Friday, February 3, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 2, Episode 5 - The Apartment

“The Apartment”

First Script Read: Wed, Jan 9, 1991
Filmed: Tuesday, January 15
Aired: April 4, 1991
Nielsen rating: 16.9 (First time being aired after Cheers since season 1)
Audience share: 28
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Peter Mehlman

In these early seasons Elaine occupies a different position in the quartet than she would come to hold in the series. From her first appearance in "The Stake Out" to this episode, the relationship between Elaine and Jerry (and thus, between Elaine and George) is undermined by the fact that they used to date. Though they vow at the end of "The Stake Out" to freely discuss their relationships with each other, Jerry's discomfort with the idea of Elaine moving into the apartment right above him stems from the same anxiety.

JERRY: She's right in my building! Right above me! Every time I come in the building, I'm gonna have to sneak around like a cat burglar.
GEORGE: You're doomed. You're gonna have to have all your sex at women's apartments. It'll be like a permanent road trip. Forget about the home bed advantage.
JERRY: But I need the home bed advantage!
GEORGE: Of course, we all do.
Towards the end of the episode the same problem occurs to Elaine. "I was worried," she says to Jerry, "that there might be a situation in which one of us come home with somebody, it could get a little uncomfortable." No other reason is given for Jerry's resistance to Elaine moving into the building. He is merely uncomfortable with the idea of having sex with a current girlfriend when his ex-girlfriend is his upstairs neighbor. As he more vaguely explains to Kramer, "I sometimes feel awkward, uncomfortable, even inhibited in certain situations with the other human beings."

My theory is that over the course of the series Elaine gains a more intimate relationship with Jerry and the others by becoming more masculine. Not biologically. Not in her appearance. Not sexually. Her female-ness is an important piece of the show; in most ways, she never loses her femininity. But in the way she talks about sex with the other characters, Elaine comes more and more to share their masculine perspective of the world. That is, a Jerry and George masculine perspective of the world. (Jerry is no Sam Malone. He's no Rocky. He's no Indiana Jones. Etc.) Sex is the main object in dating, not the relationship itself (she keeps going back to David Puddy) nor having children (she must have her sponges!). (I'm talking about stereotypes here, by the way.) Can you imagine the Elaine of the later seasons caring for a second if she lived upstairs from Jerry and knew he was having sex? Other than "The Mango," the season five premiere, the show refused to bring Elaine and Jerry together. Any romantic pains Elaine has for Jerry fade away after season two.

I also think this transformation in Elaine takes place as the male writers of the show gradually shift in their understanding of who the character, Elaine, is. For lack of a less-loaded term, she is somewhat objectified in these early seasons. Gradually, the fact that she was a sexual conquest of Jerry stops being so important to her character. What is important is that Jerry, George, and Kramer find they can talk frankly about all subjects, including sex, in front of Elaine, and vice versa. This opens the door for her to become more of a subject in the show, a woman who is just one of the guys.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 2, Episode 4 - The Phone Message

“The Phone Message”

First Script Read: Friday, December 14 (later than usual as the script read on Wednesday was “The Bet,” an abandoned episode written by Larry Charles)
Filmed: December 19, 1990
Aired: February 13, 1991
Nielsen rating: 9.7
Audience share: 15 (Lower rating led Seinfeld to be put on hiatus until April 4, when it was brought back once more as a companion to Cheers)
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

This episode begins with Jerry and George on simultaneous dates. At the end of the night, both are in their respective cars with their respective dates. Both dates seem to be going well before their respective personalities cause problems.

George's date unravels in a moment of stupidity. He takes Carol's proposition that he come up for coffee literally, declining the offer. Carol confusedly says goodnight, leaving a few moments before George recognizes the signal he missed. The next day he calls Carol and, as his social neuroses take over, leaves a dreadfully awkward message on her answering machine. When Carol doesn't call him back, he leaves increasingly angry messages for her four days in a row, not knowing that she has been in the Hamptons all week and didn't have access to her answering machine. He enlists Jerry's aid in a hilarious yet successful operation to switch out the tape, before discovering Carol thought the whole thing was one big joke.

Jerry, on the other hand, is much more suave and confident around women. In the beginning of the episode, his date is going very well. Donna tells him that since her apartment is being painted, they could go to Jerry's place. Jerry agrees, cracking, "Okay, but there’s no cake or anything if that’s what you’re looking for." Back at his place, Donna snuggles close until Jerry brings up a Docker's pants commercial that he hates. When Donna admits to loving the commercial, Jerry complains about it so much that they get into a fight. The following week they seem to have smoothed over this argument, until George and Kramer arrive and, one after the other, comment on the Docker's commercial, indicating to Donna that Jerry has been talking about her affinity for the ad behind her back. She leaves in a huff.

The simultaneous dates scene is an interesting juxtaposition of Jerry and George. George regales Carol with his thoughts on underwear, which even he seems to be surprised to discover she finds interesting. Jerry, meanwhile, is demonstrating his Scottish accent for Donna, playfully encouraging her to give it a try.

Ironically, while Jerry's relationship ultimately fails because of his own peculiar preoccupations - in this case, a hatred of an advertisement - George's succeeds despite his own flaws. In fact, he seems to have met a woman that thinks his flaws are hilarious. Well, Carol presumes his flaws are hilarious. She doesn't know him well enough, yet, to understand that he really is fairly insane. Maybe it is not surprising that Carol and George are never seen together again, even if she did find his discussion on underwear intriguing.

There is more to George's problems with women than Jerry's issues. Jerry is just incredibly and irredeemably picky. George lacks Jerry's confidence, and knows it. He also perceives a million other weaknesses, and this over-awareness cripples him. So the flaws of both characters are largely in place even at this early point in the series.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 2, Episode 11 - The Chinese Restaurant

“The Chinese Restaurant”

First Script Read: December 5, 1990
Filmed: Tuesday, December 11, 1990
Aired: May 23, 1991
Nielsen rating: 11.7
Audience share: 21
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

This is it - the episode that gave "the show about nothing" its nickname. Larry David, you see, was devising real-time stories for prime-time network television long before Jack Bauer was screaming, "WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?" in the halls of CTU.

The stories within the episode are utterly banal. Elaine, Jerry, and George are stopping in for a quick bite before heading off to see Plan 9 from Outer Space, "the worst movie ever made," as Jerry declares. George needs to use the public phone to call his girlfriend. Jerry recognizes a woman in the restaurant, but can't remember how he knows her. Elaine is just very, very hungry. 

Confronted with this script, NBC executive Warren Littlefield was not pleased. "Nothing happens!" he recalls saying. "Am I missing pages?" David threatened to leave the show if NBC demanded alterations to the script. To the network's credit, despite their displeasure, they remained hands-off with the still-not-a-hit, young sitcom and ran the episode, although they did push it back in the schedule to late spring. 

The actors, however, recognized its brilliance. Michael Richards was devastated that Kramer had no part in something he knew was important. (At that time, the character was still only seen in the apartment, although he clearly had left the building for a variety of reasons - to buy fruit or to pick up doves.) Julia Louis-Dreyfus "adored" the script. Jason Alexander thought the episode "defined the anarchy" that would typify the show.

Watching it now, with an awareness of its place in television history, is like gazing at a Van Gogh. It still mostly holds up because of its mixture of the relatable (Elaine's desperate hunger) and the absurd (the restaurant manager pronouncing "Costanza" as "Cartwright). Though it is all set in one small space, the episode doesn't feel static. The writing pops from character to character as George waits for the phone, Jerry stares at the familiar-looking woman, and Elaine moans for food.

Relatability is one of the defining qualities of Seinfeld. The movement from the relatable to absurd anarchy is the basic plot structure that the show would come to adopt in later seasons. This episode, however, peters out. The trio gives up and leaves the restaurant, moments before the manager calls, "Seinfeld, four?" The characters had left, but the show had arrived.

SEINFELD - Season 2, Episode 3 - The Jacket

“The Jacket”

First Script Read: November 28, 1990, 10am
Filmed: Dec 4, 1990 (Car scene prerecorded on Dec 3)
Aired: February 6, 1991
Nielsen rating: 10.4
Audience share: 16
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

More than ever, but not for the first time (See 1:1 and especially 2:2), much of the humor of this episode stems from an encounter with an older generation. This time it is Elaine's father, Alton Benes, who occupies the role of the older generation. Elaine is anxious about her dinner date with her father, explaining vaguely that she'd like Jerry to come along as a buffer because she hasn't seen her father in a while. Jerry is also anxious about the idea; we learn in the opening scene that Alton is a famous author, and this intimidates Jerry. "He's such a great writer. Frankly I prefer the company of nitwits." We might guess from this that the tension is going to be based on educational, not generational, differences.

Alton , played memorably by Lawrence Tierney, turns out to be RIDICULOUSLY intimidating. Jerry and George, forced to wait almost an hour when Elaine is delayed doing a "solid" for Kramer, are scared speechless. But it is not Alton's intellectual prowess that overwhelms them, but rather his personality. He clashes with Jerry and George because he is from a different generation. He reminisces about his experience in the Korean War. He rants about how the U.S. should have overthrown Castro long ago, manipulating a coup just as they had in Guatemala in 1954. This is a hardened caricature of a Greatest Generation man (though admittedly he never mentions the Depression or World War II). In comparison, Jerry and George appear soft. They order a cranberry juice with two limes and a club soda with no ice. Alton orders "another scotch with plenty uh ice!" Age, rather than mental ability, is firmly underscored as the key comedic theme by Jerry's mid-episode stand-up bit, where he declares, "All fathers are intimidating."

There is, in fact, very little about Alton that identifies him as any sort of intellectual. Other than a dismissive comment when George compliments him on one of his books, there is nothing to even suggest he is a famous novelist. He might have more aptly been cast as a retired blue-collar worker. In this way, the writing of this episode doesn't make sense, but the humor is no worse off for it.

Ultimately, Jerry and George and thus their entire generation are emasculated in relation to Alton's assuredness. Throughout the episode, George has been trying to get the Les Miserables song, "Master of the House," out of his head. It is finally shocked out when Alton overhears him humming and cries, "Pipe down, chorus boy!" Elaine later reports that her father thought George was gay, although apparently, "he pretty much thinks everyone is gay." Jerry, too, is caught in an unmanly moment when he tries to turn his brand-new suede jacket inside-out to protect it from the snow. The lining is bright pink and white stripes, and Alton demands he turn it back right-side-out. He won't have his daughter seen with someone wearing a pink and white striped jacket! Jerry has no choice but to relent and his jacket is ruined.

What does all this mean? It is interesting to me both for what divides people in the world of Seinfeld and what doesn't divide people. Age divides, perhaps more than any other recurring theme. Money is touched on in a few episodes, but much less than age. While Jerry plays a very successful comedian, his portrayed standard of living is rarely far beyond that of his friends who occupy various white collar jobs. Even the apparently jobless Kramer mostly keeps up with his neighbor's lifestyle. Intellect is touched on as a dividing force only when it plays a part in success, and success is slightly different from money in Seinfeld; think of George's parents' affinity for Lloyd Braun later in the series. Gender does divide people, though Elaine very often transcends this difference. Age is the biggest difference-maker, I think. I'm sure this is not the last time in this space I will muse extensively about the role of age-difference in Seinfeld.