“The Muffin Tops” (season 8, episode 21; originally aired 5/8/97)
This is a spoof-heavy episode. You’ve got Newman showing up in the tag as The Wolf from Pulp Fiction (which is a little out-of-date, since that movie was three years old by then, but whatever). You’ve got Jerry’s penchant for chest-shaving getting him to howl at the moon, in what’s apparently a nudge at Wolf, which also came out in 1994—come on, guys! Then, Kramer’s insistence that he’s the “real” Peterman leads him to run a bus tour and try to attain mini-celebrity, much like the real Kenny Kramer, who had his own tour and ran for mayor of New York City a couple times before people got sick of him.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing—Seinfeld has always been happy to indulge in some light spoofery, like the JFK bit in “The Boyfriend.” But the episode is so chockablock with references that the plot gets a little lost. A lot of it feels like justification for a slightly limp punchline—Jerry howling at the moon is especially silly, especially since it comes out of nowhere.
I think I actually referred to this as one of the season’s best episodes in an earlier review—it’s written by Spike Feresten, one of Seinfeld’s stronger writers in the later years, and it introduced the big muffin-top meme (according to Elaine, they’re the most delicious part). But I think I was just remembering the big jokes—Newman eating the muffin tops with his bottles of milk, George getting traded for alcoholic chicken.
George’s plot, which was ripped off by How I Met Your Mother years later, is a fun one. To date a woman who works for the tourist bureau (Rena Sofer, in a guest turn by another legendary showkiller—though she’s yet to shed that image like last week’s guest star, Lauren Graham), he pretends to be from Little Rock, and the side effects of his scheme turn out to be incredibly beneficial, at least until they’re not. Classic George stuff, except this scheme turns out to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back with the Yankees—Steinbrenner thinks he’s been moonlighting in Arkansas, and gets into a bidding war with the fictional Tyler Chicken over him. Given the general madness of George’s time at the organization, it’s a fitting end, and a smart one—he’s really at his best when he’s unemployed. The Yankee plots tended to be more farcical, less about George’s own deplorable inner self, and relied too much on Steinbrenner doing something illogical as a punchline. In that way, it’s really the perfect ending.
A plot I had mostly forgotten about but very much enjoyed was Kramer’s bus ride, which is a horrifying exercise that Jerry praises for realistically imitating the experience of being Kramer’s friend. It escalates nicely, too—first he’s just boring his clients with stories about Newman and ripping them off, but by the end he’s driving a vomit-filled bus filled with stale muffin stumps through the sticks, trying to convince various dumps to take his garbage. Maybe it’s just Jerry’s five o’ clock shadow, or maybe it’s his itching, but either way, he comes across as genuinely unsettled, which I liked (at least until the wolf howling).
Elaine’s love of muffin tops is a classic Seinfeld plot, in that you imagine the writers batting weird little observations around until they find something that makes them laugh, then they try to build a story around it. But really, there’s not too much of a story to Elaine’s plot here, and the episode doesn’t place a big burden on Mr. Lippman’s muffin-top store. The one gag is just that the muffin stump is somehow profoundly disgusting for people, which makes sense even though it’s so heightened. Feresten obviously didn’t know how to wrap the episode up, since Newman’s appearance really doesn’t resolve anything in a logical manner, but it’s a big laugh, so it works.
“The Summer Of George” (season 8, episode 22; originally aired 5/15/97)
This episode has such an exciting concept. The summer of George! Laid off by the Yankees, but with three months’ severance, he plans to do wild and crazy things, like read a whole book, cover to cover. I think I was hoping for some sort of sequel to “The Opposite,” where George realizes some profound truth about himself, but instead the gag is that he’s super-lazy and unemployment just gives him more opportunity to be super-lazy. That’s all right, but “The Summer Of George” is no classic.
The most interesting thing about the episode is that it functions as a spoof of “The Invitations,” down to the gang’s indifferent reaction to hearing that George may never walk again after he slips on some fancy, glossy invitations he bought as an attempt to compensate for his earlier mistake. But I think it doesn’t get things quite right. George’s accident is an elaborate setpiece that makes him out to be some comically unlucky man, which isn’t really the essence of George to me. His fuck-up in “The Invitations” speaks perfectly to George—here, not so much.
Plus, I think the gang’s reaction in the hospital is played a little too harsh. They do express a modicum of sympathy, or at least shock, in “The Invitations.” Here, it’s as if they didn’t hear what the doctor said. Now, you could make the argument that Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer would actually be more affected by something happening to Susan than something happening to George. I can buy that. But it still feels like the tone is a little too broad and obvious, like the whole of season eight. Still funny, but the same magic isn’t there.
Most of “The Summer Of George” is along those lines. Elaine gets in a “catfight” with Molly Shannon (then a couple years into her Saturday Night Live tenure), who plays a coworker who walks stiff-armed. She brings her usual amusing intensity to the role, but the plot is bogged down in everyone’s obsession with catfighting, and the only joke that really lands for me is Peterman mistakenly saying “woof” instead of growling like a cat.
The plot is oddly, if amusingly, linked to Kramer’s misadventures on Broadway, where he mistakenly gets awarded a Tony while serving as a seat-filler, then gets roughed up by Raquel Welch, who has the same stiff arms as Molly Shannon. Welch is an odd choice as a guest star, but she goes for it, and isn’t afraid to play herself as psychotic, a decision I applaud.
But the only other plot I really liked in “The Summer Of George” is Jerry’s baffling girlfriend Linette, played by a young and intense-looking Amanda Peet. Really, it’s just the first half of the plot I like, where she has a mysterious roommate/boyfriend who looks like Jesus crossed with the Brawny Man that Jerry just can’t figure out. Once that gets solved, though, we’re into something with Jerry and George trying to pool their minds so, together, they can actually be a good boyfriend. That’s not a bad idea either, but it comes late in the episode and the episode doesn’t have enough time to really play around with it, so it all feels a bit pointless.
I think some of you guys are bigger fans of season eight than I, and others like it even less—that’s cool. Seinfeld is still definitely a show I love watching, I think Elaine is at her funniest here, and the new tone isn’t necessarily bad—it’s just different. On to season nine, now, which probably has some of the most maligned episodes of the series, but also a couple of classics I can name off the top of my head. It also features some truly divisive half-hours like “The Merv Griffin Show,” an episode for which I’ve heard both passionate defense and dripping hatred. I’m gonna take my typical week off, then we’ll dive right in.
- That’s Melinda Clarke, later Julie Cooper on The O.C., as Jerry’s hairless-fetish girlfriend in “The Muffin Tops.”
- Curb Your Enthusiasm later did a bit about the troubles that watching someone’s bag can bring—I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not.
- I love Jerry’s off-camera reaction to Kramer bursting in on him in the bathroom. “Get out, get out! I don’t wanna live like this!”
- Jerry’s later description of a horse is pretty poetic—“jittery glassy-eyed dinosaur.”
- Rena Sofer’s character is kind of evil. She walks in on George, having been robbed of his clothes, thinks he’s still a tourist and just chides him that she knew the city would eat him alive. What kind of tourist-board employee is she!
- George’s rent, $2,300 for a one-bedroom on the Upper West Side in 1997, does seem a bit steep.
- “This truly has been a Scarsdale Surprise!”
- Neil Flynn, later of Scrubs and The Middle makes a blink-and-you’d-miss-him appearance as a cop in “The Summer Of George.”