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. 

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