“The English Patient” (season 8, episode 17; originally aired 3/13/97)
The last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking in the comments about how season eight of Seinfeld really belongs to Elaine—the show has had a lot of fun searching for her rock bottom this year. Hauling garbage just to get flounder delivery last week might have been it. In this episode, she gets fired by J. Peterman for not liking a movie, then has to live in a cave in Tunisia to get her job back, but not before her plane is hijacked by angry Dominicans who were exploited by Kramer. Still, I feel like she’s on the up in this episode, just because she sticks to her guns and insists that The English Patient sucks.
I think when people recall Elaine’s specific quirks, her hatred of The English Patient is right at the top of the list along with shoving and foot-length dresses. While the movie had come out in November of 1996—a few months before this episode aired—the timing was still perfect, just a couple weeks before it unsurprisingly swept the Academy Awards at the end of March. I’m sure by that point the backlash was already forming, but Elaine’s screeds gave voice to millions. “Those sex scenes. I mean, please! Give me something I can use!” she yells at a Monk’s waitress. “You know, sex in a tub! That doesn’t work!”
It’s classic Seinfeld, as well, in that it’s a plot where very little happens but it’s nonetheless very funny. I’m excluding Elaine’s trip to Tunisia and plane hijacking experience, which are in “zany Peterman” territory and I mostly could have done without. But before Peterman fires her, all Elaine really suffers is the loss of a doofy boyfriend and a couple of nasty looks from Carol (the “you’ve gotta see the bay-bee!” woman). Her finest moment is when Peterman, having gone on about loving the movie, asks her if she’s seen it, and she just can’t bring herself to lie and say she liked it, instead telling the fatal, but nobler white lie that she hasn’t seen it yet. That means Peterman drags her to it again, of course, but then we’re treated to the sight of Elaine sprawled in her seat, bored to the point of death, so we the audience are the real winners.
“The English Patient” is a pretty strong episode outside of Elaine, although Jerry’s willingness to help Kramer engage in human trafficking seems a little unusual, even for a laissez-faire man like Jerry. The Dominican cigar-rollers do at least get their revenge, but it’s not on Kramer, or “El Presidente,” as he dubs himself, so that felt like a missed opportunity.
But I love George’s difficulty in realizing that a beautiful woman is going out with him, so obsessed is he with the last short, bald, stocky man to attract her affections: the elusive Neil, who George thinks must be an exact clone of him, just with an extra feature like a top hat, monocle, or cane. “Who’s she dating, Mr. Peanut?” Jerry jokes, although it turns out that he does indeed walk with a cane.
For the first half of the episode, George is obsessing about Neil and hoping to meet him and thus doesn’t realize that Danielle (Chelsea Noble, who later appeared in the Left Behind films with her husband, Kirk Cameron) is inviting him to spend the night with her. Things turn rather sharply for the last act, where George is not only actively dating Danielle, but tries to get one over Neil by asking her to move in and proposing marriage. It feels like something in the middle got lost, but the mysterious presence of Neil helps to justify any weird behavior (their final confrontation in the hospital is great).
In such a busy episode, Jerry also finds the time to go to Florida and give Morty an ill-fitting “#1 DAD” T-shirt and wage accidental war against a comically old family of weaklings convinced of their own strength, with a penchant for shouting their last name in unison (“MANDELBAUM, MANDELBAUM!”). The peerless Lloyd Bridges is a lot of fun here, as is Jerry’s complete distaste for the situation and for any kind of competition with these weirdos.
But Elaine’s the real hero of “The English Patient”. Julia Louis-Dreyfus actually won her lone Seinfeld Emmy the year before for season seven, losing in 1997 to Kristen Johnston—but she’s a double winner in my heart.
“The Nap” (season 8, episode 18; originally aired 4/10/97)
Even though Larry David left the show at the end of season seve,, as we all know, he continued to voice George Steinbrenner because the character was too essential and popular for the show to drop at that point. Except this is the first appearance of Steinbrenner since David left the show. There’s a hell of a lot of Steinbrenner in this episode, but it had me wondering whether his absence is because David was busy working on Sour Grapes or whatever other post-Seinfeld project he had going. Or was it just that the character had kind of run out of steam? I love his stream of consciousness chatter but this is a very inconsequential workplace-comedy episode that doesn’t feel enough like Seinfeld.
Sure, George is lazy, and he certainly enjoys napping. His custom-built under-the-desk nook looks very comfortable, and the silent montage of him waking up and putting his coat on to proclaim, “lunch!” and promptly leave his office is hysterical. But there’s just not enough scheming in this episode to really make it feel like a Costanza plot. His one action is to have Jerry call in a bomb threat. When he’s almost rumbled by Steinbrenner, the big boss decides that George knew about the bomb because he has ESP. Apparently, the inspiration for this episode was that writers Andy Robin and Gregg Kavet noted that their friends sometimes slept under their desks at work. I’m sure there is a really clever plot to be spun out of that, but this episode doesn’t really find it.
None of the B-plots really help matters. Kramer begins swimming in the East River, which makes him smell. Elaine dates a man with back problems (that’s two episodes in a row where back problems play a major part) and there’s some business with an ergonomic mattress. This all comes together, but not in an interesting way: the episode just ends up with them all deciding it’s a good idea to swim in the East River.
Jerry’s dealings with a fussy contractor are better, because the show avoids the usual gags about lazy contractors who waste money. Conrad definitely wastes Jerry’s money, but it’s because he’s hyper-specific and needs to consult with Jerry (and later George) on every last detail. It’s a weird, muted little joke that is never explained, and doesn’t need to be. I even liked Conrad’s sudden change of heart—he’s much surlier after Jerry makes him get rid of the radical kitchen remodel which bums everyone out, and you almost feel bad for him. All he needed was attention, then he would have done his job perfectly!
- George asks the Monk’s waitress (played by True Blood’s Lauren Bowles) to surprise him, and ends up with a halibut omelet.
- Morty says the #1 dad shirt is the best thing Jerry’s ever done for him. “You know, I bought you a Cadillac. Twice.”
- George is stressed trying to stay one step ahead of Neil. “What if it’s Neil Armstrong?” Jerry asks. “Then I’m going to Mars!”
- “Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert and just DIE already. DIE!”
- Elaine really just wants to see Sack Lunch. “Don’t you want to know how they got in there?”
- No one can decide whether Damian from The Omen is the devil, his son, or his helper. Kramer thinks he was “a mischievous, rambunctious kid.”
- Kramer hates swimming in the pool during geriatric exercise. “It was like swimming through a flabby-armed spanking machine.”
- Steinbrenner enjoys People’s sexiest people issue. “Connie Sellecca. Nothing wrong with that, eh?”
- Steinbrenner is alarmed by George’s Godzilla statue. “Is that Mothra?”