"The Conversion"/"The Stall" S5 / E11-12
- A- Community Grade
This is a nice four-hander, distributing the love equally among all of our cast members, something Seinfeld episodes that aren't set in one location rarely do. Obviously, George's conversion to Latvian Orthodoxy and Jerry's obsession with a girl's fungus cream are the major stories, but everyone gets something about their relationships with the opposite sex, their strengths (in Kramer and, I guess, George's case) and weaknesses (Jerry and Elaine).
George deciding to convert to a religion to get a girl is obviously nothing surprising. That he's doing it to keep a girl is a little more surprising (particularly since, as usual, she's one of his one-and-done girlfriends that we never see again), but, OK, let's say her particular mix of cuteness and dumbness really hits George's sweet spot. But it does raise the troubling issue of George's mysterious religious background when Estelle and Frank find out about his plans to join the Latvians. Obviously, Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller are both Jewish. Jason Alexander is also Jewish. The problem, I guess, for Seinfeld was that Jerry Seinfeld is also Jewish; so is Julia Louis-Dreyfus (her name makes me think of the Dreyfus affair). Michael Richards, as far as I know, is not. But this show just couldn't be too Jewy (I, by the way, am also Jewish, so I can just say that shit). Even with episodes called things like "The Bris" and Jerry's parents in Florida, they keep everything a little toned down on that angle.
I have read on the Internet that, officially, Frank is supposed to be Italian (hence Costanza) and Estelle is Jewish. Maybe that's explained in a future episode; I, myself, don't remember. But it's too bad that they don’t bring it up in this one because it would make their fury at George's conversion even funnier. But hey, it's funny as it is and also very kinetic for this show, since Frank and Estelle are such whirling dervishes of upset, running around the room and saying things like, "Wait, is this the group that goes around mutilating squirrels?" and "You're not performing any rituals in this house! And stay away from those squirrels!" It's a little terrifying to see them so animated.
George's strength here, then, is the lengths he will go to get a woman. He'll buy her lobster at the restaurant (until she says she's leaving him), and he'll become Latvian Orthodox even if it means writing apostles on his palm. He really goes through with it. As that tag scene shows, the conversion was completed, and for the rest of the show, he's officially Latvian Orthodox, I guess. His weakness, of course, is the tissue of lies that goes along with his schemes, but this time around that's not what befalls him; the general lack of character his girlfriend has in this episode is probably the biggest problem. We never get what he sees in her or what makes her so damn flighty.
Kramer's strength, which ties into George's plot, is his animal magnetism, which wins over nun-in-training Roberta as it has won over so many women in the past and future. I like that the show acknowledges this "skill" as both a blessing and a curse, but from the early episodes, it's always just made sense that women gravitate to Kramer because of his confidence and how free he always feels (especially compared to George and Jerry). His weakness is that women are constantly throwing themselves at him, making him a mythical "Kavorka" to the Latvians, who gasp and point at him in one of my favorite parts of the episode (because Kramer is sort of Frankenstein monster-y all the time).
In the non-Latvian world, you've got Jerry freaking out about fungus and Elaine second-guessing her boyfriend's career as a podiatrist after Jerry plants a seed of doubt in her mind. Jerry's obsessive nature, especially when it comes to cleanliness, is well-documented. Elaine's pitfall is a little more obscure, but it's something she does all the time (and I love watching her do it). It's that sort of passive-aggressive need to highlight insignificant details, like the boyfriend who hated exclamation points and then pick away at them endlessly until she's left with a bleeding wound. That's why it makes so much sense that she's an editor!
Anyway, I dunno. I like this episode; it's funny and slapsticky and bounces between its plots, all of which are connected very well. It's not a stunning example of the form, but it's a great 22 minutes.
This Larry Charles script is a little less wacky than some of his works but definitely still operates on a slightly heightened plane of reality, what with the cartoon character Elaine dates and his rock-climbing accident and the obsessive focus on squares and plies of toilet paper. Also, in his first scene, Kramer goes into Jerry's bedroom and calls a phone sex line. Why does he do that? Can he only jerk off in Jerry's room? What the hell is going on there? That's one of the times I definitely identify with Jerry being grossed out by something.
Everything hinges on Jerry's girlfriend, played by Jami Gertz, who'd actually been around for a long time in teenager stuff (like TV series Square Pegs and classic 80s flick The Lost Boys) and continued showing up on TV for a while before dwindling out a bit; one definitely sees less of her now. She's often playing characters that, as Kramer defines so well, are "flinty," but this is an especially good role. She's perfectly believable, both as someone mean enough to deny you toilet paper and darkly sexy enough to drive men wild on a phone line. Oh, another segue: I also love Kramer's phone sex fantasy, which involves splitting a cab. His fear when she asks him about it in real life is just hilarious.
In my opinion, Elaine's in the right here, and her triumph over Jami at the end of the episode is deserved and not at all crazy. Maybe others differ (the sight of her fleeing the bathroom with a dozen rolls in her hand is a slightly crazy one), but you gotta help a brother (or sister) out if he needs help, right? But Jerry, of course, has to side with both of them and resorts to putting gum in Jami's mouth so Elaine won't realize who she is (from her flinty voice). An even bigger masterstroke is that he tries to use that as an excuse to break up with her and never have her see Elaine again, although he doesn't follow through with that. I almost wish this episode had pushed those farcical angles a little further, but it might have gotten tiring seeing Jerry try to hide his girlfriend's voice in too many different ways.
On the George end of things, you've got his man-crush (before the word even existed) on the supposedly perfect-faced Tony. Now Tony is just a comic sight in and of himself. I don't know that Seinfeld ever really had its finger on the pulse, so whether we should actually consider Tony at all cool is beyond me. His fluorescent clothes and Fabio-like hair (covered by a backwards baseball cap) are just too funny for words. The actor playing him (Dan Cortese) went on to be in a bunch of stuff, but he isn't exactly what I'd consider perfect-looking. He does have a hell of a jaw, I suppose.
But George's crush on him is hysterical, in that it basically turns him into a cross between a giggling elementary school kid and an 80-year-old mother, obsessed with sandwiches (tuna and salmon salad!) and terrified of rock climbing. Well, it's believable that any iteration of George would be terrified of rock climbing. But his general regression is great to watch, and his freakout on the remarkably fake-looking (but with a backdrop trying to convince us it's real) cliff face is a tour de force by Alexander. Everything kinda peters out after that, just to get to the end and Elaine's final triumph; the episode's construction is not particularly tight, and the plots really both deserve to be B-plots in other episodes, but the individually strong elements pull it all through well enough.
- "How'd you get in?" "Kramer." "What's that!" "Lobster."
- "This was the only woman I never lied to. Well, that's not entirely true."
- George still has Brylcreem in his medicine cabinet.
- When Kramer runs out of the subway, there is a real shot of New York City (rare for this show aside from the establishing shots) and what looks like a stunt double running out of the Essex St/Delancey St station on the F and J/M/Z trains (the Williamsburg Bridge is in the background). Maybe shooting that was cheaper than building a subway exit?
- "Bowling is INSANE; bowling is CRAZY TIME!"
- George is going to have a boil laced mañana.
- "Tony, it's going to be too many sandwiches."
- "Am I so sane that you just BLEW your MIND?"