerry and George seeking emotional growth — something that this series, with its, frankly respectable, “no hugging, no learning” motto, often rejects — and follows what happens when the flippant Jerry shies away from making any changes, while George charges headfirst into a development that we know will make him miserable. More than just funny and narratively necessary — it’s all CHARACTER-based, and that’s why I’m so enamored of this installment. Great seasonal start.
02) Episode 116: “The Soup Nazi” (Aired: 11/02/95)
The gang encounters an eccentric soup kitchen owner.
Written by Spike Feresten
Perhaps the most quoted installment of the series and the one you often see ranked up there as the best, I don’t believe that it’s Seinfeld‘s finest episode (it’s a little too all over-the-place and expansive for my tastes — give me “The Parking Garage” any day), but I’m unable to find an episode from this season — a strong season — that I consider better, for it does everything that a good Season Seven entry should. First, it introduces an absurd peripheral character (the Soup Nazi), who’s based on a real person, but is so delightfully bonkers that he fits within the show’s kookier sensibilities without forcing the regular players to supply all the absurdity. (And I want to note right now that Season Seven is very impressive in its cultivation of memorable comedic guests — J. Peterman, Sue Ellen Mischke, Jackie Chiles, etc. — they get laughs.) Second, it employs a story that both utilizes the main Susan/George narrative and explores dynamics among the ensemble, as Jerry and his “Schmoopie” cause tension in the group. Third, it gives Kramer something broadly comedic to do with the two effeminate armoire-stealing thugs. And last, it displays Elaine in all her new trouble-making, vindictive glory. My MVE. Next!
03) Episode 118: “The Pool Guy” (Aired: 11/16/95)
Susan begins hanging out with George’s friends.
Written by David Mandel
This is one of at least two episodes on today’s list that I suspect may surprise some readers, for in its place, I could have easily chosen an installment with a more impressive narrative complexity (a trait that, despite my trepidation, I appreciate and acknowledge does exist as one of the season’s assets… if/when character can remain paramount). But I’m too drawn to this episode’s usage of character to care. Sure, I’m less-than-entralled with the Jerry plot, for it involves a guest star who doesn’t delight like others this year, but I find the Susan story, in which she begins hanging out with the group and threatens to kill “Independent George,” a necessary beat to explore in this arc — and one that comedically delivers. It’s a great George episode in this regard, although I also love the sheer goofiness of Kramer as the Moviefone guy.
04) Episode 119: “The Sponge” (Aired: 12/07/95)
Elaine stocks up on a discontinued birth control device.
Written by Peter Mehlman
Although this highly quotable episode was popular at the time of the series’ first run, I’ve noticed in the decades since that there’s been a trend towards dissatisfaction with the installment as a whole — or, at least, a belief that it’s not as strong as its reputation. But I tend to take the opposite point-of-view — because, let’s face it, Seinfeld‘s grandiose reputation could make many episodes a comparative disappointment (that’s not a knock, by the way) — and believe that the excursion actually does delight in its A-story with Elaine and her “sponge-worthy” tribulations (another example of the show pushing boundaries). I also appreciate the way it connects to George’s subplot with Susan, and eventually the storylines involving Jerry and Kramer, both of which are connected by the AIDS walk. (If there’s any disappointment here, it comes from the pay-off-less Kramer storyline.) But the Jerry narrative is important and meritorious, as he exhibits some “morally gray” behavior. A seventh season classic.
05) Episode 120: “The Gum” (Aired: 12/14/95)
One of George’s friends thinks he has a mental illness.
Written by Tom Gammill & Max Pross
I’m choosing this fan-favorite episode to represent the most effective use of the seventh season’s ambitious and complexly crafted storytelling, for I think it’s the most comedically worthwhile — not to mention respectable on behalf of its characters — of this story-heavy group (which, incidentally, I would cite as including both parts of “The Bottle Deposit” and several Honorable Mentions below, most of which I can enjoy, despite finding them narrative-driven and not as well contemplated as “The Gum.”) What I appreciate most here is the George plot, which makes time to include Monk’s Ruthie Cohen, who’s effortlessly amusing in her pure ordinariness, and also manages to tie every other character’s story together. It’s also another showcase for Alexander’s brilliance (and suggests why he should have been awarded an Emmy in this era). Still not an absolute favorite, but well-crafted and a great reflection of the year.
06) Episode 121: “The Rye” (Aired: 01/04/96)
George concocts a scheme to save face in front of the Rosses.
Written by Carol Leifer
Yet another classic, were I to choose any other entry here as the year’s MVE, it would be this one, which despite including an Elaine story that never connects with the action given to her three cohorts, is so collectively amusing that such storytelling machinations seem unnecessary. While she gets another risqué premise, the bulk of the offering stems from the first meeting of the Costanzas and the Rosses (it’s as hilarious as it sounds — all four parents are supremely funny) and leads to a grand scheme in which George tries to save his parents’ reputation with his future-in-laws by sneaking a loaf of marble rye into their apartment. He distracts the Rosses with a horse and carriage driven by Kramer, which because of the particulars of his story, proves disastrous, while Jerry’s mission is to get and deliver the bread — with complications coming from an old woman, played by Frances Bay, who gets the last loaf. What happens is another example of Jerry going to the “dark side,” and this, along with the delicious hijinks of George’s scheme (which, again, includes Jerry and Kramer), helps make this a classic.
07) Episode 125: “The Cadillac (II)” (Aired: 02/08/96)
Jerry causes his father’s impeachment as condo president.
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
As the second half of a two-parter, I suppose it should come as no surprise that I’m not impressed by the over-saturation of story points, nor the parody of the 1995 film Nixon, to which a lot of the Jerry A-plot is built to emulate. But all of the ideas employed here are genuinely comedic, and have things to say about the characters. I particularly enjoy George’s storyline about fantasizing over Marisa Tomei, and while I am nonplussed by her gimmicky cameo, the way George takes to her presence (and how this ties into his seasonal arc) is solid — as is the second half’s incorporation of Elaine into his scheme. Of course, to be completely honest, I gave an edge to this episode over some of my Honorable Mentions because of the great guest stars: Sandy Baron, Frances Bay, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Bill Macy, and Jesse White. (As usual, the lesser half, Part I, can be considered a de facto Honorable Mention.)
08) Episode 130: “The Calzone” (Aired: 04/25/96)
George gets his boss hooked on eggplant calzones.
Written by Alec Berg & Jeff Schaffer
A well-liked outing, I consider this one of the most uneven entries on today’s list — and yet, it’s one whose inclusion I’ve never doubted. For even though I think Jerry and Elaine are each saddled with perfunctory stories that fail to rival the hilarity that typifies this season (and actually surrounds them in this episode), there’s no doubting the brilliance of this installment’s usage of George and Kramer. Their storyline allows for broad, physical comedy — which both men do well — and hinges on the heavier utilization of George Steinbrenner, an amusing caricature of the real man, as portrayed by Larry David. The vendor at the Italian restaurant has shadings of the year’s very successful “Soup Nazi,” as George gets himself banned from the establishment and then must rely on Kramer, who also gets himself banned. It’s all very Season Seven.
09) Episode 133: “The Wait Out” (Aired: 05/09/96)
Jerry and Elaine are elated when George splits up a couple.
Story by Peter Mehlman & Matt Selman | Teleplay by Peter Mehlman
The second of two selections here that may surprise some Seinfeld fans, know that I’m not choosing this one for the appearance of Debra Messing, whose presence in the installment has come to define its reputation. Truth is: she’s adequate and fulfills a narrative function. Rather, I adore the way this episode uses all four regulars, as the A-story of George innocuously rattling off a remark that splits up a couple so befits his personality (remember the sneeze?) and then leads into a perfect exploration of what’s going on with Jerry and Elaine, who are delighted about the opportunity they each have to move in upon the newly separated pair. The idea starts relatable and then is overtaken by their increasingly conscienceless depictions — very in-keeping with the season. Also, the Kramer-Mickey story has big laughs — no narrative links are made, but I’d rather the show be hilarious than contrive false reasons to meet a storytelling template.
10) Episode 134: “The Invitations” (Aired: 05/16/96)
George desperately tries to get out of marrying Susan.
Written by Larry David
Ah, the season finale; the conclusion of George’s yearly arc; the last episode (until the finale) with Larry David’s fingerprints; and the show that kills Susan — a cartoonishly dark gong that shocks the audience, despite being tonally motivated by the year itself, and whose sound, once struck, reverberates throughout the rest of the two years and underscores every remaining choice. I’ll set aside this tortured imagery and note that, as mentioned above, the decision to kill off George’s fiancé, the season’s most visible recurring presence, is genius and not out-of-place within the POV that the show has been exploring as of late. It’s bold, it’s funny (because of how George responds), and it cements in our heads exactly who these characters have become over the course of the run. If only the rest of the run were as character-wise as this entry, which also delivers on behalf of Jerry, whose arc comes full circle (with the help of Janeane Garofalo).
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Maestro,” a memorable outing that introduces both the eponymous Maestro and Jackie Chiles (an overly broad character meant to parody Johnnie Cochran) — he delivers his laughs, but with a strong dose of the show’s suffocating broadness, and usually in narratives that are too story-driven, “The Caddy,” which merits mention for the first appearance of Sue Ellen Mischke, but becomes too enamored of its O.J. Simpson parody in the later scenes (again with Jackie) to really satisfy on behalf of its characters. I also appreciate the use of the Costanzas in both “The Shower Head” and “The Doll” — the two installments closest to the above list — for goodness gracious, that crazy duo is funny — while popular plot-filled outings like the story-heavy “The Wink” and the dark “The Hot Tub” remain of more Honorable Mention quality. (Also, I’ll highlight “The Postponement” for being a comically tragic look at Elaine’s new characterization.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Seinfeld goes to…
“The Soup Nazi”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the eighth season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!