"The Stake Out"
This episode is probably best remembered as a Seinfeld footnote, for two reasons - it has a different actor playing Jerry's dad, and it introduces Art Vandelay, George's aspirational go-to pseudonym/alter ego, probably the first legendary recurring gag of the series. "The Stake Out" was also the first Seinfeld episode to get nominated for any awards (an Emmy for editing, and a Writer's Guild award), but it's deeply apparent that Larry David and Seinfeld are still finding the show's voice by this point.
"The Stake Out" was aired out of sequence because it gives Elaine more backstory, filling us in on her and Jerry being a couple, for a long enough time that she met his retired-in-Florida parents, who didn't work out because they argued/lacked physical chemistry. That's what Jerry tells us in a heart-to-heart with his parents that felt very off. Part of the reason is that Phil Bruns, in his only appearance as Morty Seinfeld, takes a much softer touch than Barney Martin, who replaced him from the second season onwards.
Jerry's parents will become brilliant characters, and Liz Sheridan as his mother Helen is already most of the way there, perfectly embodying that overbearingly nice Jewish mother archetype that Larry David is shooting for. But replacing Bruns feels like it was the right move -- he's too sedate in the role, endlessly polishing a shoe in one scene and barely getting in on the action.
Jerry opening up to his parents about what didn't work with Elaine, even though he feels awkward doing it, errs too close to icky, human drama for Seinfeld. Most of Jerry's problem in this episode is manners-based, which is what the show does well: he goes with Elaine to a party, wants to hit on another girl, but feels restrained because his ex is next to him. So he stakes her office building out (his dad's idea) with George (to meet Mr. Vandelay) and it works, but Elaine finds out and is peeved.
Jerry and Elaine's reconciliation on the issue basically puts it to bed for the rest of the show (although there are a few more episodes that touch on their chemistry again) but I would have preferred their time as a couple to remain mysterious, only hinted at with little innuendos. Their little heart-to-heart at the end of the episode doesn't really work: for one, Seinfeld's still evolving as an actor, and some of his line readings are a little stilted, but for two, it just seems to wrap things up in too neat a bow, coming close to breaking the "no lessons, no hugging" rule David apparently set for the show.
One other word on Art Vandelay: what does the name evoke for you? I imagine a guy out of an Ayn Rand novel, in some big art-deco office building, importing and exporting things like the master of the universe he is.
This is the only first season episode written by anyone other than David & Seinfeld: Matt Goldman, who would only write one other episode ("The Stranded," in season 3), gets the credit for this one. Hard to know how many other writers were even in the room at this point, considering how tiny the episode order was.
It centers around the tribulations of apartment-hunting and the horse-trading between friends that many a New Yorker, then and now, knows all too well. I was desperate to know how much the episode's dream apartment, on West 83rd off Central Park West, was going for, so that I could conjure up the dream life I could live in the city in the early 90s on my salary.
In "The Robbery," after doing four shows in Minneapolis and getting robbed while Elaine is house-sitting for him, Jerry considers moving a nicer two-bedroom in his neighborhood, one that George secretly covets. Elaine then begins planning to take Jerry (or George's) apartment as a step up from her current situation, with unseen waitress/actress roommate Tina (who we'll meet later on in the series).
The episode isn't bad, but it isn't too interesting either. It has a lot of drawn-out scenes, like George and Jerry's weird "choosing" game where they shoot out fingers at each other, that are pretty funny and have a good closing gag, but feel a little like padding. It's the first in which Kramer affects the plot in any real way, by accidentally leaving Jerry's door open to prompt the robbery, but halfway through he storms off to confront an "Englishman" living in the building who he suspects of the crime, and is never seen again. According to the DVD, this was originally resolved in the first draft, but its exclusion in the episode proper makes Kramer's scenes fall a little flat.
I identified with Elaine's behavior of overtly "selling" the new apartment to Jerry as he thinks about taking it - we've all done that, maybe not all for apartments. And the rigorous hierarchy of apartment-renting, where Jerry is unworthy of his current one-bedroom but Elaine aspires to it, is also well-played and totally true to life. But "The Robbery" is just okay. We're not quite up to speed yet. But the chemistry between the actors is starting to settle in.
"The Stock Tip"
The big "season finale" of Seinfeld season one is still pretty low-key, although it does involve an (off-screen) breakup and Jerry and George put $7,500 on the line. It drew a 13.5 Nielsen rating and had 24 percent of all televisions in America tuned in, which was just enough to get a 13-episode second season order. These days, of course, those ratings would make any show just about the biggest thing on TV, but times change.
Vanessa, the girlfriend from "The Stake Out," returns to go to a Vermont bed-and-breakfast with Jerry and be very secretive about her perfume. It gets rarer and rarer to have Jerry date the same girl twice in non-concurrent episodes, but as "The Stake Out" was about him pursuing and attaining her, they couldn't exactly fit a breakup in.
George encourages Jerry to go in with him on a stock recommended by the mysterious Wilkinson, involving new methods of broadcasting opera. As Jerry invests and the stock plunges, Kramer is oddly joyous, perhaps because he's mad Jerry never invested in any of his wacky inventions. Whatever the reason, the scenes are funny - Kramer's non-specific glee and Jerry's passive frustration at it are both different tones for the characters, and it's fun to see the show play with the archetypes they've already set up.
Later on, after Jerry has cashed out with a loss but George hangs on to make a profit, George's incongruous happiness (replete with cigar, suit, and him daintily picking up the check) is equally amusing. But script-wise, it's again apparent that David and Seinfeld are pretty new to the concept of actually sketching out coherent plots. Maybe it's just that the show's budget was low, but the amount of characters (Elaine's beau, Wilkinson, George's friend Simon) who are discussed but never appear is confusingly high. The whole thing kinda just moves along until it isn't moving along anymore.
It's not unfunny, and there's some choice dialog, like Jerry and George having the first of many Superman conversations about whether he has super-humor powers. But it is incredible that the show managed to stay on the air on the strength of its first season. Seinfeld makes me laugh a lot, but I was rarely laughing out loud for any of these five episodes.
I will start including a few quotes from the next review on, when things start to get good.
Next week: time for season 2! The introduction of Uncle Leo! Lawrence Tierney freaks everyone out!