Thursday, January 31, 2013

SEINFELD - Season 9, Episode 20 - The Puerto Rican Day

“The Puerto Rican Day”

First Script Read: March 21, 1998
Filmed: March 22-26, 1998
Aired: May 7, 1998
Nielsen rating: 24.8
Audience share: 37
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writers: Alec Berg, Jennifer Crittenden, Spike Feresten, Bruce Eric Kaplan, Gregg Kavet, Steve Koren, David Mandel, Dan O’Keefe, Andy Robin, and Jeff Schaffer

With Larry David returning to co-write "The Finale" with Jerry Seinfeld, the penultimate script was turned over to the rest of the remaining writers. There was also talk of bringing the whole show to New York City to shoot this episode, though that provocative idea never came to fruition. The episode did, however, move from their usual home in CBS Studios to Universal Studios for the street scenes of this episode. The location change, the crowded, festive nature of the episode's setting, and of course the nearness of the end of the series combine to give this episode its epic quality.

The story lends itself to that quality as well, particularly Elaine's quest to extricate herself from the Puerto Rican Parade gridlock. In fact, her journey turns into a disaster film parody as she finds herself leading a band of "survivors" - including an old man, a priest, and a pregnant woman - looking for a way out of the mess. They are repeatedly stymied, and, one last time in the series, Elaine fails as a leader of people.

Meanwhile, the three guys kill time as they wait for the street to clear up. With echoes of his quest to deliver the "Jerk Store" zinger in "The Comeback," George finds a movie theater so he can shout "That's gotta hurt!" when the Hindenberg blows up in the fake movie Blimp. He's upstaged by a guy with a laser pointer, who then follows George out onto the street with his inescapable annoying red dot.

Kramer, meanwhile, pretends to be H.E. Pennypacker, a wealthy industrialist, in order to gain access to a For Rent apartment's bathroom. Later, Jerry also masquerades as a tycoon, Kel Varsen, to catch the late innings of a in-progress Mets comeback - a game from which the gang had left early. Finally, Art Vandalay (George) shows up to wipe the black ink off his hands from a failed attempt to catch the laser pointer. Pennypacker and Vandalay are pleasing call-backs to recurring personas from the series.

Otherwise, besides the characters and their attitudes, this is a fresh-feeling story that foreshadows the finale in that the quartet loses everything but each other. The Mets lose. Jerry's car is destroyed by an angry mob. Elaine can't get out of the parade area and misses 60 minutes. And George never catches the laser pointer guy.

You can't talk about "The Puerto Rican Day" without mentioning the controversy that erupted when it first aired. The backlash comes from Kramer's accidental burning of the Puerto Rican flag which sparks the mob that destroys Jerry's car. Kramer, who had previously been caught up in the excitement, called Puerto Ricans "a very festive people," and said about the joyfulness, "It's like this every day in Puerto Rico," turns to Jerry as his car is getting destroyed and repeats "It's like this every day in Puerto Rico."

According to the New York Times report about the controversy, the President of the National Puerto Rican Coalition declared, "It is unacceptable that the Puerto Rican flag be used by 'Seinfeld' as a stage prop under any circumstances." He added that the episode "crossed the line between humor and bigotry." Ultimately, the show was not repeated on television for several years, and while it did eventually enter the syndication cycle, even today it seems like it is the rarest of Seinfeld's re-runs.

Castle Rock Entertainment, Seinfeld's production company, pointed out that the National Puerto Rican Coalition seemed overly sensitive, as they started complaining about the episode even bore it ran. I'm a little sympathetic to Puerto Ricans who were offended, because they were not a group that was often depicted on television, and to make it onto TV only as a caricatured community in a farce must've been disappointing. 

Still, I agree with NBC's response: ''We do not feel that the show lends itself to damaging ethnic stereotypes, because the audience for Seinfeld knows the humor is derived from watching the core group of characters get themselves into difficult situations." Surely the vast majority of Seinfeld's audience would have read the events as an indictment of Kramer's clumsiness and Jerry's bad luck, not of any sweeping message against Puerto Ricans. And an audience's ability to understand a show that they have long been familiar with shouldn't be underestimated, although since this was the second biggest audience in the history of the series, its possible there were some new viewers. The larger point is that there's not really much of a portrayal of Puerto Ricans to get upset about. The mob attacking Jerry's car is ambiguously raced. And the only guy who speaks with an accent is a recurring character - Kramer's nemesis, the gay street tough who stole Elaine's armoire. The Puerto Rican Parade is just a backdrop for the characters' usual antics.

Personally, this is one of my favorite episodes. It's funny, different, and delightful. 

SEINFELD - Season 9, Episode 19 - The Maid

“The Maid”

First Script Read: March 8, 1998
Filmed: March 12, 1998
Aired: April 30, 1998
Nielsen rating: 22.1
Audience share: 34
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writers: David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer, and Alec Berg (teleplay and story). Kit Boss and Peter Mehlman (story only).

With "The Puerto Rican Day" shot at the Universal Studios back lot instead of CBS Studio Center where the main sets were located, and only a clip show and "The Finale" after that, this is the last "normal" episode of the series. It contains one of my favorite Kramer-isms. Whenever I'm around Lower Manhattan I like to try to make it to the corner of 1st and 1st. As a lost and frantic Kramer explains it, "How can the same street intersect with itself? I must be at the nexus of the universe!" There's even a club on that corner called "Nexus Lounge."

Kramer is lost because he's not used to leaving their Upper Manhattan stomping grounds. With his girlfriend moving downtown, he's forced to explore uncharted waters. As George similarly discovers when a mere change of wardrobe leads him to take on the life of an out-of-towner in "The Muffin Tops," there's a fine line between the inside and outside of a comfort zone.

There's also a fine line between a normal relationship and prostitution. Jerry starts sleeping with his maid, who gradually stops cleaning his apartment even though he continues to pay her. The woman is offended when Jerry brings the awkward situation to her attention, but the more the problem drags out, the more she seems to share other attributes with prostitutes. Her contractor (pimp) confronts Jerry about the money she is owed and sends Jerry to pay the woman directly. When Jerry spots her from his car he pulls over and offers her money and is promptly arrested for soliciting prostitution. That's what it looked like anyway.

But the funniest storyline is the pinnacle of George's hilarious stint at Krueger Industrial Smoothing. George tries to get himself the nickname "T-bone," but is thwarted when a co-worker also orders a T-bone for lunch. Instead, George ends up with the nickname "Koko" because of his resemblance to the famous gorilla. If there was one reason to keep Seinfeld going into a tenth season it was Daniel von Bargen's performance as Krueger. With a another season or two he would have matched J. Peterman and Steinbrenner in the pantheon of famous Seinfeld bosses. Von Bargen plays Krueger with a dry, sleepy gruffness that is hysterical and a little odd. Krueger is an incredible match for George, the first boss who seems even more incompetent than George Costanza. In "The Burning," George figures out how to leave meetings on a high note. This catches Krueger's subconscious and he brings George in to work mano e mano on a special project. In a role reversal, George finds himself in the position of needing to motivate a lazy Krueger to get work done.

I would've liked to see more Krueger, but Jerry Seinfeld knew there was a fine line between leaving on a high note and staying around too long. Even coming into season nine, Seinfeld sensed the show had explored its limits and decided to wind things down.

SEINFELD - Season 9, Episode 18 - The Frogger

“The Frogger”

First Script Read: February 27, 1998
Filmed: Mach 4, 1998
Aired: April 23, 1998
Nielsen rating: 20.8
Audience share: 32
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writers: Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin (teleplay and story), Steve Koren and Dan O’Keefe (Story only)

While Seinfeld broke new ground for a prime-time sitcom in its telling of multi-episode, even season-long story arcs, and while it was filled with recurring characters and recurring jokes, it was still just like most traditional sitcoms in that its characters remained in the same place every week - physically, mentally, and emotionally. Of course, unlike stereotypical sitcoms, there were no lessons learned on Seinfeld, so of course the characters weren't going to grow in anyway. Furthermore, as much serialization as Seinfeld had, it was surprisingly uninterested in its own history. The characters lived in the moment, and whenever the past did crop up, it tended to be ridiculed and dismissed.

In "The Frogger," three objects from the past are destroyed. The first is a piece of wedding cake preserved from the wedding of Edward VIII to Wallis Simpson in 1937. Elaine finds it in Peterman's office and, not knowing its past, eats a bite. Peterman finds her in his office and excitedly tells her about the cake he has purchased. Later Elaine returns to his office seeking to even up the slice and cover her tracks. She now knows where the cake is from, and though it is old, she is captivated by the romance of Edward and Mrs. Simpson. Moreover, she's hungry. She ends up eating the whole slice. She tries to replace it with a slice of Entenmann's, but Peterman eventually catches her and warns her of the punishment her digestive system is about to take as the historic cake moves through.

The second object destroyed is Mario's, the old pizza place where Jerry and George hung out in high school. They return seeking a dose of nostalgia, but instead Mario's rude service reminds them of why they stopped coming to the restaurant. He is going out of business, and its easy to see why. This isn't the first time nostalgia fooled Jerry into misremembering the past. Way back in season three's "The Library" Jerry thinks he remembers all the details of the day he misplaced his library book, The Tropic of Cancer, back in high school. When he meets up with the girl he remembers from that day (who, by the way, time has NOT treated well), she reveals that he has the facts all wrong. In both that episode and "The Frogger" nostalgia is demonstrated to be very deceptive.

In Mario's Jerry and George come across the third object from the past - The Frogger machine they used to play, which still has George's high score recorded on it. George decides to preserve this piece of his past. "I'm never gonna have a child," he explains. "If I lose this Frogger high score, that's it for me." He arranges to buy the machine and keep it powered up so it doesn't lose the score. His plan goes awry and, in a memorable, Frogger-like sequence, the Frogger machine is smashed by a truck as George pushes it across the street. George's desire to preserve the past was foolish, but judging by Seinfeld's treatment of the past, so are all such efforts.

SEINFELD - Season 9, Episode 17 - The Bookstore

“The Bookstore”

First Script Read: February 14, 1998
Filmed: February 18, 1998
Aired: April 9, 1998
Nielsen rating: 19.9
Audience share: 31
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writers: Spike Feresten (teleplay and story), Darin Henry (story only) and Marc Jaffe (story only)

After David Mandel, Spike Feresten is my second favorite writer of Seinfeld's Late Period. Check out his episode resume:
Season 7
"The Soup Nazi" (perhaps the most popular episode ever)
Season 8
"The Little Kicks" (perhaps Elaine's greatest scene ever)
Season 9
"The Puerto Rican Day" (co-written)

Plus, he also came up with the central idea for "The Voice."

Feresten honed his talents working on David Letterman's writing staff. He brought some absurd, loony ideas to the show, but they usually worked because, like Larry David et al before him, so many of his stories were based on reality. There really was an intense soup chef in New York. Feresten really did have his girlfriend's wig master stay in his apartment for an extended time. He really did imagine a silly voice coming from his girlfriend while she slept and got the other writers in on the voice.

By season nine, like most of the writing staff, Kramer became Feresten's main muse. This episode features one of Kramer's zaniest, non-giant-ball-of-oil schemes. He and Newman try to get a rickshaw service going on the streets of New York, leading to a memorable scene of Newman flying backwards down a hill in a runaway rickshaw.

Feresten also alludes back to Elaine's fateful dancing. There's another office party, but this time J. Peterman proves himself to have all the dancing talent Elaine lacks. Depressed, Elaine starts drinking and ends up drunkenly making out with a co-worker. Attempting to paint her behavior in a different light, Elaine starts telling everyone she is dating the guy. When she discovers the guy is addicted to drugs, Peterman makes her nurse him through his rehab.

The action at the bookstore revolves around George's attempts to return a book he was forced to buy after being caught taking it into the store's restroom, and Jerry's fight with Uncle Leo after Jerry rats out his uncle's shoplifting. The George storyline is silly, but Jerry is deeply remorseful when he sees how upset Uncle Leo is. In the end, Jerry turns in George for shoplifting in order to get Leo off the hook. Presumably, Jerry knows George won't hold a grudge as long as Leo. Still, Jerry's willingness to let his best friend get arrested to help the uncle he doesn't like very much shows how deep his own social neuroses go. He cannot accept the mental anguish of knowing a relative is holding a grudge against him.

SEINFELD - Season 9, Episode 16 - The Burning

“The Burning”

First Script Read: February 5, 1998
Filmed: February 10, 1998
Aired: March 19, 1998
Nielsen rating: 20.8
Audience share: 31
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writer: Jennifer Crittenden

Whenever religion came up, Seinfeld always treated it with a nod and a wink, inherently doubting the existence of God and viewing anyone who did believe in God as a relic for a past age (See also: "The Conversion," "The Strike," and "The Pick." The characters' view of religion feels much like their view of the lifestyles of their parents' generation. They are incredulous, baffled, and dismissive of the perspective and behavior of both the elderly and the religious. Religiosity, however, is harder to spot than old age, hence Elaine's shock at discovering her on again-off again boyfrien, David Puddy, might be religious:

ELAINE: Here's one. I borrowed Puddy's car and all the presets on his radio were Christian rock stations. GEORGE: I like Christian rock. It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip. ELAINE: So, you think that Puddy actually believes in something? JERRY: It's a used car. He probably never changed the presets. ELAINE: Yes, he is lazy. JERRY: Plus he probably doesn't even know how to program the buttons. ELAINE: Yes, he is dumb. JERRY: So you prefer dumb and lazy to religious? ELAINE: Dumb and lazy, I understand.

Later, George tries to put a positive spin on Puddy's beliefs:

GEORGE: I think it's neat. You don't hear that much about god anymore.
JERRY [DEADPAN]: I hear things...

Confronted about his beliefs, Puddy admits that he thinks Elaine is going to hell. Elaine gets angry at him for not trying to save her from hell, even though she doesn't believe in hell. Eventually they take their case to a minister, Father Curtis. He soon discovers they are having sex without being married and tells them they are both going to hell. Elaine is very satisfied with that development. Puddy is not, and his angst is further magnified as both Elaine and Father Curtis mock him, making devil faces. Even the religious leaders in Seinfeld find God to be silly.