Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Hiatus until July 9

I will be on vacation until July. Posts will resume at that time. Thanks for reading!

SEINFELD - Season 5, Episode 8 - The Barber

“The Barber”

First Script Read: October 9, 1993
Filmed: Wednesday, October 13, 1993
Aired: 9:00pm, November 11, 1993
Nielsen rating: 19.3
Audience share: 29
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Andy Robin

In the last episode, "The Non-Fat Yogurt," a proposal for all New Yorkers to wear name tags is dismissed as preposterous and futile in its intention of making New York City a friendlier place where everyone knows each other. In "The Barber," a more powerful force heals a rift between characters. Two barbers, Uncle Enzo and his nephew, Gino, fight over Jerry's hair as a husband might fight a man having an affair with his wife. Their fight is interrupted by their shared passion for the film Edward Scissorhands. The power of mass culture brings them together.

Jerry, needing a good haircut to participate in a charity bachelor auction that Elaine is running, tries to avoid Enzo, his usual barber, because he gives bad haircuts. He goes to the barbershop on Enzo's day off, only to run into Enzo who immediately offers to cut the hair of his favorite, most loyal customer. Jerry relents and his head is butchered. At Kramer's urging, Jerry sets up a discrete meeting at Gino's apartment so the nephew can repair the damage his uncle inflicted. Gino has only just begun to work on Jerry's hair when they are interrupted by Enzo. Uncle Enzo has finally gotten around to watching Edward Scissorhands. He once berated his nephew for raving about the film, arguing it made no sense for a man to have scissors for hands. But now he has finally seen the film, and he loved it. Johnny Depp's performance in the leading role moved him to tears, and so Enzo apologizes for ever bad mouthing Gino's favorite film.

While he is there he notices hair on the floor. He recognizes it and eventually, with Newman's help, tracks it back to Jerry's head. Furious at the betrayal, he confronts Gino in Jerry's apartment. "I'm going to kill the both of you!" he cries, but before he can lay hands on his nephew, he notices Edward Scissorhands on Jerry's television. He and Gino are suddenly captivated by the TV. Their fight is gone from their minds. Later, the episode will cut back to the apartment to find the two barbers sobbing next to each other on the sofa.

Popular culture has done its work. The two are able to bond over their shared experience of viewing the film. Though Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands is a wild fantasy, the two barbers find they can relate in a deeper way to the main character's special talents; Edward is really good with his scissor hands, as good as Enzo and Gino can only dream of being with their tools. It's not only that the two barbers escape reality through fantasy. Their emotions are genuine, and having shared an experience of being moved to the soul, how can they return to their petty dispute?
George's story is unrelated to the two barbers. He had a good job interview, but it was interrupted by a phone call. The interviewer, Mr. Tuttle, was cut off ambiguously mid sentence as he said, "I want you to have this job. Of course..." George boldly decides to assume he has the job and just show up for work on Monday. The plan initially works. Mr. Tuttle is away, and the other workers help him get settled in. However, George is out of his element. He has no idea what he is supposed to be doing, so he spends the week doing nothing more than transfer the Pensky file he has been assigned into an accordion-style folder. In a flashback he narrates to his friends, he is shown making a toast at a new co-worker's birthday party. A few other co-workers exchange glances, wondering why the new guy would be so comfortable to make a toast. George's plan to ensconce himself at the new job backfires because he doesn't embed himself in the community. He should have talked about popular culture with his co-workers! They might not have been Edward Scissorhands fans, but I'm sure he could find something in common with them to talk about around the water cooler. 

Tuttle returns and discovers George hasn't done any work all week. George saunters out, confident he can get a job with Pensky, who was impressed in his brief meeting with George. Unfortunately, Pensky was also cut-off mid-sentence in his first visit with George. His ambiguous, "You are aware..." was headed to "...our Board of Directors has been indicted, myself included, and we're prohibited from doing business until the investigation is completed. So obviously, we would have no use for you."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 5, Episode 7 - The Non-Fat Yogurt

“The Non-Fat Yogurt”

First Script Read: October 20, 1993
Filmed: Monday-Tuesday, October 25-26, 1993
Aired: 9:00pm, November 4, 1993
Nielsen rating: 20.2
Audience share: 31
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David

This wonderfully fun episode fixed the Seinfeld universe tightly to the real world thanks to its tie-in to the New York City mayoral election, which took place two days before this episode aired. Every storyline ties in to the election. Lloyd Braun, an old neighbor of George's from when he was growing up in his parent's house (where he now lives again), is working on the election campaign for incumbent Mayor David Dinkins. George lies to Braun about his arm being injured, and Braun puts George in touch with Dinkins' doctor, who calls George a faker. 

Meanwhile, Jerry and Elaine are packing on pounds and they don't know why. Kramer insists the frozen yogurt they are all feasting on is as fat free as it claims. Attempting to influence the lab technician who is testing the yogurt, Kramer woos her into a romantic encounter at the lab. This inadvertently causes a contamination to Rudolph Giuliani's blood sample, leading to an extremely high cholesterol measurement for the Mayoral candidate. Jerry calls the Giuliani campaign to tell them their candidate's yogurt eating habit isn't as healthy as it seems. An appearance by Giuliani himself, filmed the day before the episode aired and the day after Giuliani won the election, further heightens the realism.

The yogurt is a big campaign issue, but the election might have turned on Elaine's suggestion to Braun that people in New York City should all wear name tags. Braun passes on the idea to Dinkins, who makes it an item in his campaign platform. The idea is immediately ridiculed and Braun is fired in disgrace. Elaine's idea, pitched to Braun, is quaint and romantic:

ELAINE: You know what I would do if I was running for mayor? One of my campaign themes would be that everybody should wear name tags all the time to make the city friendlier.
LLOYD: Name tags, hmm?
ELAINE: Well, everybody would know everybody. It would be like a small town.

Elaine's vision for a friendly, small town, is brought about merely through everyone knowing each others' names. In her mind, if you know a person's name, you know the person, or at least the door is opened to knowing more about the person. Frank Costanza agrees:

GEORGE: Name tags! Name tags! What kind of an idiot thinks anybody would be interested in an idea like that?
FRANK: I don't think it's so bad. People should wear name tags. Everyone would be a lot friendlier. "Hello, Sam." "How are you doing, Joe?"

Frank is thinking along the same line as Elaine. The knowledge of a person's name leads to conversation. However, the conversation remains fairly shallow in Frank's example. Perhaps that is all Elaine and Frank want - a city, not exactly like a small town where everyone truly knows everyone, but an echo of a small town where people might pretend they know each other, creating a comfort that is false at its core.

Along with George, Jerry and Kramer find the idea preposterous. Jerry points out that, in practice, knowing everyone's name in New York City would not make it feel much friendlier:

KRAMER: Oh, did you hear about that Dinkins?
ELAINE: No. What about him?
KRAMER: You didn't hear?
ELAINE: Un-uh.
KRAMER: He's proposing a plan where everyone in the city should wear name tags.
JERRY: Name tags?
KRAMER: Yeah! So people can go around saying "hello" to one another!
JERRY: Oh, I see. So you can go, "Hey, you know who I saw wilding today? Herb!" 
KRAMER: He's become a laughing stock! You know, The Times has already stated it could cost him the election? Name tags!

Jerry comes up with one of the darkest hypotheticals he might imagine. "Wilding" was the activity of groups of young men assaulting and sometimes raping strangers. The most famous case was the Central Park Jogger case of 1989, in which a woman was raped and nearly died. It's not surprising that Jerry would hate the idea. In the following season's episode, "The Kiss Hello," Jerry would object to having his photo and his name made public to even the neighbors in his building. His criticism is not self-concerned but rather expresses a larger cynicism about the city. He implies the question, why should Dinkins focus on name tags when there are far more serious problems to fix? Also, he suggests there are a lot of people in the city he would not like to know.

By this point in season five, Seinfeld was comfortably replacing the legendary Cheers, which had departed from NBC's Thursday night schedule after the previous season. Cheers depicted a haven in a city that was a lot like a small town where people from different backgrounds and social statuses could be friends and everybody knew your name. Seinfeld rejects this vision. The place where the characters do hangout, Monk's, is often a site of conflict. They rarely see people who they know in the restaurant, and it is even more uncommon for them to be happy to run into someone they know. Jerry's apartment is, like the bar in Cheers, a haven where the characters can plot and commiserate over how they will overcome the complications of the outside world. However, it is a private space, and this quartet is a much more private bunch than the gang in Cheers. Other than Mulva/Delores, these characters don't want to know anybody's name. Name tags could work in a small town or in a city bar, but they are ridiculous in Seinfeld's New York City.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 5, Episode 6 - The Lip Reader

“The Lip Reader”

First Script Read: September 29, 1993
Filmed: Monday-Tuesday, October 4-5, 1993
Aired: 9:00pm, October 28, 1993
Nielsen rating: 20.4
Audience share: 31
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Carol Leifer (This is the first show of several written by Leifer, who worked on Seinfeld through season seven.)
Awards: Marlee Matlin nominated for Emmy for Outstanding Guest Star in a Comedy Series

Some of the comedy I find most brilliant are the jokes that take on stereotypes, political correctness, and other assumptions about etiquette. Great comedy can blast through these social artifices like the Hulk sprinting through a China shop. Standup comics have been doing this since Richard Pryor and George Carlin, but Larry David was the first to master this kind of cultural critiquing comedy using the medium of television. That he managed it on a network sitcom that became the most popular of its time is even more impressive. David didn't write this episode - his friend and ex-girlfriend Carol Leifer wrote it in her brilliant Seinfeld debut - but his fingerprints are all over it. This could easily be a plot of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Jerry meets and begins dating Laura, a deaf woman who can read lips. George, who has just broken up with his girlfriend, recruits Laura to read his ex's lips at a party they are all attending. Meanwhile, Elaine takes her company's car service and, to avoid talking to the driver, pretends to be deaf. It works until the driver catches her hearing.

The more I think about it, the more I recognize how crucial Marlee Matlin's performance as Laura is to the success of the satire. She plays the character with such self-confidence and empowerment, it's easy to forget that social etiquette implies her deafness should be cause for pity. In a hilarious scene, Jerry and George, out to dinner with Laura, go to great lengths to guard their mouths in natural ways, raising a glass to their face or rubbing their eyes so Laura doesn't know they are talking about her. George, of course, lacks the shame he should be expected to feel about using Laura's skill for his own selfish interests. Jerry is more hesitant, saying, "She's not a novelty act, George, where you hire her out for weddings and bar mitzvahs." Eventually Jerry relents to ask, but before he can, Laura blurts out, "Sure. I'll do it." She's turned the tables and demonstrated her own empowerment. Their attempts to disguise their conversation from her failed. She is too good a lip reader to be outwitted.

The tone for Laura's strength is set earlier in the episode. Jerry first sees Laura at a tennis match where she is working as a lineswoman. (Delightfully, this connection also leads to the hysterical B-story of Kramer trying to become a ball man.) Struck by her beauty, Jerry goes down to talk to her after the match. With her back turned to him, Laura doesn't notice he is speaking to her. Jerry, assuming she is ignoring him, gets mad. Finally, she turns around and looks at him.

JERRY: What are you, deaf?
LAURA: Bingo!

Jerry is immediately cowed. The episode might have gone to great lengths to extend the scene, showing Jerry embarrassed and repeatedly apologizing to Laura before finally convincing her to go on a date with him. Instead, the scene ends there. The emphasis, then, is on the humor of the surprising affirmative to Jerry's thoughtless rhetorical question, NOT on the awkwardness of Jerry's slip. It falls to Jerry to explain, in a later scene, that he did actually convince Laura to go out with him. The discomfort over Jerry's mistake is laughed at, but not dwelt on. The show has quickly moved on to other jokes. Jerry and Laura have quickly moved on to building their relationship. The audience moves on with them.

Political correctness and etiquette are not values Seinfeld seeks to promote. In fact, Elaine's behavior towards those presumed to be weak is revealed as hollow. Embarrassed by the incident with the driver, Elaine tries to prove to Jerry and Kramer that she is a sensitive person:

ELAINE: Oh, it didn't work. He caught me hearing. I know it's terrible, but I'm not a terrible person.
ELAINE: No. When I shoo squirrels away, I always say "get out of here!" I never, ever throw things at them and try to injure them like other people.
JERRY : That's nice.
ELAINE: Yeah. And when I see freaks in the street I never, ever stare at them. Yet I'm careful not to look away, you know, because I want to make the freaks feel comfortable.
JERRY : That's nice for the freaks.
ELAINE: Yeah. And I don't poof up my hair when I go to a movie so people behind me can see

Elaine wants to prove she is thoughtful about those around her. The squirrels and the freaks represent the innocent and the vulnerable. But Elaine doth protest too much. Her primary concern is her own feelings, her own guilt. Her treatment of squirrels, freaks, and people sitting behind her at movies demonstrates just enough thoughtfulness to assuage her own conscience. In a way, Jerry's lack of thoughtfulness towards those around him, which is often as bad as or even worse than George's, makes it easier for him to accept  diversity without adjusting his own behavior towards others. He finds Laura interesting because she is deaf and because she is beautiful, but Jerry never considers her particularly innocent or vulnerable. Elaine's "thoughtfulness" is inherently demeaning; the freaks have inherent weaknesses (i.e. inferiority) which must be navigated carefully for everyone's comfort. If she passed Laura on the street, would her behavior towards a deaf woman follow a similar strategy? Likely.

Though the show is about four extremely self-absorbed people, the satire of Seinfeld occasionally points the way to a more accepting future. This episode suggests Jerry's faux pas should be laughed off, and Elaine's attitudes should be laughed at. Laura is different. She cannot hear, but she can read lips. She is one more interesting character encountered in the Seinfeld universe.

SEINFELD - Season 5, Episode 5 - The Bris

“The Bris”

First Script Read: September 16, 1993
Filmed: Tuesday-Wednesday, September 21-22, 1993
Aired: 9:00pm, October 14, 1993
Nielsen rating: 19.3
Audience share: 30
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry Charles

The frenetic, hyper, jittery mohel who circumcises Jerry's finger suffers from Buckles Syndrome. I don't exactly get his character. What's his schtick? He's all over the place. Is he nervous? Is he over-excited? Is he shaky? Is he unhappy in his work? Is he just a dick? It's not clear. Elaine, charged with finding the mohel, offers no explanation on his background other than "he came highly recommended." Along with Kramer's passionate anti-religious/anti-tradition attempt to shield the baby from being circumcised, the mohel makes a mess of the Bris. Even if Jerry did flinch, you can hardly blame him. The mohel didn't do anything to calm him down. Comedy-wise, he dominates the scene, but since the character doesn't quite click, the scene falls flat.

Meanwhile, Kramer believes the hospital is doing secret medical research that has resulted in the creation of a pigman. At the end of the episode he locates the pig man in the hospital and helps him escape, only to discover it wasn't a half-pig, half-man, just a mental patient who looks like a pig.

George gets a great parking spot that he brags about throughout the first scene. Then a patient jumps off the roof and lands on his car. He asks the hospital for compensation, but is thrown out for seeking to profit off of a man's death. The hospital administrator is a little harsh, and George's attempts to get money for repairs are more understandable than the episode allows. He's unemployed, and his car roof just got crushed. That's hard luck. The scene with the hospital administrator intends to be funny in a "Oh George, you rascal!" kind of way, but it's easy to sympathize with poor George in this case.

This might be Larry Charles' jump-the-shark episode, except in the two episodes he wrote after this before leaving the show at the end of the season his stories fell back on the path Seinfeld was traveling. Still, they contained a dash of violence and mayhem, typical of his scripts. Charles had been pushing the darker side of Seinfeld, and his early influence helped feed the natural chaos of the show, but ultimately Seinfeld had become more a show about sex and relationships, as well as the banal and the everyday. Suicides and pig men and bloody brises didn't have a place in the mature version of Seinfeld.