Saturday, August 11, 2012

SEINFELD - Season 6, Episode 15 - The Beard

“The Beard”

Filmed: January 18, 1995
Aired: February 9, 1995
Nielsen rating: 21.7
Audience share: 32
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writer: Carol Leifer

This episode delves as deeply into attitudes about homosexuality as any show since season 4's "The Outing." Elaine poses as a girlfriend for Robert, a gay man, to help mask his sexuality from his boss. She also talks up his masculinity to his boss when Robert goes to the bathroom:
ELAINE: Well, believe me this didn't happen overnight. Robert's not exactly a one woman man, if you know what I mean. No sirree Bob. Sure, I mean in a lot of ways, he's a typical guy. He likes his sports. But he counters that side with the side you see here tonight at the ballet. Or the pleasure he gets in watching Miss Liza Minelli belt out a few choice numbers. It's those two halves of his personality that just come together to make him the very special guy that he is.

Elaine enjoys playing the part so well she begins to wonder if she might be able to turn Robert straight:
JERRY: Not conversion. You're thinking conversion?
ELAINE: Well, it did occur to me.
JERRY: You think you can get him to just change teams? He's not going to suddenly switch sides. Forget about it.
ELAINE: Why? Is it irrevocable?
JERRY: Because when you join that team it's not a whim. He likes his team. He's set with that team.
ELAINE: We've got a good team.
JERRY: Yeah, we do. We do have a good team.
ELAINE: Why can't he play for us?
JERRY: They're only comfortable with their equipment.
ELAINE: We just got along so great.
JERRY: Of course you did. Everyone gets along great when there's no possibility of sex.
ELAINE: No, no, no, I sensed something. I did sense something. I perceived a possibility Jerry.
JERRY: You realize you're venturing into uncharted waters.
ELAINE: I realize that.
JERRY: Are you that desperate?
ELAINE: Yes, I am.

Baseball is repeatedly used as a metaphor throughout the episode for Elaine's scheme to get Robert to join the heterosexual team. It's silly and leads to a lot of laughs, but it also smooths over one of the key debates in the American culture wars over homosexuality: the question of whether homosexuality is a free will choice or a genetically defined preference. Jerry, pointing out "it's not a whim," believes there is no free will involved. Elaine, by the mere fact that she thinks she can convince Robert to change teams, feels it is a choice. However, this is probably wishful thinking, as Elaine is quite smitten with Robert. She does manage to seduce Robert into her bed, although her conversion is only temporary as Robert quickly returns to his own team.

Seinfeld could be accused, both in this episode with homosexuality and in "The Couch" with abortion, of being too flippant about serious issues. As I discussed in my blog post on "The Couch," I think undermining subjects that are considered serious is one goal for Larry David and other Seinfeld writers, as well as for many comedians in general. However, I think the larger interest when David and Co. begin crafting such a script is to see how much they can get away with. They are entertainers first, and social critics only as long as it services the comedy. "The Beard" and "The Couch" pushed a sitcom farther into controversial subjects than network television had ever seen before. Whats more, they did it hilariously. This wasn't "a very special episode of Blossom." This was writer Carol Leifer taking on the high degree of difficulty of poking fun at the idea of turning a gay man straight and largely succeeding. In the more permissive fold of HBO, David has gone further into controversial subject matter on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like Seth MacFarlane, part of David's comic genius is his interest in walking the fine line between offensive and funny. Though I would argue that unlike MacFarlane when David uses the offensive and obscene for a joke he does so with an underlying, ever-present interest in social observation and commentary.

"The Beard" does have one misstep that looks unfortunate in retrospect. The episode never addresses Robert's boss's prejudice. The only thing Elaine says on the subject is, "[Robert's] afraid that his boss can't handle his orientation." Jerry doesn't criticize the boss, even with a quick one-liner. Robert never has an opportunity to bemoan his boss's attitudes. And Elaine just plays along with Robert's masquerade, never calling out the boss. In the exchange with Elaine when Robert departs for the bathroom, it's clear the boss already has his suspicions about Robert's sexuality, so perhaps Robert is being overly paranoid. Still, it is unfortunate that the episode never critiques the discrimination that would necessitate a "beard" in the first place.

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