1. “The Outing,” homophobia (season four)
Seinfeld is famously a “show about nothing,” but there are plenty of episodes that are, in fact, about something. Even as they hewed to the production’s “no hugging, no learning” rule, the writers incorporated weighty social issues into their scripts to see how four narcissists would contend with them. In season four’s “The Outing,” for instance, a reporter overhears Elaine implying that Jerry and George are a couple, and Jerry spends the rest of the episode trying to explain away various suggestive exchanges with his best friend, tag-lining every denial with his liberal defense mechanism, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Though Jerry Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David worried at first about truly offending the gay community—yes, they did occasionally worry about such things—producer Larry Charles saved the day by casually uttering what would become the catchphrase during a discussion about scrapping the episode. It went on to win a GLAAD Media award.
2. “The Handicap Spot,” disabilities (season four)
The foursome heads out to the suburbs for an engagement party, stopping at a mall to get a gift. They park in a handicapped space on the theory that they’ll only be a few minutes—but they’re inside much longer, and the worst possible scenario ensues: A mob trashes George’s dad’s car after a woman in a wheelchair is forced to park farther away and ends up injured. The episode set up a few patterns Seinfeld would often return to when dealing with uncomfortable issues: It blew up the consequences of the main characters’ apathy to extreme degrees, playing out every guilty conscience’s worst nightmare. And it highlighted what one might see as an advantage to being disabled—later to be seen again in “The Lip Reader,” guest starring Marlee Matlin as Jerry’s deaf girlfriend. Says the wheelchair salesman to George and Kramer, who are looking to make it up to their victim: “This is our best model, the Cougar 9000. It’s the Rolls-Royce of wheelchairs. This is like… You’re almost glad to be handicapped.”
3. “The Cigar Store Indian,” racism (season five)
Elaine’s friends call Jerry a racist when he buys her a cigar store Indian statue. This includes a woman Jerry is interested in dating—who happens to have some Native American heritage—and, naturally, he makes matters worse by mimicking war chants while rocking the statue back and forth. Given the prevalence of racial discussions in the ’90s—it was, after all, the era of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson—it’s no surprise Seinfeld repeatedly took on the intricacies of discussing race (or, in this case, “discussing” race). “The Cigar Store Indian” was one of Seinfeld’s first major forays into this territory, taking an All In The Family-like approach, with Jerry as the unlikely Archie Bunker tripping through one faux pas after another—only to be (lightly) punished for it.
4. “The Beard,” gay issues (season six)
Elaine tries to convert a gay man to heterosexuality after serving as his decoy date to a work function. She’s sure she can get him to “change teams,” as she tells Jerry, though he cautions that gay men are only comfortable with “their equipment.” Where “The Outing” dealt with straight guys being mistaken for gay, the gay character in “The Beard” is enticed to go straight as one of the main characters plays out the “what not to do” scenario as usual. (Elaine is unsuccessful in her team-switching efforts.) In the process, Seinfeld gifts the world with another go-to way to discuss the issue at hand—“switching teams.”
5. “The Sponge,” birth control (season season)
Elaine panics (and hoards) when she hears that her favorite form of contraception, the Today Sponge, is being discontinued. This leads to a supply-and-demand problem in her sex life, causing her to carefully interview candidates before declaring them “sponge-worthy” and leading them to the bedroom. (Future Gilmore Girls star Scott Patterson agrees to trim his sideburns before getting bedroom access.) The episode wraps Elaine’s transgressively feminist qualities up in a nutshell: She’s allowed to be as crass, unfeeling, and sexual as the guys throughout the run of the show. Even now, it’s hard to imagine a network TV show that would dedicate an entire episode to female contraception.
6. “The Merv Griffin Show,” date rape (season nine)
A weird, not-often-cited episode from the show’s later days, “The Merv Griffin Show” includes a subplot that’s a veiled commentary on date rape: Jerry repeatedly gets his new girlfriend drunk and has her eat turkey so she’ll pass out post-Thanksgiving style—because she has a vintage toy collection that she otherwise won’t let him touch. It gets extra creepy when Jerry allows George to come with him to play with the toys. One could imagine viewers not even catching on to the unsettling overtones until Kramer denounces the scheme: “Wait a minute! You mean to say that you drugged a woman so you could take advantage of her toys?”
7. “The Puerto Rican Day,” racism (season nine)
This episode—which has the gang stuck in traffic at the Puerto Rican Day Parade—garnered extra controversy because it ran the last week before the insanely hyped series finale. Protesters showed up at NBC on finale night to object to a “Puerto Rican Day” scene in which Kramer accidentally burns a Puerto Rican flag and then stomps on it in a panicked attempt to put the fire out. Surely, burning any flag (especially in service to a sitcom) is a provocative act. But picking this controversy apart with the perspective of 16 years’ time reveals the scene to be a fairly sophisticated, almost philosophical, statement: It’s actually making the point that the intention behind an act, not the act itself, is what matters. Kramer didn’t mean to burn the flag, so it held no intent or statement in his eyes, but the bystanders around him saw it differently.
8. “The Cheever Letters,” gay issues (season four)
Perhaps the most subversive (though subtle) part of this episode is what goes unspoken later. In a show that pioneered audience-pleasing continuity among episodes, drawing out references and subplots for years, no consequences are evident after the affair exposed in “The Cheever Letters”—a long-ago liaison between novelist John Cheever and Mr. Ross, the father of George’s girlfriend, Susan. When the Ross’ return—three seasons later, during George and Susan’s engagement—they’re as together, traditional, and WASPy as ever. They’re either so repressed that they couldn’t even talk about the Cheever incident, or they’re very progressive. They did, after all, raise a bisexual daughter.
9. “The Dinner Party,” racism (season five)
While trying to pick up a babka to bring to a dinner party, Jerry and Elaine wax pseudo-philosophical about the racial implications of the black-and-white cookie: “Look to the cookie, Elaine, look to the cookie.” It may be the only time Seinfeld laid out a clear moral position. Alas, it was both tongue-in-cheek and naively optimistic.
10. “The Wizard,” interracial dating (season nine)
Elaine dates Darryl, a guy who may be black, and she’s vexed by the uncertainty. Finally, he refers to their being an “interracial couple,” leaving Elaine thrilled by the liberal cachet it confers. Soon, though, he reveals that he thought they were “interracial” because he thought she was Hispanic. Both are clearly disappointed. As Elaine says, “So we’re just a couple of white people?” After all of Seinfeld’s awkward dealings with race, this final-season episode found yet another interesting angle not just in interracial dating, but the hipness factor associated with it in the late ’90s in progressive places like New York City. Tellingly, we never saw Darryl again after finding out he was white.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is working on a history of Seinfeld, to be published next year by Simon & Schuster. She’s the author of Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.