Friday, July 13, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 5, Episode 9 - The Masseuse


“The Masseuse”

First Script Read: October 30, 1993
Filmed: November 3, 1993
Aired: 9:00pm, November 18, 1993
Nielsen rating: 19.1
Audience share: 28
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Peter Mehlman

And we're back! I have to say, it was supposed to be a vacation, but wandering around Europe for a month really helped my thinking about 1990s popular culture. For example, I went to to the Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens' (1577-1640) house in Antwerp and was intrigued at how the idea of intellectual property has changed. (I was also amazed that, four years after his first wife's death, the 53-year-old Rubens married a 16-year-old. Their age discrepancy created quite a stir even back then, but, other than royalty, Rubens was pretty much the biggest celebrity in Flemland. Is that where Flemish people lived? Flemland? That doesn't sound right... But I digress.) 

One of the paintings Rubens owned was done by a prominent Flemish artist a few generations older than Rubens. P-squared decided he could improve the painting, so he just painted over certain parts of it, changing the clothes on a woman here, and painting over a guy there. Can you imagine the scandal if, say, Jackson Pollack bought a Monet and decided to "improve" it? Or if the Coen Brothers got the rights to a John Wayne movie and "remade" it? Seriously, though, I suppose those examples show how, in the last couple centuries, western society has come to value the material object of an original painting, while the ability to mechanically reproduce a book or a film or a photograph makes the value of the original more or less worthless.

Rubens and his school reminds me of the Seinfeld writing staff. Like so many artists before him, P-P had a studio with a bunch of younger artists who not only studied under the master but worked on his paintings. Actually, that's quite similar to the way television shows are produced. Auteurs like Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld (or David Simon of The Wire, or Matthew Weiner of Mad Men) control the overarching vision while a team of underlings manage the details of the creative process. For an episode like "The Marine Biologist," which I'll cover a few posts from now, the auteur Larry David didn't even take a writing credit even though he came up with the idea of tying Kramer's golfing to George's whale encounter in the finale monologue, the very piece that made that episode an all-timer.

One of the students in Rubens' studio, Anthony van Dyck, became quite famous in his own right, almost pulling a Darth Vader to Rubens' Obi Wan. There are dozens of American TV equivalents to the Rubens-van Dyck relationship. Before David Chase created The Sopranos he literally cut his teeth on Northern Exposure under Joshua Brand and John Falsey. Before Vince Gilligan made Breaking Bad he learned the trade under Chris Carter at The X-Files. And before Peter Mehlman created It's Like, You Know he wrote for Seinfeld. Well, I guess Mehlman is no van Dyck.

Poor Peter Mehlman! He really is a fine writer, but I just keep measuring him against the other Seinfeld writers. "The Masseuse" is another solid Mehlman episode, but it could just as easily be credited as coming from "The School of Larry David." The comedy rests on a Larry David-esque twist; Jerry's desire to get a massage from his masseuse girlfriend (played by the great Jennifer Coolidge) works as a parody for date rape:

JODI: So, where do you want to go? (SHE PUTS HER HAND ON JERRY’S SHOULDER.)
JERRY: Go? Why go anywhere? (HE PLACES HIS HAND OVER HER’S. SHE STARTS TO MASSAGE HIS SHOULDERS.) Ah, that feels good. Yeah. That's, ah... That's good. (HE GRABS HER HANDS AS HE LIES DOWN ON THE MASSAGE TABLE.) Yeah, that's nice. That's very nice.
JODI: (SHE STOPS MASSAGING) No. No, this isn't good. I can't do this.
JERRY: Why, what's wrong? (HE TRIES TO FORCE HER TO KEEP HER HANDS ON HIS SHOULDERS.)
JODI: I can't (SHE TRIES TO PULL AWAY.)
 JERRY: No! Yes you can. (HE HANGS ON.)
JODI: No, I can't!
JERRY: Come on! I know it's something you want to do! (SHE PULLS AWAY AND HE FALLS OFF THE TABLE.)

As if the date rape parody wasn't sneakily offensive enough, Mehlman also wrote this absurd line for Kramer, prompted by Elaine dating a man who unfortunately shares a name with New York City serial killer, Joel Rifkin:

KRAMER: You know why Rifkin was a serial killer? Because he was adopted. Just like Son of Sam was adopted. So apparently adoption leads to serial killing.

Yikes! CBS received a number of complaints for this line, while no one seemed to mind Jerry mimicking the behavior of a date rapist in his pressure on his girlfriend for a massage. Speaking of date rape, how about Rubens marrying a girl 37 years younger than him?!? And so we've come full circle, connecting the threads. That's something the master, Larry David, would approve of.

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