“The Package” (season 8, episode 5, originally aired 10/17/1996)
Here’s an episode that’s really famous just for an image—George, posing on Kramer’s fainting couch in his socks and underwear, a paragon of masculine beauty (if a little on the stout side). It’s a famous enough image that I decided to screencap it instead of Uncle Leo with crudely drawn magic-marker eyebrows, which, let’s be honest, is one of the best things to ever happen to that guy (it makes him look like an anime character). But even with George’s photo shoot, Leo’s eyebrows and a voice cameo from Phil Hartman (he’s the AMA guy who calls Elaine in the middle of the night), “The Package” is a pretty average episode.
Sure, it’s got crazy things happening and plots conflagrating, but it doesn’t feel quite right, a perfect example of the show’s tone being a little off as it adjusts to the loss of Larry David. Some of the coincidences are great—Jerry’s hi-fi troubles are documented by George, who’s snapping photos like crazy so he can see a photo-store girl as much as possible (there’s an occupation we won’t be seeing on sitcoms much in the future). Those photos get Jerry in trouble with the Postal Service (and Newman) when Kramer tries to get him a refund through mail fraud—it’s all good.
But Newman’s method of discovering the photos (he spies them through the store’s window) is ludicrous. The way Leo gets involved in the plot, picking up Jerry’s package from the delivery guy after Jerry refuses to open it, is also fairly insane. I don’t expect realism from Seinfeld, not in the least, but I do expect well-crafted ludicrousness, and this is not it.
Oh well. There’s a lot of individually funny stuff going on here, it’s just that the episode relies so much on its denouement, and the dovetailing just doesn’t totally work. Newman gets an epic moment of triumph, though, in a sweaty interrogation scene that may or may not be a very loose Basic Instinct parody and features a colleague of his acting as a human slide projector.
Along with Newman’s attempts to reveal Jerry’s evil (in the end, Jerry just has to pay a small fine) there’s a lot of scheming going on in this episode. Jerry’s pretty much the only one who stays out of it, even refusing his sketchy package the first time around. But Kramer’s both committing mail fraud and posing as his old character Dr. Van Nostrand in an attempt to fix Elaine’s medical records, which identify her as difficult. Plus, you’ve got George trying to play a long flirtation game with the photo girl who evidently likes him, but not enough to slip naked photos of her into his packet (another photo clerk is happy to, however).
The joke with George largely works because he’s not entirely delusional, but hobbles himself anyway. Elaine’s antics are also pretty true to her character, in which she professes herself normal and not irritating at all but also can’t help but pull at that dangling piece of string. The standout plot here, as I already mentioned, is how Leo gets pulled into everything—first the package, then Elaine’s quest for healthcare—and it leaves him with no eyebrows, a fucked-up back and doctors assuming he has a nasty demeanor because of his magic marker falsies. The comic tragedy of Leo’s character (and his adorable face) is something the writers understand better and better as the show goes on and this is one of the best examples.
“The Fatigues” (season 8, episode 6, originally aired 10/31/1996)
Where “The Package” is all about intricate plotting that doesn’t quite come off, “The Fatigues” is all about totally over-the-top stories and behavior, and it works a lot better. Seinfeld’s last seasons have their flaws, but if you embrace the more-ridiculous qualities the show emphasized, you find that very few shows in TV’s history did such absurdity better.
The best example, of course, is Frank’s backstory as the greatest cook the Korean War ever saw, ruined by his hubris as he tried to cook spoiled beef and ended up sending 16 of his men to the latrines, one with “a crater in his colon the size of a cutlet!” who had to sit on a cork for his flight home (lovely stuff). We get a remarkably silly flashback where Jerry Stiller, looking all of his 69 years of age at the time, is supposedly a 20something war chef watching his friends barf to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” (forever associated with scenes of wartime tragedy thanks to its use in Platoon).
It’s broad as hell, as is Frank’s yelling at Estelle about her cooking and his later meltdown at the Jewish singles mixer, but give Jerry Stiller some broad material and he’ll give you a solid gold nugget, no questions asked, and that’s what we get here. Much like Leo, there’s that kernel of something sympathetic and sad in what Frank is doing—I laugh a lot when he maniacally tries to slap the food out of everyone’s hands, but I also think it’s too bad that he’ll never accept what a good cook he is again.
Nothing else in the episode is quite as heightened but it comes pretty close. Jerry’s girlfriend has a mentor who Jerry thinks has terrible taste because she’s dating the execrably boring comic Kenny Bania, who we haven’t seen since “The Soup Nazi.” Jerry himself tries to take Kenny under his wing as his mentor, a plot that doesn’t work because Jerry hates Kenny, we know he hates Kenny, and he doesn’t have the kind of ego that would be massaged by having Kenny look up to him. Maybe if he was really trying to impress his girlfriend of the week, but there’s not much chemistry there, so no dice.
Elaine dealing with the nutty-looking, fatigue-wearing Eddie from the mail room is decent workplace sitcom stuff but comes off a little trite—who cares if she finishes her J. Peterman project? His reason for being in fatigues, that a girl never called him back, also doesn’t land—that he was never actually in a war feels too obvious a punchline.
The episode is largely enjoyable—I think its flaw is that it tries to build its plots around the “mentor” concept and that doesn’t really work because Jerry and George are too lazy to try to mentor anyone. To be fair, George is only doing it to get something out of it—he needs Abby to summarize risk management for him so he can give a presentation—but the idea of him taking her on is presented so abruptly, and dropped in so quickly near the end of the episode, it never takes flight.
On the other hand, if you like watching the four Seinfeld characters name Jewish foods over 22 minutes, which I certainly do, “The Fatigues” is the episode for you. Try the hamentaschen!
Kramer and Newman have a random conversation about the Bermuda Triangle and alien autopsies to begin “The Package.” It never comes up again, but I like seeing their dynamic when they’re together.
“I’m not difficult, I’m easy,” Elaine protests. “Why, because you dress casual and sleep with a lot of guys?” Jerry quips.
George thinks he’s more bombable than Jerry. “Who’s gonna bomb you?”
Newman’s business card reads simply: NEWMAN.
Jerry doesn’t like duck because the skin seems human.
Frank’s assessment of Estelle’s cooking: “Your meatlof is mushy, your salmon croquettes are oily and your eggplant parmesan is a disgrace to this house!”
“The Fatigues” has a moment that’s very rare in Seinfeld—George has a conversation with a non-main character (a blind guy on the subway) and it goes fine, without George being weird or offending the blind guy. Very unusual, and nice to see.