"The Cheever Letters"/"The Opera"/"The Virgin" S4 / E8-10
- A- Community Grade
“The Cheever Letters”
Following up from the vomit and the cabin-burning in the last bunch of episodes, the trilogy before us continues the saga of George basically ruining every aspect of Susan’s life. Once again, you have to admire Larry David’s audacity in creating a character that is fundamentally decent, weirdly enough into George, and then just fucking up everything about her. One wonders if perhaps he’s basing this on his own experiences. God knows dating Larry David sounds like a complicated proposition.
The titular gag of “The Cheever Letters” is that Susan’s father (Warren Frost), an embittered man with a fucked-up drunk of a wife (Grace Zabriskie), had a secret love affair with great writer John Cheever. “He was the most wonderful person I’ve ever known, and I loved him deeply in a way you could never understand,” he rants to his wife at the end of the episode, clutching a love letter from Mr. Cheever that reads, “I fear my orgasm has left me a cripple.” Writers David, Elaine Pope, and Tom Leopold are picking up on the 1984 revelation by Cheever’s wife that he was bisexual; it feels a little out-there for a network comedy in 1992, but I have no idea what, if any, reaction the plotline had.
Honestly, of all the things George does, this is probably the least his fault, since it’s the end of the long chain reaction that began with the dad giving him the Cuban cigars. And it’s ironically the least awful thing Susan has to deal with. At least now she finally understands the trainwreck of her parents’ relationship, right? I think this is how David basically viewed the families of all the shikse women he dated, certainly the WASPs: Their creepy, hard-drinking, repressed families were all closeted homosexuals. George’s spectacular awkwardness at the dinner table with them is a joy to watch, especially his repeated HA-HA! as he analyzes the ridiculousness of laughter.
But “The Cheever Letters” has an excellent co-plot, basically as dominant as Susan’s family's story, with Jerry and an unfortunate remark made in the bedroom with Elaine’s assistant. Honestly, I almost wish they’d called this episode “The Panty Remark,” to make it a wacky cousin to season 2’s “The Pony Remark.” What’s really remarkable about Jerry’s dirty talk is how simultaneously clean and filthy it is. Jerry explaining the situation to George is an utter joy to behold. Jason Alexander plays the sense of baffled wonderment beautifully. I’ve definitely been in conversations like that. “How do I know the usual?” he says of Jerry’s “usual” dirty talk. “What’s typical, give me some typical!”
Jerry whispers something that’s obviously the easy way out (this is network, we can’t be disgusting, just imagine something gross, viewer!), so I’m glad they also pick out a remark they can get on TV that still suggests all kinds of secret issues for Mr. Seinfeld. “You mean the panties your mother laid out for you?” No wonder she’s horrified and has to leave right away. He says she was way dirtier than him, and I’m sure she was, but that’s the kind of remark that’s coming from a hidden place. Since Jerry’s so straight-laced, that little window into his inner workings is all the funnier. And his frantic, devious attempts to prevent Elaine from learning about the remark are surprisingly dark for him, going as far as to get her fired, so obviously this is a side he doesn’t want us to see.
Kramer’s subplot with the Cuban cigars is less interesting, although I did appreciate how his magical jacket once again enters the equation for all those keen-minded viewers. And the woman with the sunglasses, sitting behind him in the Cuban embassy, was a great actor-as-prop. Elaine also doesn’t get much to do this week but it’s worth it for that final line, where she reveals she’s known about the panty remark all along. No one plays triumphant better than Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
This is honestly one of the weirdest Seinfelds ever made. It goes without saying that it’s a Larry Charles episode, and like many of his scripts, he injects some rather cinematic qualities into a decidedly un-cinematic show, as we get a closer look at the psychosis of Crazy Joe Davola. There’s nothing deep going on here (Davola’s issues seem culled from a random assortment of movie madmen), but two scenes, including him in the apartment with Elaine and him in clown makeup talking to Kramer, are at least making an effort to be genuinely creepy.
Like many a Seinfeld (including a very famous episode we’ll be discussing next week), “The Opera” is all about the setup, and it tapers off by the end, with a cliffhanger that never gets resolved (although Davola will appear one more time in the season four finale). But the setup is a lot of fun, and the whole episode is a nice mix of the madcap and the more typical Seinfeldian humor.
The whole gang, including Susan, is headed to see Pagliacci, starring Pavarotti, while Jerry lives in fear of Davola, who has threatened to “kibosh” him. Meanwhile Elaine is excited to introduce everyone to her new boyfriend, who is, of course, Crazy Joe Davola. Or Joey, as she calls him. Davola dominates the half-hour, but before we get to him, there are some nice little side-gags going on. Jerry’s discomfort with wearing black tie is fun to watch because Jerry so rarely seems uncomfortable in his own skin. Next to George, who looks like a shrunken penguin, he’s James Bond, of course, but George gets sidetracked trying to scalp Susan’s ticket because she’s otherwise engaged.
There’s also some wonderful off-screen history of a wedding toast George gave that was, as Jerry says, basically the worst toast in human history. “You were like a Redd Foxx record! At the end of the toast, no one even drank!” I almost wish that aside wasn’t resolved at the end of the episode, where George meets the father who kicked him out of that wedding again, because the sight of George network-swearing (there’s a lot of “jerks” and “hells”) is kinda lame, and it would have made a nice companion piece to Jerry’s hilariously petty confrontation with another opera-goer over a stolen quarter. Yeah, that has some mild story implications later on, but it feels more than anything like a way for Charles to pad the script with a weird little skit.
The main event here, though, is Davola. Peter Crombie is not a man who went on to have a stellar career, but he burns up the screen with lines like “I have a hair on my tongue. I can’t get it off. You know how much I hate that? Course you do. You put it there.” Charles tosses in everything nutty he can think of: Joe holds his hand over a candle flame, takes telephoto-lens shots of Elaine, and thinks she’s a character in Pagliacci, with him as the titular clown, then paints his face white, takes down a gang of muggers in the park, and confronts Kramer, blank-eyed and terrifying. It’s no wonder Charles couldn’t resolve the storyline here. By the end of the episode, we’re expecting some seriously insane shit to go down.
The scene that really stands out is Joe emerging from his darkroom, silently, to surprise Elaine. Again, it feels like a formulaic rip-off of The Silence of the Lambs or some such, but considering Seinfeld has such a defined comfort zone, it’s fun to see them get out of it every once in a while. This works way better than the Tarantino-esque bloodbath of “The Baby Shower,” another Larry Charles episode, in season two. Elaine also gets some payback by spraying him in the face (with cherry Binaca), which is good, because it makes her a bit less of a fool for dating him in the first place. I guess Joe was a little bit charming when she met him, but come on, it’s Crazy Joe Davola.
The resolution is less satisfying. Although the confrontation with Kramer is wonderful, we never get to see what happens after the opera starts. Charles really should have gone the whole hog and had Davola somehow integrate himself into the show and launch himself at Jerry during its biggest moment. But I can see how he couldn’t fit that in (aren’t I a forgiving critic?). There’s enough fun to be had waiting outside the show, waiting for it to start, and that’s a concept that feels very Seinfeldian.
This is an episode that continues, sort of, next week with “The Contest,” which is going to be a doozy to write about. A central character both there and here is the titular virgin Marla, played by Jane Leeves, who would be cast on Frasier the next year. “The Virgin” is also notable for having a story credit for the Farrelly Brothers (Peter Mehlman wrote the teleplay), and both Marla’s situation and George’s story have an edge of their crassness, although with Susan it figures very well into her larger arc of George ruining her life.
The best part of the episode is George’s horrible, horrible desire to split up with Susan because now, as a sitcom writer, he finally has an answer to the question “What do you do?” It’s the kind of comedy you might watch through your fingers, but it’s too funny for that. This is just the first time of many that George will treat his relationship with Susan as an unwanted commodity, so hard to believe considering that she’s pretty, successful, and nice, but very easy to believe because this is George Costanza we’re talking about.
After successfully hitting on a woman in a bar, George debates whether he and Susan are girlfriend and boyfriend with Jerry. “Let me ask you this. … Is there Tampax in your house?” Jerry asks. That, plus four or five phone calls a week and an implied Saturday date, and “I’ll tell you what you got here, you got yourself a girlfriend.” George, basically womanless for the first three years of the show, is furious, to the extent that he thinks setting Susan up with David Letterman might be his way out. “I’m just thinking!” he protests. “I don’t think you are,” says Jerry.
George is in luck, though, because at their meeting with NBC, he ridiculously kisses Susan on the lips, apparently without even thinking about it. That gets her fired, which gives him an excuse to dump her, as she’s no longer in their corner at the network. Jerry’s role here is, I feel, very true-to-life, much like the scene at the diner. There’s not much judgment in his voice, even though George is such an evil idiot, but he gently reminds him that now that Susan has lost her job, and it’s his fault, he’s going to have to stay with her and comfort her. “Every time I think I’m out, THEY PULL ME BACK IN,” George intones, a la Al Pacino. Topical!
Ah, George. As Jerry deadpans after George leaves him at NBC to chase Letterman, “I was very wise to hitch my wagon to his star.” The NBC meeting is where the butler idea is debuted for Jerry, the first time we’re significantly drifting from Seinfeld’s real-life origin story. Jerry pitches “The Chinese Restaurant” to the execs, who are unimpressed, much as they were in real life. But instead of somehow getting them to sign on anyway, he pitches another, wackier, more sitcom-y idea about a guy having to be Jerry’s butler after he hits him with his car. The execs are, of course, rolling in the aisles, especially at the idea of Jerry wearing a neck brace. “Those collars are funny!” So where the Jerry plotline started out self-referential, it’s more of a funhouse mirror version of Seinfeld at this point, and it’ll continue to degrade hilariously for the rest of the year.
“The Virgin” is an unusual episode in that it sets a lot of plots in motion. Marla’s virginity is really a two-part story. This week, we have Elaine turning her off the whole idea by explaining how awful men are after they have sex. “They turn into farmers suddenly,” she says of them leaving in the morning. You also have Chinese delivery man Ping’s injury, which will come up again later on, and obviously the Susan/George and NBC plots continue to roll along. It’s not an absolute standout on its own, but it’s the beginning of a lot of plot threads that are pure gold.
- Jerry and George could build a cabin like that. “Well, maybe not us, but two men could.”
- “It’s very hard being a stand-up comedian! Sometimes they don’t laugh!”
- George respects the podiatrist. “You’re toiling in relative anonymity.”
- Women can resist the hand on the leg; men can’t. “They’re working on a whole other level.”
- Kramer needs Jerry because he ties everything together. “You’re the nucleus, you’re the straw that stirs the drink!”
- Jerry’s little song to Elaine is the theme song to The Bugs Bunny Show. The man doesn’t sing and dance enough for my liking.
- “I like to encourage intruders.”
- The “Snapple?” gag, which will be repeated in other episodes, appears to be a mocking wink at Seinfeld’s product placement. I enjoy it every time they do it, though, mostly because I really think of the early '90s as Snapple’s heyday.
- The Chinese ordering routine is great. “I don’t want a broad, flat noodle!”
- George couldn’t have sex with a virgin. “I don’t want to be remembered; I want to be forgotten.”