"The Letter"/"The Parking Space"/"The Keys" S3 / E20-22
- A Community Grade
I can't believe we've made it to the end of season 3, guys! I've gotten into such a rhythm of consistent Seinfeld consumption that I imagine withdrawal is going to be a painful process. We start the final countdown with this Larry David-penned episode featuring the wonderful Catherine Keener as a somewhat brittle painter girlfriend of Jerry's called Nina. Keener is wonderful in almost any role but it feels like she gets cast as brittle ladies a lot. Maybe Seinfeld is to blame!
"The Letter" is ensconced in pop culturedom for Nina's portrait of Kramer, pretty much the first picture that pops up on Google if you search for him. The episode's funniest scene is certainly the bizarre sight of two married, elderly art collectors who looked like they just walked off the Titanic examining the portrait. Their dialogue is great (Her: "I sense great vulnerability, a man-child crying out for love, an innocent orphan in the postmodern world;" Him: "I see a parasite, a sexually depraved miscreant who is seeking to gratify only his most basic and immediate urges"). But in my mind it's even funnier that these two characters even exist, especially in the Seinfeld world.
Nina's Kramer painting is great, undoubtedly a Mona Lisa for the 90s, but she's pretty much a huge pain, seething jealousy at Elaine for remaining friends with Jerry, and painting in her fancy SoHo loft on the back of her wealthy parents. Not to make any big pronouncements, but in this episode, I think the inherent goodness of each character depends on where they fall on the issue of Elaine wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap in the Yankees owner box. Jerry and Elaine can't believe the evil, corporate reasoning behind making someone take a cap off at a baseball game; Nina and Elaine's boss find such behavior reprehensible. George, of course, collapses under the pressure, because he is a coward. Kramer gets hilariously hit on the head with a baseball because he's a buffoon. This plot feels like the first subtle sly dig David and Seinfeld are taking against the nasty Evil Empire of the Yankees, a gag they'd expand on in later seasons with the introduction of George Steinbrenner as a character.
The big flaw of "The Letter" is that there's really no one central storyline to remember the episode by. The titular letter, written by Nina to Jerry after they break up, did not really work for me as a gag because I had a hard time believing such melodramatic nonsense (cribbed from Neil Simon's Chapter Two) would sway Jerry into taking Nina back. His line when he realizes the letter was forged ("I opt for happiness! James Caan doesn't opt for happiness!") is funny because he's absolutely right -- the letter really had nothing to do with Jerry's character at all.
So, aside from the oddity of Kramer's arty friends ("When I was 17, I ran away from home and hopped a steam ship to Sweden. And it was a big one!" he tells them) and some nice little skits on words by David (like the extended discussion on "pop-ins"), "The Letter" feels like an average episode at best.
"The Parking Space"
I remembered this episode, written by Larry David and future TV comedy titan Greg Daniels (creator of King of the Hill, The U.S. Office and Parks and Recreation) as one gimmicky setting too far for the show, after the Chinese restaurant, the parking garage and the limo, but re-watching it I decided to forgive some of its flaws (like the kid who talks to Jerry who feels like he just came from the set of Leave it to Beaver) because it's such a wonderful paean not only to George's intractable stubbornness but also the way New Yorkers can develop passionate, angry opinions on just about anything, even if they didn't know about the issue five seconds before.
The premise of the episode is less George's battle for a parking space with Jerry and Kramer's phony of a friend Mike (played by Lee Arenberg, who shows up one more time here and has been in a billion other things, including the Pirates of the Caribbean series). It's a more theoretical concept: what happens when the unstoppable force (Mike) meets the immovable object (George)? By far the funniest stuff in this very funny episode involves the two screaming at each other about how they're such incredible losers, they're actually willing to stay halfway parked into their spot until they die. "I don't have a job." "NEITHER DO I!"
George's attitude towards his parking is probably the only thing that remains consistent throughout Seinfeld. No matter what level of rock-bottom George happens to be at, he's always proud of his parking skills. So it makes sense that this is an issue he'd be willing to pick a fight on (unlike, say, the baseball cap thing in the last episode). He's also sporting a fedora ("hello, Indiana," says Jerry) that makes him look more heroic. George also seems pretty proud of his driving but Elaine is not so sure after he does something to Jerry's car on the way back from the Westchester flea market. But I think Elaine's to blame here -- you don't mess with someone's rearview mirror! Who's with me?
The various sub-plots of "The Parking Space" are more hit-or-miss. I already dismissed Jerry's weird brush with the shop-owner family that's going out of business; I also think Elaine's epic story that's meant to explain away why Jerry's car is all messed up doesn't really work. The story itself is genius, especially in how it's just plausible enough to seem real, but still crazy enough to be scary. But Jerry's fake shock and surprise goes well beyond Seinfeld's limits as an actor (Louis-Dreyfus kicks his ass in this scene, in more way than one). And then Jerry is too quickly skeptical about the story once he sees George: there's no explanation for the shift, except, I suppose, that Elaine is just inherently more trustworthy than George.
The sub-plot I love in "The Parking Space" is Jerry's seething hatred of Mike once he learns he called him a big phony, especially because of Jerry and Kramer's little battle of wills that opens the episode. It feels rare to see these two with a long, extended scene together and they're both really funny in it; first with Jerry making Kramer beg, then vice versa, and best of all, Kramer's haughtiness around Elaine once he thinks she doesn't like him. Jerry's confrontation of Mike is a little less brilliant but Arenberg really goes for being detestable, so it's fun to watch him squirm and try and explain away the comment as meaning the reverse. "Man, that Michael Jordan is so PHONY!"
"The Parking Garage" has lots of nice little one-liners, especially revolving around the proper way to park ("front-first, that's how you park when you're pulling a bank job!") and serves as a terrific excuse to bring around some recurring characters, like Newman (who thinks going in head-first "reduces us to jungle law") and, even better, Sid. He gets to repeat his catchphrase from the also parking-themed "The Alternate Side," "Never mind who I am. I know who I am! Do you know who you are?" Little gags like this, plus a tour-de-force of stubbornness from Alexander in his parking space, forgives all of the episode's flaws.
Oh, man, a season finale! And what a season finale, the first in a three-parter that carries over to the next season, with a "cliffhanger" of sorts as Kramer appears on an episode of Murphy Brown as one of her many assistants. This caper-like episode was written by Larry Charles, who excels at that kind of stuff, and it is very funny, although the extended central joke about key-switching loses its edge by the end of the episode.
"The Keys" is both plot-heavy and plot-light in that classic Seinfeld manner: a hell of a lot of things seem to happen, but it's largely meaningless stuff outside of Kramer's big move. An opening montage establishes Kramer's repeated stretching of his privileges to Jerry's apartment; first he takes the popcorn popper in the middle of the night, then he takes a bath, and finally he brings a woman home. Jerry is acting reasonably to take his keys back from Kramer; but Kramer is not someone who exists in a reasonable universe, which is the error Jerry is making here.
Kramer's epiphany, once he loses the keys, is wonderfully-played by Richards. "I broke the covenant of the keys," he pronounces to Jerry and Elaine. Even better is his confrontation with George, because of what it says about both of their characters. They're very similar: no job, weird personalities, trouble holding on to women. But they're also diametric opposites. Kramer strikes me as the kind of person who could start a conversation with someone in any room, any circumstance, whereas George would probably do something horrible, or require pages of notes, to make a good impression.
"Do you ever yearn, George?" Kramer asks. "I yearn. Often I sit, and yearn." I think this whole extended monologue is just Kramer's way of admitting he lives in a shitty apartment and needs a change of scenery, but he's telling it the only way he knows. George doesn't yearn. "I crave all the time, constant craving; I haven't yearned," he admits. Kramer knows he can get something if he wants it: George wants it, but doesn't think he'll ever get it.
So Kramer goes to L.A. to star on Murphy Brown, but not before an extended monologue from a biker recounting his last accident ("I was going down this very road; same time of day, going about the same speed I'm going now…"), a flirtation with a female truck driver, and a tense moment with some stoned, knife-wielding fellow travelers. "Have you ever killed a man?" he's asked. "What do you think, junior, you think these hands have been soaking in ivory liquid?" It's fun to see, mostly because Kramer looks a little out of his element, even a little scared.
"The Keys" is an odd way to end season 3, Seinfeld's first full season and the first to be Emmy-nominated for Best Comedy Series, but the gimmick of a cliffhanger on a show where such big moments rarely happen is funny in and of itself. It's made funnier by the fact that it's delivered by Jerry and Elaine lazily watching TV: a perfectly Seinfeldian way to present major plot development.
"You sure you don't want me to take my clothes off?" Kramer asks Nina. "Well, I want you to take your clothes off."
Kramer describes Jerry and Elaine's romance as "like Lincoln and Mary Todd."
The painting George buys from Nina looked pretty bad to me, but everything's subjective, I suppose.
George declares the hat-wearing men of the 1920s and 30s as living in a "bald paradise," but he doesn't want to wear his hat because of the look on a woman's face when they see his baldness. This gag is expertly paid off later when Newman tries to take George's hat in front of a woman: she runs off before even seeing George's dumb head.
George's argument for not parking in a garage is very persuasive. "It's like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, I could get one for free."
Elaine defends not calling Kramer to come with them to the flea market. "People forget! Look at Home Alone. They forgot!"
Kramer was watching 30 Seconds Over Tokyo when he got the popcorn urge.
What gets George up in the morning? The Daily News, New York's best sports paper. Mike Lupica still writes for them, almost 20 years later.
I'll submit to the commenters what they think the many mumbled insults George and Elaine mutter to Jerry. The only one I definitively caught was "crock of shit." But I think they're all similarly obscene (and Jerry's reaction, every time, is hilarious).
Last of all, it's been wonderful doing this with all you guys and I'm so glad I got such a big response to it! It's always gratifying to know there are Seinfeld nerds out there as obsessed with this show's tiny details as I am. I really hope you'll all be back to do this next summer. It's been a blast!