"The Baby Shower"/"The Jacket"/"The Chinese Restaurant" S2 / E4-6
- A- Community Grade
Pretty great slew of episodes this week. In my memory Seinfeld season two was great, but still not fully formed, and I did not remember it having this many classic episodes so early on. When watching in syndication often you forget exactly which episodes are from which season, so maybe that's the reason for that. But it's obvious that most of the kinks of the show had been fully worked out in the first year and Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were pretty settled into their storytelling rhythms by now.
"The Baby Shower"
This is the first episode of season two not written by David/Seinfeld; it's the debut of Larry Charles, one of the key voices on the show who's well-known for being a little stranger and darker than the creators, who is behind some of my personal favorites (like "The Limo" and "The Airport") and went on to direct a lot of Curb Your Enthusiasms and the films Masked and Anonymous, Borat and Religulous.
Apparently this episode has been panned by some critics because it's over-the-top, which it definitely is. Most jarring is a dream sequence in the middle of the story where Jerry imagines himself being shot over and over again by FBI agents who discover his illegal cable hookup. It doesn't really work; I don't think Kramer going "what have you done to my little cable boy?" is too funny, but I do like how the grubby Russian illegal cable guy cable guy is cleaned up in the dream to look like a Fed.
But the whole episode is an attempt at farce, really, as three plot threads (Kramer hooking up cable; Elaine throwing a baby shower; George wanting revenge on Elaine's now-pregnant friend) converge at Jerry's apartment. Charles has the plots come together fairly well after setting them all up in the opening few minutes, and they're all pretty equally funny. Elaine's friend Leslie, who holds some strange power over both Elaine and George because she's a disaffected, sarcastic performance artist, is married to a minor Kennedy (although he's only a Kennedy "by marriage," Elaine derides) and is days away from her already-scheduled pregnancy.
Elaine calls the country's fascination with the Kennedys infantile but she's obviously just as sick as the rest of us (as well as her fawning questions about Sargent Shriver here, people who have seen "The Contest" know just how much she loves John F. Kennedy Junior). So she offers to throw a shower at Jerry's house while he's off touring. But whatever cool-girl sway she holds over Elaine is nothing like the hot-girl sway she has over George.
He's still enraged about a performance piece/date they went on in which she dumped chocolate all over his shirt. "Whatever happened to the shirt?" asks Jerry. "I still have it. The collar's okay. I wear it under sweaters," says George. Obviously these details are much more interesting to Jerry than George's silly love life. Anyway, after Jerry's plane is diverted due to a blizzard, George conspires to take Jerry home to the party and confront evil Leslie.
What happens next is really what makes the episode for me. George's planned monologue is a work of genius. Here's some of it: "You think I'm some sort of a loser, that likes to be abused and ignored?! Who's shirt can be ruined without financial restitution?! Some sort of a masochist who enjoys being humiliated? You think you can avoid me like I have some sort of disease?! You have the disease! You have the disease! You may be beautiful and rich and physically just unbelievable, but you sicken me! You disgust me!"
But a thousand times funnier is his reaction once he unleashes the shirt and she barely recognizes him, which, obviously, makes him her willing slave all over again. The image of him wheeling out her shower presents, including the big plastic car, is priceless. His dreams of justice dashed, he realizes the universal truth: "Every woman on the face of the earth has complete control of my life. And yet, I want them all. Is that irony?"
This is also one of the first episodes I've seen that really properly integrates Kramer, and in exactly the right way: it's a harebrained scheme that begins as an odd side-plot and affects everyone else in a slightly creepy, abnormal way. George or Elaine are more prone to social faux pas but with Kramer, you end up with two weird Soviet dudes tussling and consuming large amounts of cake in the background of your baby shower, and a cracked TV screen.
Lawrence Tierney. That's the main takeaway from this episode. Lawrence Tierney. "The Jacket" is a funny episode with a lot of clever story ideas but the main point is Lawrence Tierney. Renowned for playing heavies (and John Dillinger) in 40s and 50s gangster movies, Tierney was about to begin a short career resurgence thanks to Reservoir Dogs but he was first planned to be a recurring character, probably in the same vein as Jerry's parents (and later George's parents) as Elaine's imposing novelist father Alton here. But he terrified the cast so much with his bizarre behavior that he was never invited back.
Tierney's also legendary for his weird behavior when guesting on The Simpsons (he demanded he read his lines in a Southern accent and wouldn't say any jokes he didn't get) and Reservoir Dogs (he almost got into a fist-fight with QT) but the Seinfeld story really takes the cake: he stole a butcher's knife from the kitchen of Jerry's apartment set and then "hilariously" pretended to stab Seinfeld after he was confronted about it, claiming it was an idea for a joke he had. Larry David would later threaten the cast and crew with bringing Tierney back if they were slacking off.
Now, God knows why he stole a butcher's knife. But doesn't it just make Tierney, and Alton, even more terrifyingly hilarious? I completely agree with the crux of this episode, penned by David and Seinfeld: fathers are terrifying, especially when you're meeting them as an adult. "Once a man has children, for the rest of his life, his attitude is, 'To hell with the world, I can make my own people. I'll eat whatever I want. I'll wear whatever I want, and I'll create whoever I want,' " Jerry notes in his act. Alton is pitched as the ultimate scary father: he's physically imposing, dressed like a gangster, gravel-voiced, drinks scotch, thinks every man he meets is gay, is a Korean war veteran and, worst of all, a legendary novelist.
Tierney fits the role beautifully, and the extended scenes of George, Jerry and him having drinks are the best in the episode. Talk of weather leads to him proclaiming "I don't need anybody to tell me it's gonna rain … all I have to do is stick my head outta the WINDA." He scoffs at their non-alcoholic drinks, and when George praises one of his novels, he just says, "drivel." George and Jerry's terror mounts and they retreat to the bathroom. George proposes they just leave: "We'll say we're frightened and we have to go home," he says. "Yeah, that's good. He'd clunk our heads together like Moe," says Jerry ruefully.
That scene is what makes the episode, but some of the side-plots are funny too. Elaine gets another big frenzied monologue describing what is essentially a rejected plot strand, as she tells of waiting for Kramer to collect some doves he's keeping while his magician friend goes out of town. George keeps singing the song "Master of the House" from Les Miserables and is terrified it will drive him mad. Anything where George spontaneously bursts into song is good in my book, but Jason Alexander makes it especially funny by often launching into it while George is moving around, timing the song with his movements.
And, of course, Jerry buys a ridiculously expensive suede jacket with bizarre pink candystriped lining, the price of which drives George into hilarious conniption fits. I like Jerry's musing that the jacket was worth the money because of the immediate confidence boost he gets wearing it, a feeling I definitely understand. But its undoing is Alton's insistence that they walk to a Pakistani restaurant in the snow ("you're not afraid of a little spice, are you?") and his insistence that Jerry can't turn his jacket inside out because he looks ridiculous. Because of Jerry's terror, the jacket is ruined. It's really the most realistic part of the episode. Fear of people's fathers would definitely drive me to do the same thing.
The episode's tag, where Alton now has "Master of the House" stuck in his head, is maybe a little forced, or maybe it's just that Tierney doesn't sell it well enough, but the mere sight of him singing showtunes at all makes the gag utterly worthwhile.
"The Chinese Restaurant"
Hoo, boy. It's tough to write about the really famous episodes of Seinfeld. I'm sure a lot has been said about "The Chinese Restaurant" already and both David and Seinfeld have acknowledged the impact the episode had on the future of the show and the narrative risks they were allowed to take. Suffice to say, it's a deftly-plotted, extremely funny example of the "show about nothing" label that Seinfeld assigned itself.
Of course, it's not a show about nothing, it's just a very clever study of social minutiae as well as an incredible example of how to make the "uninteresting" interesting. The episode is done in real-time as Jerry, Elaine and George (Kramer doesn't appear) wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant. First off, it's a genius premise, because they're told it'll take 5 to 10 minutes to get a table, and the episode's only 22 minutes long, which is a plausible enough delay for this not to descend into farce. At the same time, because it's done without cutting ahead in time, it really feels like forever to us. George's anguish at being denied access to the phone (to call Tatiana, a girlfriend on the brink of breaking it off) and Elaine's famishment are both palpable by the end of the show. And that's exactly what it IS like to wait 22 minutes for a table at a restaurant when you're hungry!
Famously, NBC blanched at the whole concept, thinking the audience wouldn't care about such a minor situation. Which seems ludicrous, because did NBC think they had fooled audiences into thinking this was a high-concept show? You had to figure if they were watching, the characters and the jokes were at least a large part of it. That aside, the episode is watchable because none of the gags are dragged out too long or repeated. The maître d' saying that the table is up in "five, ten minutes" only happens twice. A guy ties up the phone for a while to George's fury, and then a woman beats him to the phone after the guy leaves.
"If you were here first, you'd be holding the phone," she says. George busts out one of his best lines, which he'll use again and again: "You know, we're living in a society!" His fury over the imaginary rules being broken is very funny, but we're still sympathetic because something like that has happened to everyone -- this is why NBC didn't have to worry about people not getting the show. After the woman goes, though, George gets the phone and misses Tatiana, and soon we're on to a new plot point - George telling Jerry the story of his coitus interruptus (in the very chaste, white-glove manner the show usually uses to handle sex stuff) because of a pending digestive emergency. From his righteous fury we move on to his uncomfortable sex life ("this could only happen to you," Jerry rightly observes) and later to his despairing, surreal conversation with the maître d', who called for "Cartwright" when Tatiana called.
Jerry assumes his usual role of the slightly aloof mischief-maker. He's there to hear about George's sex woes as well as offer Elaine $50 to nonchalantly steal an egg roll from someone's table. She attempts to throw her voice and offer $25 to the diners, but since they're a bunch of crotchety old people it doesn't work. I like the cacophony of confused voices that erupts when she tries to take the roll -- did I hear Larry David's voice in there, or was I imagining that?
It all comes to a head beautifully as Jerry tries to propose any kind of food solution so they can still see Plan 9 From Outer Space together, with Elaine whining at his suggestions ("I can't have popcorn for dinner!") as George hears about Cartwright. The plans are abandoned, Jerry goes with his tail between his legs to his uncle's house, as he blew him off to see the movie but an employee of his uncle's spotted him at the restaurant. It doesn't really matter, per se, that they won't see the movie or get any Chinese food. Think of the last two episodes, where Jerry had two valuable properties (his TV and the suede jacket) destroyed. But it feels like it matters a lot more because we're dipping outside of traditional sitcom territory where weird things happen but it's all OK because it's a TV show. This could happen to us - maybe not in a restaurant, but the feeling of being trapped in a room waiting for something, while you want to get outside of the room to get to something else -- you could apply it to a million situations.
And, of course, the tag on the episode is the maître d' finally announcing Jerry's name. Sure, it's obvious, but it had to be done, since this is very much a self-contained little tale. How else to end such a perfect episode?
Jerry wakes up from his nightmare into my nightmare: his plane is making an emergency landing in a blizzard. "My name is Bill. I might be the last person you ever see," says his seat neighbor.
Jerry later notes that when his plane landed safely, the assembled emergency crew seemed disappointed.
In interviews, Larry Charles says the shooting dream was supposed to be Tarantino-esque, but maybe he's remembering this after the fact considering Quentin Tarantino hadn't released any movies yet when the episode aired.
Jerry reminds Alton of a "funny guy" in his outfit who was a tail gunner. "They blew his brains out all over the Pacific. There's nothing funny about that."
How weird would it be if Alton had become a regular recurring character? He feels incongruous in the one episode he's in, but maybe if he'd been in more it wouldn't be as odd.
George, obviously, would take Jerry's bet. "For fifty bucks? I'd put my face in the soup and blow."
Elaine thinks "its not fair people are seated first-come-first-served. It should be based on who's hungriest."