Seinfeld started its second season, its first real season after a four-episode test run, very strongly with "The Ex-Girlfriend," and it's the first time we really see George as the character we know and love, that weird dark shadow of Larry David's mind who behaves as no functioning human being honestly could. It starts right with the very first scenes, as George describes his plans to break up with the first in a very, very long line of hot supermodel women that he, Jerry and (sometimes) Kramer will date for the next eight seasons.
I am not the expert on 70s and 80s sitcommery that Todd and others are, so I do not know if network TV had seen anyone quite as peculiar as George before. Even though Kramer is the "oddball" of the show, George is really the most revolutionary character: he's often repulsive and pathetic, but here these are traits we heartily enjoy and sympathize with and want more of. He's often doing and saying things that feel very wrong, but also so correct in a brutal sort of way. His fussy sense about the rightful order of the universe and how that breaks down into even the tiniest social situations has always fascinated me.
Anyway, in the first season he was basically a sad sack and a sounding board for Jerry, which isn't very interesting. His sad-sackery doesn't go away, but it's given more depth and quirk, with layer upon layer of self-loathing and psychosis as the show goes on. George describes to us how he was basically suckered into saying he loved his current girlfriend Marlene, basically out of politeness and fear of awkwardness if he didn't reciprocate her own declaration of love. "She squeezed it out of me!" Why Marlene decided she was in love with George is left for the audience to ponder. Jerry, assuming the role of George's enabler, assures him, "You're a human being! You're too nice a guy!" Whether this is in fact true is also left to the audience to ponder.
Like many an episode of Seinfeld, a lot of the action in "The Ex-Girlfriend" happens off-screen. George breaks up with Marlene between scenes and then describes it in an amusing monologue, comparing it to a prison break with her tears, and subsequent rage, as prison guards in pursuit. After realizing he has left books at her house, he enlists Jerry to go fetch them, and Jerry is subsequently dragged into a relationship -- both seem to find her bewitching Southern accent to be the main charm, which makes sense considering they're a couple of Jewish guys from Brooklyn. (OK, George is technically supposed to be half-Jewish, half-Italian, but you know what I mean).
Elaine's subplot, about her disintegrating frosty relationship with a neighbor that goes from polite chit-chat, to nods, to nothing, also happens entirely off-screen but is less funny. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is pretty good describing it all to Jerry and George, but Seinfeld does this weird overreacted excited thing when he hears about her story that doesn't really work at all. When I criticized Seinfeld for his acting in the first season, a lot of the commenters noted he never really becomes much of an actor. It's true, but I really only find him jarring in the early seasons. It's when Jerry gets amped up that Seinfeld's at his weakest, and Seinfeld definitely manages to tone that down a little over the years.
The best thing about this episode is that Jerry almost immediately getting with George's ex-girlfriend creates no drama in the group, though it would on almost any other sitcom. Sure, Jerry's worried it will for a couple of scenes, but George is basically just thrilled that he has someone else to dish on Marlene's irritating traits (mostly, she talks too much, with no regard for the flow of conversation) with. "There's no place where you can say, 'alright then,' " Jerry complains. We only briefly hear Marlene's style of phone calls, but her opening line: "Jerry, have you ever taken a bath in the dark?" is enjoyably surreal.
What George does care about is getting ripped off by a chiropractor who doesn't anything for his bad back, and Jerry subsequently paying the half of the bill George refused to foot. His outrage is so immense that he inhales a fly at Monk's, leading to the funniest moment of the episode: "I swallowed a fly! What do I do? What can happen?" he pleads with the rest of the diners. There's something about his ungodly terror in that moment, mixed with how laconic he's been about breaking up with Marlene, that's just priceless.
Marlene is eventually dispatched, in a funny role reversal where she splits up with Jerry for an inane reason (she didn't like his comedy, "too much fluff"), something he'll subject a million women to in years to come. Man, I wrote like 1,000 words about this episode and I didn't even touch on Kramer's cantaloupe-centered subplot. It's very funny.
The Pony Remark
"The Ex-Girlfriend" and this are both classic examples of early Seinfeld, I think, and the second season couldn't have gotten off to a better start. Sure, there's still some rough edges, but this episode is so damn clever in how it bonds Jerry's fears about social niceties with larger fears about mortality and, well, killing people. Basically, Jerry makes an offhand joke about ponies at an extended family dinner ("I hate anyone who had a pony growing up"), upsetting his Polish immigrant relative, who promptly dies the next day. He wants to play a championship softball game on the day of her funeral, but has the nagging fear that he may have killed her with his cutting remark.
Elaine, at the dinner as well for some reason, vocally agreed with Jerry's remark and also feels culpable, which doesn't stop her from trying to steal Manya's apartment as her widower husband is moving to Phoenix. She has an amusingly stark little bit of dialogue about death midway through the episode: "You know, funerals always make me think about my own mortality and how I'm actually going to die someday. Me, dead. Imagine that!" I think it's probably Louis-Dreyfus' best moment of the show so far, because she's really starting to nail Elaine's declarative, vaguely imperious, self-centered tone. Don't get me wrong, these are all traits I love about Elaine.
That line is preceded by an even better one, even more of a non sequitur, from George: "You know, I've been thinking...I cannot envision any circumstances in which I'll ever have the opportunity to have sex again. How's it going to happen? I just don't see how it could occur." George does next-to-nothing in this episode, so maybe they just tossed him this line because it befits his sad-sackery, but that he blurts it out in the middle of a discussion about funerals makes it just achingly funny. This is a thought that has crossed many a man's mind, but it's rarely something you'd say out of nowhere. Maybe drunk in a bar at night, but never at a diner in the afternoon.
This episode sees the return of Jerry's parents Helen and Morty, with the estimable Barney Martin in his first appearance as Jerry's irascible dad, the inventor of the beltless trenchcoat, "The Executive." I love this oft-repeated detail about Morty, because it really feels like something middle-class men did in the 60s. They made raincoats, dammit, and they worked hard designing them! Any other clothing item wouldn't feel as right.
The other notable thing about "The Pony Remark" is the introduction of the maniacal Uncle Leo, played by Len Lesser, who made his career playing heavies and gangsters until Seinfeld came along. The visual of Lesser's face is so ingrained to any Seinfeld fan that it's almost silly to say he feels perfect for the role, but I do want to highlight his impressive, heavy brow, which Lesser is wonderfully expressive with. My favorite thing about Leo, though, is that he's not really a stereotypical character. Helen's the nagging, kindly mother and Morty's a cheapskate, but what the HELL is Uncle Leo? He brags about his son, Jeffrey, who works for the Parks Department (which summons the image of a weird, loner, overgrown Boy Scout) and he grabs your arm when he talks to you (he gains more tics as the show progresses, my favorite being his obsession with anti-Semitism).
I guess he's just "the weird uncle," which everyone is supposed to have. But Leo is a pretty singular creation nonetheless. I never fail to crack up when he greets Jerry with that exaggerated "HELLO!"
Again, I've gotten so carried away that I've ignored Kramer's subplot again - he's not very integrated with the show yet. But his concept of rebuilding his apartment with "levels" is funny, and Richards' delivery in the scene where he proposes it, and the later scene where he decides that he won't do it, but doesn't admit that it can't be done, is terrific.
Apologies all - I thought I'd be doing the third episode that aired, "The Jacket," starring the estimably crazy Lawrence Tierney, god rest his soul. But I forgot that bizarrely, "The Busboy" was actually the show's third episode but was screened as the season finale, for reasons that escape me. We'll get to "The Jacket" next week, as I'm determined to follow the DVD production order.
I have a lot less to say about this episode because it isn't very good, especially compared to the last two. George gets a busboy fired at a restaurant and desperately tries to make it up to him, only making things worse. He brings Kramer along to the dude's apartment, accidentally lets the cat out, and then Kramer breaks his lamp. In a weird deus ex machina to close the episode we learn that the restaurant the busboy worked at blew up days later, sparing him from death, a very lazy resolution that is rewarded with stilted audience applause.
Meanwhile, Elaine invites a boyfriend to spend a week at her house before he flies back to Seattle, but she doesn't like him so she tries to get him back to JFK in time and doesn't and, oh, who cares. It's not very interesting. Louis-Dreyfus overreacts well in the scene where she realizes the guy might miss his flight and frantically packs his bag with one of her brown sweaters ("IT'S BROOOWN"), and then over-acts kinda badly in her monologue to the gang about how she missed the plane.
Most interesting about this episode, I guess, is that Jerry barely does anything in it and the cast in general is starting to even out in terms of screentime. His status as aloof observer of the action is how I like Jerry best. I also like that George is freaked out about bringing Kramer along to the busboy's apartment seeing as he still barely knows the guy. Seinfeld actually does quite a good job in slowly making the four characters friends over the course of the first two seasons.
The busboy himself (Antonio, played by David Labiosa) looks like a he's from a gay porn version of West Side Story. George is squeamish around him, partly out of fear of his physique but with a good degree of white guilt mixed in, I think, which is only appropriate. It's not the last time Seinfeld will have an exaggerated ethnic minority character on the show, and it's not the last time the characters' guilt will override in their dealings with them.
Jerry's OK with buying mediocre cantaloupe. "Fruit's a gamble. I know that going in."
He's also baffled by the ownership, and re-reading, of books. "When you read Moby Dick a second time, Ahab and the whale become good friends!"
Probably the best line of "The Pony Remark" is Jerry's incredulous, "Who figures an immigrant's going to have a pony?!" followed by "Who leaves a country packed with ponies to come to a non-pony country?"
George keeps trying to like pesto (which I guess was exotic in the early 90s) and later refers to Seattle as "the pesto of cities." Take that, Frasier!
Elaine wants to kill her boyfriend. "Why are you so wacky?" Jerry asks.
Next week: Larry Charles' first episode! (All but one I've reviewed so far were written by David & Seinfeld). Lawrence Tierney! And one of the best episodes of all!