“The Abstinence” (season 8, episode 9; originally aired 11/21/96)
Consider this episode a quasi-sequel to “The Opposite,” but with a less pure premise and thus, diminishing returns. It’s not a bad episode, but because it’s about George becoming smarter and Elaine getting dumber at the same time, the comparison must be drawn. The reason “The Opposite” is one of Seinfeld’s best-ever episodes is that it has such a pure concept—if George starts to do well, Elaine must suffer, with Jerry in the middle of their cosmic see-saw relationship. But here, because George stops having sex with his girlfriend (she is diagnosed with mono), he starts to get smarter, learning Portuguese and demonstrating science experiments. This is because the majority of his brain previously obsessed with sex is now diverted to other pursuits, Jerry thinks.
Meanwhile, Elaine follows his example and deprives her med-student boyfriend played by Bob Odenkirk (this aired right around the second season of Mr. Show) so that he can pass his licensing exam and she can be officially dating a doctor. But this lack of sex turns Elaine into a babbling idiot, because, as Jerry posits, the “garbage bags” in her brain are no longer being hauled away. George’s transformation is a little more logical than this one (to the extent that any of this is “logical”) but Julia Louis-Dreyfus has more fun with it—her gazing in glee at the revolving tires at a garage is one of the highlights of the episode.
Jason Alexander sells his new-found smarts well, but the dazzling explosion of intellect is more fun when its subtle, like when he’s automatically answering Jeopardy! questions without even thinking about it to Jerry’s astonishment. Other stuff, like his newfound skill at hitting home runs, doesn’t really gel with the concept—he’s supposed to be judging shit mathematically, I guess, but it still seems off. It’s an excuse to get a very young Derek Jeter and slightly less young Bernie Williams to make a guest appearance though, so that George can mock their World Series victory (“Yeah. In six games,” he scoffs).
Of course, George eventually succumbs to temptation—given the chance to bed a Portuguese waitress at Monk’s, he takes it, calculating that the odds of such a thing ever happening were infinitesimal. Even better, he goes all the way to Jerry’s junior high school to tell him of his sexual triumph, and to put test tubes on his head like an idiot. George’s stupidity here seems more cartoonish than usual, but I can’t deny laughing at the sight of him acting the fool.
Apart from this fairly thin concept, the episode is largely plotless. Jerry’s storyline about being bumped from career day by a monitor lizard and a fire drill is routine stuff; his manic agent played by Debra Jo Rupp returns, but to little effect. Kramer’s smoking subplot (his face gets fucked up by him hosting a smoking club) feels very warmed-over, and although things perk up with the arrival of Jackie Chiles, they’re resolved all-to-quickly by Kramer getting to be The Marlboro Man, which feels forced. Yes, Jackie must always regret taking on Kramer’s latest crazy case, but there should be more buildup. Still, his conversation with the cigarette executive is brilliant. “I feel Mr. Kramer projects a rugged masculinity.” “Rugged? The man is a goblin.”
“The Andrea Doria” (season 8, episode 10; originally aired 12/19/1996)
In these later seasons, Spike Feresten definitely became one of the show’s most reliable writers—his season eight scripts are “The Little Kicks,” “The Muffin Tops” (later in the year) are two of the season’s best, I think. “The Andrea Doria” isn’t quite at that level, but it’s a pretty good time. Much like “The Chicken Roaster,” it’s very wacky, but it nails the madcap tone way better so it doesn’t feel as jarring even as Kramer is running around like a dog or Jerry is delivering mail in Newman’s (rookie) postal uniform.
The Kramer storyline is probably the stupidest, and the least successful, not that Michael Richards doesn’t give it his all. But at this point it feels like he’s being handed big physical humor because that’s what’s expected of him, whereas the real genius of Kramer has always been that he can find physical humor in the strangest places, even a simple dialogue scene with Jerry. The simple act of him retrieving milk from a fridge can be hysterical—we don’t need him on all fours because he’s taking dog medication.
Jerry’s plot with Newman comes out of nowhere in the second half of the episode and then suddenly begins to dominate, but it’s a welcome one, and it makes sense in terms of their dynamic. On hearing the news that he might be able to get the eternally lazy Newman a transfer to Hawaii, Jerry resolves to deliver eight bags of mail on his behalf but screws things up by being too good at the job. Simple stuff, but I like the image of Jerry cheerfully delivering mail as if he was born to do it. Just as good is Newman quickly realizes it’s not as impossible as it seems. “You can’t deliver mail!” “Why not?” “I guess you’re right, it’s just walking around and putting it into boxes.”
The good stuff here, though, is Elaine’s encounter with a man who is constantly attacked by women with whom he broke up poorly, and George’s efforts to hijack an apartment from a survivor of a more-obscure shipwreck who has impressed the tenant association with his sad story. Elaine’s thing is a beautiful slow burn—she laughs off the breakup insult from Alan (Tom Gallop, who you know best from CSI or Will & Grace) of “bighead,” but slowly it begins to claw at her mind until she’s compelled to take him down with a fork to the head. Louis-Dreyfus plays it well—she’s genuinely unperturbed by the insult at first, but incidents involving her head become more and more surreal until a bird flies into her and is struck dead, as if she’s a skyscraper.
George’s apartment battle is typical George stuff, but when you’re talking about a classic character like George, “typical stuff” is usually pretty golden. I love his dismissive attitude to the Andrea Doria disaster, where 51 people died. “How many people do you lose on a normal cruise, 30, 40?” He eventually resolves to win the apartment by telling a clip show’s worth of embarrassing stories from his life, and while he seems to prevail, Alan eventually steals the place from under him in an unnecessary twist that tries and fails to tie everything together when it doesn’t need to. But George’s war against a shipwreck survivor? That I can watch anytime.
Jerry’s junior high school is actually Edward R. Murrow High in Midwood, Brooklyn, which counts a lot of my friends and Seinfeld guest star Marisa Tomei among its alumni.
The “cold opens” of the shows really bug me—they’re almost always disconnected from the plot which seems just so wrong. Jerry’s monologues were a much better way of doing business, even if they were just at the start of the show.
Kyle Gass of Tenacious D makes a brief appearance in “The Abstinence” as a fellow smoker kicked out of Monk’s.
Brenda Strong also comes back as the bra-less Sue Ellen just to humiliate Elaine with her doctor boyfriend.
Jerry is tempted by Elaine’s offer of sex if he can read the paper throughout, but eventually declines.
“Never seen that before. Bird into a woman’s head.”
I forgot to mention the whole Lassie spoof at the end of “The Andrea Doria,” which is bonkers but just about works.