I’ve always considered recapping half-hour comedies a lot tougher than reviewing weightier shows, because as someone asked me recently, how do you keep it from just being a list of what was funny? In that regard Seinfeld seems like the toughest assignment of all, because it’s the world-famous “show about nothing.” It was Larry David who came up with that description for the show’s fourth-season arc, which riffed on the creation of Seinfeld. A show about nothing! All the characters do is talk about Superman, and cereal, and shirt buttons.
I think most Seinfeld fans know that description is pretty facile: it’s not really a show about nothing, it’s a show about next-to-nothing, minutiae, the weird subatomic crap we obsess about every day that makes up most of our routine. It’s also a show with season-long story arcs, with a million recurring characters, with countless callbacks and references to past episodes, a whole little universe that people still have instant recall for today. You could make a website of the Seinfeld universe to rival Lostpedia. All of that makes it prime fodder for recapping, I think.
On a more personal level, I’m beginning to wonder, as we recently passed twelfth-year anniversary of Seinfeld’s last episode airing, whether the show is becoming a cultural artifact, or if it remains as vital and relevant as it was when it was on the air. I grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan in the 80s and 90s, and watching Seinfeld for me has always been partially about getting a nostalgic whiff of that atmosphere. I moved to London in the mid-90s, where Seinfeld was shown on the BBC close to midnight and had the status of a weird, funny American cult show not unlike The Larry Sanders Show or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I live in New York again now, and Seinfeld’s still repeated constantly. It’s still even advertised in the subway, but I wonder if that’s just for everyone to keep getting that whiff of nostalgia, or whether it’ll keep picking up new viewers and sustain its reputation as one of the cornerstones of situational comedy, a show that went out when it still had some class, with an impact you can still pick up on in half the comedy shows on the air today.
I’m planning on running down the first three seasons this summer: from what I remember, the show was still finding its feet in the first two, which make up 18 episodes total, and began to pick up steam in its third. Some of the episodes are very clear in my mind, while others I don’t remember at all. I’ll be following the order laid out in the show’s DVDs, which follows production order rather than airing order in some cases, I think, especially early on.
“The Seinfeld Chronicles”
Most pilot episodes are a little weird. The sets are funny, everyone’s hair is different, characters usually seem more stilted as the actors settle in. But “The Seinfeld Chronicles” is really weird. It’s mostly because we have such a shorthand for what Seinfeld should look like – Monk’s, the bikes hanging on Jerry’s apartment wall, Kramer’s weird vintage clothes – because the show became so culturally pervasive.
But it’s not just that. In the pilot episode, supposedly denounced by test audiences for being too Jew-y and weirdly boring, but saved by NBC because producer Rick Ludwin saw a glimmer of greatness in the material, it feels like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David are throwing ideas against the wall and not quite everything is sticking yet.
The plot almost entirely revolves around scenes of just Jerry and George riffing on stuff, mostly about girls, which is pretty par for the course. Michael Richards plays a proto-Kramer called “Kessler” who wears a bathrobe and is more of an intense, bathrobed, psychotic shut-in than the manic go-getter he’d later become. Elaine isn’t in it at all – instead there’s tired old waitress Claire (Lee Garlington) who dispenses weary zingers and wise womanly advice to our heroes.
Claire, especially, feels like a sitcom crutch for the show, and the audience, to lean on. Because in “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” Jerry and George go to the laundromat and argue if you can “overdry” clothes. There’s a lot of arguing over whether an unseen girl is really that into Jerry, or if she’s stringing him along. But not so much happens, really. We’re distracted by inserts of Jerry’s standup routines, part of the core concept of the show originally that gradually faded out after a few years, but plot is pretty light on the ground.
As a show, one of Seinfeld’s main strengths is its deft, meticulous, complicated plots that dovetail elegantly by the end of the episodes, but it seems David & Seinfeld hadn’t gotten that quite down yet. So what you mostly pick up from “The Seinfeld Chronicles” is the general attitude and mood of what Seinfeld would become, but things are a little off. Jerry frets about whether the girl wants to sleep with him and mostly seems to rely on George’s advice; their relationship will change into one where Jerry is more confident and derisive of George, and a sexual Jedi when it comes to banging women.
Mostly, I wondered what the reaction must have been when this thing aired in July of 1989. It’s really kinda odd. The main set-piece is nebbishy guys debating the sexual relevance of handshakes from girls. It’s sort of incredible that this got 10.9 Nielsen rating (and that that was barely enough reason for NBC to order a miniscule four-episode first season). And yet I noted that the main conceit of the episode – Jerry’s girl turns out to be engaged, and he’s basically just letting her crash at his place so that she can hang in New York and drag him on a Circle Line boat tour (every New Yorker’s worst tourism nightmare) – is basically just the “sexless innkeeper” plot How I Met Your Mother did a year or two back. The building blocks are there, folks.
This is like, the only episode of Seinfeld ever not to have its title begin with the word “The.” Creepy. Immediately, everything feels a lot better. The music is right (unless you watched the syndication version of “The Seinfeld Chronicles.”) Jerry’s apartment establishing shot is correct, and Monk’s makes its first appearance. George’s hair has thinned, and he’s wearing a ridiculous fanny pack, which Jerry is appropriately disgusted by. Kramer has his first weird business venture (make-your-own-pizza places, revisited a few times in later seasons). And Elaine finally crops up, although just for a scene in the last five minutes.
Jerry’s problem in “Male Unbonding” is that he’s being pestered by an annoying childhood friend whom he can’t seem to make go away (played by Kevin Dunn, the first of hundreds of recognizable guest stars this show will have). Basically, it’s about Jerry being anti-social and weird about people, which makes much more sense than having him fret about whether a girl likes him or not. Jerry hates this guy Joel so much (he is kind of a boring, clingy jerk) that he gives up Knicks tickets just to stay away from him, but he has trouble “breaking up” with him.
Oh, man, it’s so funny when male friendships seem similar to female relationships, right? This feels like such well-worn territory now in the age of Judd Apatow movies and bromances, but maybe it was fresher in Seinfeld’s era. The show is easing us (or, more precisely, easing circa-1990 America) into the idea of a different kind of male lead: Jerry’s very persnickety and fussy. He doesn’t really take charge of situations so much as watch them happen and then bitch about them to his friends later.
In one of his standup routines, Jerry says men don’t converse about much outside of sports and chicks. “If there was no sports and no women all guys would say is, ‘What’s in the refrigerator?’” he kids. Am I right, guys? What a cut-up! But this episode, and the existence of Seinfeld, is really a contradiction of such a line. It’s mostly a show about guys obsessively discussing all kinds of weird shit. Chicks and sports, sure. But Jerry also has a line where he tells Joel they’ll go to the game on Wednesday, and Joel says, “tonight?” No, Jerry replies angrily. “Next Wednesday. If it was tonight, I would have said tonight.” That shit bugs me too, man.
It’s a pretty funny episode – my main criticism is just that at this point, Kramer isn’t integrated at all into the stories, rather he just comes by and dispenses weird dialog for a couple minutes. He’s a character that often gets mixed up in his own weird side-plots, but it’s like the show doesn’t quite know whether he’s worthy of his own stories yet. Of course, that’s soon to change.