Seinfeld: "The Chaperone"/"The Big Salad"
B+

Seinfeld: "The Chaperone"/"The Big Salad"

 "The Chaperone"

Anyone who knows anything about Seinfeld will tell you the real sea change on the show happened after season 7, when Larry David left the writing staff, and of course that's true. But I'm also not the first person to say that, for all the super-memorable, brilliant episodes and storylines and characters and tropes on the horizon, the show's absolute glory days are now behind us, and "The Chaperone" is definite evidence for that. Now, don't get me wrong. Seinfeld is a top-drawer sitcom in pretty much any of its seasons and there's no denying much of its reputation in the national zeitgeist was built in the years we're about to plough through. And, although I've probably seen all these episodes over the years, we're now getting into territory I know less well, and I'm perfectly happy to prove myself wrong. But "The Chaperone," funny as it is, is not quite up to the standard set by seasons 4 and 5.

In terms of our TV history, season six of Seinfeld premiered on Sept. 22, 1994, airing at 9pm, now firmly part of NBC's Thursday "Must See TV" lineup, following a brand new show: Friends. I'd love to say this was the beginning of NBC's bulletproof Thursday lineup, but Seinfeld's lead-out was actually the quickly-canceled Dabney Coleman-starrer Madman of the People (Friends was bumped to 9.30 to replace it, made good on that huge Seinfeld lead-in, and the rest is history). Also premiering that night? ER. NBC still has wet dreams about that night. But anyway, my point is that while Seinfeld had already gotten very huge, this is the point at which it went stratospheric and became the number one show on television, with an average of about 20 million viewers a week, numbers it would maintain for the rest of its run.

We're also coming off of the big shakeup of "The Opposite." George is gainfully employed at the New York Yankees and relatively happy because of it; Elaine is jobless and a bit of a misery guts. Jerry and Kramer are largely the same (this isn't Battlestar Galactica). By the end of the episode, George will be back to being a bit of a hapless fool, and Elaine will have a job, but we're in the new way of things -- George with the Yankees, providing the opportunity for sporting guest stars (this week we have Danny Tartabull and Buck Showalter) and keeping him from being quite as pathetic as he was in seasons 4-5. Elaine's new boss Mr. Pitt (Ian Abercrombie) is the first of two wacky employers who also provide for off-the-wall plots over the next four years.

Mr. Pitt has never been my favorite Seinfeld recurring character (Elaine just wouldn't take this job, no matter how bad things got) but his refined qualities mixed with extreme babyishness can be funny to watch, such as his freakout about the socks here. I especially like when Elaine brings up the first pair she got and he loses his shit. "FORGET ABOUT THOSE! WHY DO YOU KEEP MENTIONING THOSE!" It's a cute turnaround from his introduction at the start of the episode, as a posh gentleman, extremely fond of the very-recently deceased Jackie O, who takes a shine to Elaine at a job interview she crashes and burns at. I've included a picture above of her "grace" (really, it's just that she puts on sunglasses and a headscarf inside for some dumb reason) which is the best sight gag of the episode.

George's thing is equally alright and equally inexplicable (you can't just change the uniforms for a baseball team just like that!) but it feels mostly like an excuse to feature a couple of Yankee guest stars and remind us all in the future of what passed for Yankees stars in 1994 (thankfully, he's still employed with the team when they are actually good although I, like Jerry, am a Mets fan). Funny thing to consider -- when they filmed this thing, those guys had just gone on strike. I guess there was no rule against them pretending to play baseball on Seinfeld?

But the main plotline involves Jerry dating Miss Rhode Island on the eve of the Miss America pageant, and Kramer's heretofore unmentioned love of beauty pageants (and previously hinted-at dark childhood) getting in the way. Like the other plots, it's got a lot of good laughs and is obviously geared to give Kramer the opportunity to act ridiculously. But it's a B-plot at best and sputters out long before the episode is over, with Jerry in particular becoming such a passive part of the story he's barely even talking by the end of it. Is it a harbinger of things to come? Or just an OK episode of Seinfeld? I'm probably making too big a deal out of all this…

Grade: B

"The Big Salad"

…considering that this episode feels right as rain. Aside from those new "streets of New York City" sets they have going (finally, wave goodbye to those limited storefronts they had to slowly crawl alongside)  it feels like something right out of last season, especially considering George's slowly-building meltdown about the big salad, which is beautiful to watch. Although it feels like there's some unexplored territory in his relationship with his girlfriend of the week (played by Michelle Forbes, coming off Star Trek: The Next Generation and later of 24, Galactica, True Blood, The Killing and a zillion other things) to do with her intellectual qualities, it's nice to see the whole thing explode over the check for a big salad.

Like countless catchphrases before, "big salad" is one of those things that's just automatically funny-sounding and gets better the more times you say it. It really gets better when you have George say it, loudly and angrily, while doing a dance. It's one of those great Larry David plots that works so well because it has rooting in real life (I can imagine being briefly irked) and then explodes it into unreality as George just gets nuttier and nuttier.

You've also got more Elaine antics prompted by Mr. Pitt (who doesn't appear this week) as she searches for a mechanical pencil he wants and gets trapped into dating a creepy stationary store guy because of it. This is supposedly being paired with Jerry and George's plots about how annoying dating is, but even for Seinfeld that's a pretty weak thread and the stories really have nothing to do with each other. I do enjoy Elaine's sheer weariness at being flirted with, though ("What do you do?" "…whatever.") and her equal weariness in agreeing to date him after he tells her he got yelled at by a foreman.

But what really makes this episode is Jerry's plot where the extremely cute girl he's with is ruined by the fact that she was dumped after going on a few dates…with Newman. It's almost too horrifying to contemplate. Obviously this is a storyline we've seen many times since on sitcoms (I don't know if Seinfeld was the first with this concept, but I doubt it) but it has extra-special significance because it involves Newman. The sight of his apartment (messy, but not over-the-top messy, a wise comedic choice) has just the right amount of creepiness to it. The details like him soaking his feet in a plastic tub make it even better.

Jerry's sheer, unrelenting bafflement at the situation is perfectly understandable; Margaret's reluctance to talk about it makes sense too, although it really raises more questions about what the hell she and Newman got up to than answers. But I like that we don't even allow the possibility that "there's more to Newman than meets the eye," as Elaine suggests. "He's an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in a riddle," she says. "He's a mystery wrapped in a Twinkie," Jerry sneers, also saying, "I've looked into his eyes…he's pure evil!" and "Newman never stopped seeing anybody. Newman will see anybody who will see him!"

Maybe it's just my personal taste, but since I think Margaret's even more alluring than Jerry's usual arm candy, it makes his failure to kiss her all the more poignant. But in the end, it's also perfectly understandable. "All I could think of when I looked at her face was…Newman found this unacceptable!" he tells Elaine.

Oh…this episode also has a weird side-plot about Kramer driving someone to murder by penalizing him in a golf game, which poorly sets up a sight gag spoofing the (then) recent OJ Simpson brouhaha. It's not so good now, but as you can tell by the big laugh it gets, it was a hit then.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

George doesn't like polyester. "You know they used to make leisure suits out of this fabric?"

"I was almost Mr. Coffee. They felt I was a little too relaxed."

I like Kramer's banana shirt in "The Chaperone."

Jerry and George are a cute hotel pair. "Well, goodnight Ollie." "Goodnight Stan!"

Credit to Marguerite MacIntyre, who plays Miss Rhode Island -- she really nails that terrible song at the end.

"Chaperone" is apparently the first appearance of Jerry's catchphrase "That's a shame." So, there you go.

Jerry's phone number is KL5 (555) 2390.

"Elaine's my middle name!" "Mine's Ike."

"No thanks, I just had a big bowl of Kix."

George's at-length thing about the difference between the names Herbert and Hebert is great to watch.

"Generally speaking, you don't need any extra incentive to murder a dry cleaner."

"What brings you down to the east wing?"

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