Tuesday, July 31, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 6, Episode 2 - The Big Salad

“The Big Salad”

First Script Read:  Thursday, August 18, 1994
Filmed: Tuesday, August 23, 1994
Aired: September 29, 1994
Nielsen rating: 21
Audience share: 32
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writer: Larry David

By early in season six, the pace of Seinfeld sped up considerably, allowing all four characters to have stories in the episode. George's latest relationship crumbles after he complains about not getting credit for paying for Elaine's big salad. Elaine tries to thwart the romantic advances of a stationary store guy by giving him Jerry's number. Jerry agonizes over the fact his girlfriend was once dated and dumped by Newman. And Kramer is convinced that he drove (fictional) ex-baseball player Steve Gendason to murder.

Kramer's storyline evolves into a parody of the OJ Simpson murder case. The Hall of Fame football player's famous high-speed chase took place on June 17, about two months before this episode was conceived and filmed. OJ Simpson is never mentioned in the episode, but the final image of Kramer driving a white Bronco with Gendason in the back seat is one every viewer would recognize. The Simpson car chase was an event watched by perhaps close to 100 million Americans. It was a mass media moment, and while the ensuing court case would confirm the continued presence of racial division in America, the experience of June 17 was something most Americans had in common. These are the type of media events that shape national identity. In the summer of 1994, a man from Alabama could walk into a bar in Seattle and start a conversation about OJ Simpson, certain that his Seattle counterpart knew about this topic. In referencing the famous case, Seinfeld was adding its voice to the conversation.

Though not to the same extent ("only" 30 million viewers saw this episode the first time it aired), Seinfeld was itself an important piece of American national identity. And Seinfeld fans could find countrymen and women anywhere in the nation to talk about the show. So while Seinfeld echoed American culture by referencing OJ Simpson, it added to American culture, posing ideas and observations that originated with its writers, such as this exchange about dating:

ELAINE: Maybe I should just get married.
JERRY: Dating is really starting to get embarrassing isn't it?
ELAINE: I know. You know, whenever I'm on a date I feel people can tell.
JERRY: People on dates shouldn't even be allowed out in public.
ELAINE: You can say that again.
JERRY: It's embarrassing for them. It's painful for us to watch. I'm going out with someone later. I'm not even taking her out of the house.
ELAINE: Good for you!
JERRY: I don't need a bunch of people staring at us!

I don't think most viewers took the time to ponder the meaning of this exchange, but that doesn't mean it didn't influence their thinking, weaving into their perception of the world. As much as Seinfeld is about single life, and as quickly as the characters go through partners (as discussed in my blog post on Season 6, Episode 1 - The Chaperone), Elaine, Jerry, and George all express a yearning for marriage. Being married is the ultimate "normal" state of life that the the trio all sense they are supposed to reach. It looms over their lives, and as they age they become more and more embarrassed that they haven't gotten there yet. So even Seinfeld promotes the marriage as an expected goal for every American. Amidst the neurosis and cynicism expressed towards their lives in front of a mass audience, that is at least one traditional ideal that Seinfeld falls back on.

Friday, July 27, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 6, Episode 1 - The Chaperone

“The Chaperone”

First Script Read:  August 11, 1994
Filmed: Wednesday, August 17, 1994
Aired: September 22, 1994
Nielsen rating: 21.9
Audience share: 3
Directed: Andy Ackerman (first episode as full time director)
Writers: Larry David, Bill Masters (also co-wrote season 3’s “The Alternate Side” and season 4’s “The Movie”), and Bob Shaw (also co-wrote season 3’s “The Tape” and served as program consultant in 1992-93)

This episode has one of the more underrated Seinfeld lines. Actually its a word that Kramer uses after Jerry gets him to serve as pageant-mandated chaperone for his date with Miss Rhode Island:
JERRY: Listen. Tonight, after we finish eating you make like you got something else to do and just recede into the night if you know what I mean.
KRAMER: No way!
JERRY: What?
KRAMER: Look, if you think I'm just going to step aside and do nothing while you defile this woman, you're crazy.
JERRY: I'm not going to "defile" her!
KRAMER: That's right, because I'm going to see it doesn't happen. Look, Jerry, these girls are Miss America contestants. It's every little girl's dream. And I'm not going to let you trample that dream and make a mockery of everything the pageant stands for.
KRAMER: Aaah! No buts! Those are my rules.
JERRY: But wait a minute...
KRAMER: Now, if you want to go out and have some good, wholesome fun with a nice girl, I'd be glad to help you out. If you're looking for something more than that you've got the wrong guy, buddy!

I love the absurdity of Kramer's use of "defile." I've found some comedy success in borrowing Kramer's use of "defile," either as it is intended here or like so: "Dude. I wish I could wait until I get home, but I'm going to have to defile your bathroom. Sorry. You got any scented candles in there or anything?"

Part of the comedy of Kramer's use here is his unexpected knowledge and respect for the Miss America pageant, but it also suggests a distaste for Jerry's promiscuous lifestyle. Frankly, Jerry goes through a lot of partners. The whole quartet does; the DVD's "Notes about Nothing" feature keeps a count on everyone's girlfriends/boyfriends, and I suspect the final combined tally will be in the triple digits by the time all nine seasons have run their course.

I think the promiscuity portrayed on the show influenced American sensibilities about sex in the 1990s. I'm not saying impressionable young people decided whether or not to have sex because of the behavior of Jerry's character. Sociologists could probably compare people who watched Seinfeld in their teenage years with people who did not and come up with some interesting conclusions, but I'm always skeptical of claims of a direct link. There are complex and multifaceted reasons why a teenager has sex or, much more seriously, commits a violent act. I'm suggesting something broader, deeper, and less easily observed. Seinfeld reflects the way Americans thought about sex in the 1990s, but the show also influenced Americans' thinking. It's a two-way street, and when the bus rolling down the airwaves is as big and as culturally significant and as popular as Seinfeld, the traffic on that street is important to consider.

Jerry's sexual behavior, as well as that of his friends, is largely presented as normal and acceptable behavior. Jerry, of course, takes great pains to be a normal person according to the expectations of society. Occasionally he, Elaine, and George give each other grief for the rapidity with which they go through significant others, but the context of the show presents such comments as more a critique of their personal quirks and neuroses rather than a comment on the quantity of sexual partners they have.

Kramer's "defile" comment is funny because it is so unexpected. As the episode unfolds he successfully runs interference on Jerry's attempts to bed or even kiss Miss Rhode Island. Kramer's efforts are presented not as noble but as comical and ridiculous. Normally, Kramer would be the last one to intentionally stand between Jerry and a sexual conquest. In this case his loyalty to the tradition of the Miss America pageant trumps his friendship to Jerry.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 5, Episode 21 - The Opposite

“The Opposite”

First Script Read:  Thursday, March 31, 1994
Filmed: Monday-Tuesday, April 4-5, 1994
Aired: 9:00pm, May 19, 1994
Nielsen rating: 20.4
Audience share: 32
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writers: Andy Cowan (Served as program consultant from 1994-95. This is his only Seinfeld writing credit.), Larry David, and Jerry Seinfeld

ELAINE: Ah, George… You know, that woman just looked at you.
GEORGE: So what? What am I supposed to do?
ELAINE: Go talk to her.
GEORGE: Elaine, bald men with no jobs and no money who live with their parents don't approach strange women.
JERRY: Well here's your chance to try the opposite. Instead of tuna salad and being intimidated by women, chicken salad and going right up to them.
GEORGE: Yeah, I should do the opposite. I should.
JERRY: If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.
GEORGE: Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!
GEORGE: Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice that you were looking in my direction.
VICTORIA: Oh, yes I was. You just ordered the same exact lunch as me.
GEORGE: My name is George. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.
VICTORIA: I'm Victoria. Hi!

And so begins the greatest run of success and achievement in George Costanza's sad little life. After five seasons of being a loser, it's delightful to see George run up a string of victories. But instead of just having the character's luck turn around for an episode, George turns himself around. 

Meanwhile, Elaine goes into a spiral, losing her boyfriend, her apartment, and her job. On the other hand, Jerry realizes he is "Even Steven" - he always breaks even. The title character of the show, Jerry personifies the balance necessary for the sitcom genre. At the end of the episode, the main characters ALWAYS break even, or at least return to a necessary equilibrium. Jerry even seems to sense this towards the end of the episode:
GEORGE: I'm back in business, baby!
JERRY: George, I wouldn't get too excited about this stuff, you know, things have a way of evening out.
JERRY: Hi Elaine.
JERRY: How're things going?
ELAINE: How're things going? You wanna know how things are going? I'll tell you how things are going. I am getting kicked out of my apartment!
JERRY: Why? Why are they doing that?
ELAINE: I don't know! They have a list of grievances.
JERRY: The jewel thief?
ELAINE: Yeah, the jewel thief.
JERRY: What else?
ELAINE: I put Canadian quarters in the washing machine. I gotta be out by the end of the month.
GEORGE: Well, you could move in with my parents.
ELAINE: Was that the opposite of what you were going to say or was that just instinct? (SHE SQUEEZES GEORGE’S MOUTH BETWEEN HER FINGERS.)
GEORGE: Instinct.
ELAINE: Stick with the opposite.
JERRY: Elaine, don't get too down. Everything will even out. See, I have two friends. You were up. He was down. Now he's up. You're down. You see how it all evens out for me?

Jerry's right. Even though Elaine fears she's turning into George both characters will settle back into their usual roles in season six. George will be scheming and lazing his way through his Yankees job while Elaine will be so close and yet so far from success working for Mr. Pitt. And Jerry will be the same as always.