Friday, July 27, 2007

The Best Episode of Seinfeld

Imagine a time, in the distant, mist-shrouded past, a time completely unlike the era in which we live now.

In that time, in that Then which was so different from this Now, people's lives were both similar to ours Now, and very, very different.

I could mention the similarities and you would understand them. For example, people drove cars like ours, and lived in houses like ours, and a great many of them worked at jobs like ours.

But the differences are what matter. The differences are what will strike you. For example, back then, in that long-ago period, most people still had phones that needed in some way to be associated with a house – and many were still talking on phones that were attached to things using long cords! And those same people had to go to brick-and-mortar shops, for the most part, to purchase things… things like those phones and the cords they needed.

Yes, very much like that.

But the most marked difference then was in entertainment. People back then did not, as we do now, take entertainment – and by entertainment you will understand me to be talking about television – for granted. People back then valued television and its programs (yes, even “Will and Grace”)(okay, nobody ever actually valued "Will and Grace") because they understood something, a universal rule that applied then and does not now:

Television back then could be taken away.

It’s true. Don’t gasp in shock. Back then – in the 1990s – television shows did not exist as they do today, available around the clock and on DVD and for download on your computer provided that your hard drive isn’t full of spyware because your Middle Daughter really wanted that $25,000 shopping spree that came not just with a subscription to Seventeen magazine, but also with a massive amount of junk software that has slowed your computer down to the point where things would be faster if you just started from scratch and invented both computers and the Internet yourself again.

The overly-literary introduction to this was necessary, I think, to give a little heft to something that has very little value nowadays: a sitcom episode. Sitcoms have always been viewed as among the most (if not the most) disposable of entertainment – the comic books of the moving-picture entertainment branch. They are churned out, dozens at a time, many of them recycling the same jokes and the same characters (which jokes and characters are then recycled again, but somehow made now devoid of humor, on Yes, Dear) and we watch them and move on.

I do not know how people sat through this.

And these days, we don't even always do that. Sometimes we don’t even watch the episode the whole time or all the way through or with our full attention, because those sitcoms are everywhere at once. If you don’t want to watch “The Office” on Thursdays, TIVO it. If you don’t have a TIVO, then download the episode from iTunes. Haven’t joined iPod nAtion yet? Buy the series on DVD. By their very ubiquity, sitcoms have become less valuable-- and less entertaining.

That wasn’t always the case, as I pointed out at the beginning of this. Yes, the lowly sitcom has never been appreciated, really, as art or even as good solid entertainment, but once it was a little more valued and we had what the experts (and who becomes an entertainment expert?) called “appointment TV.” TV that was so good and entertaining that you would set your schedule around it, plan on being there in time to watch it.

You’re scoffing right now, many of you, because we’ve been conditioned to say that TV is lowbrow and trashy and not worth our time, and sitcoms the worst of all, so everyone but me (and Sweetie, who’s influenced by me) tries to act as though we don’t really watch that much TV if we watch it at all. Everyone says things like “I don’t watch much TV, but I happened to see, when I was flipping through the channels to find that History Channel Documentary on Things Smart Cultured People Should Know, this movie on Sci-Fi that involved mosquitoes or locusts or something…”)(I've talked about this phenomenon before.) but really, someone is watching “The View” and all those court shows and these sitcoms that feature Jim Belushi, and that one “Men In Trees” that stars either Anne Heche or Calista Flockhart. (Having checked, it’s Anne Heche.) And it’s not all me.

You suspect I make things up.

I do not.

"Mosquito" really was a movie.

So was "Locusts."

Remember her? She's doing stuff again.

So if you’ve read this so far and at some point have said “I don’t watch that much tv,” then you are either you do actually watch that much TV and are a liar, or you don’t actually watch much TV and are a jerk because only a jerk would look down on or deny himself something so entertaining. And not the good kind of jerk, like this:

That I would laugh at and want to maybe hang out with for a while. The bad kind of jerk.

So now just admit it, like I do. You like TV. And we all have had, and maybe still have, “appointment TV.” I know I did. I never ever ever missed an episode of Seinfeld. Once, I had pneumonia for four weeks and didn’t know it. I just got progressively worse and worse and more and more short of breath, making it harder and harder to do my daily six-mile runs (which I did even with pneumonia, and once clocked a time of 45:30 for six miles… with pneumonia!) until one day I was coming home from school and walked up the two flights of stairs to my apartment, and I had to rest twice, and then I was in my apartment and I got up to go lay down on the bed and got out of breath walking across the room, and I thought to myself, that’s really not the way things should be, so I called my mom to see if she’d come and pick me up and take me to the doctor, and she agreed and while I waited for her to come I watched that night’s episode of Seinfeld.

You'll think that's phenomenal, or weird, maybe, but it gets worse: I proposed on a Thursday and I waited until after the night’s episode of Seinfeld to ask Sweetie to marry me.

My devotion is understandable, I think because the way TV ran back then, the episodes meant more not just because they were better TV for the most part -- Seinfeld is probably one of the top five sitcoms of all time-- but also because if you missed one, you had to wait until Christmas, or maybe summer, to try to see it, and if they never ran it again – like the Puerto Rican flag episode—you’d never see it again. I caught only the very end of the episode that made fun of “The English Patient” and didn’t see the whole episode until I got it on DVD this year.

I've heard they won't show this on TV. Which seems ironic, since it

makes fun of exactly the type of attitude that would demand

that this not be shown on TV.

The episodes meant so much back then that when I became aware that they would end - -when Seinfeld announced its run was going to end, I knew I had to take action. Back then, the show was also re-run on our local station at 10:30 at night, and so I began taping each episode each night, sometimes with commercials and sometimes without, because I didn’t want Seinfeld to go away forever and leave me bereft of entertainment options.

Hence my intro to this nomination. You can see how things have changed now. Now, I’m not even sure when some shows are on, and some – like Lost—I’ve never actually watched over a broadcast. I'm not even sure what night or what network it's on. I began watching Lost because I got a free download of the show and liked it, so I’ve watched most of them on my iPod and the rest on DVD. When Arrested Development was cancelled, I calmly decided to buy the DVDs when they came out, and they always come out.

That’s all a lengthy way of saying that I am (as usual here on TBOE) uniquely qualified to make the judgment I’m making, which you readers with better memories will recall is The Best Seinfeld Episode. I’ve seen them all, I’ve loved them all (except the finale, which stunk) and I’ve bootlegged many of them for posterity. So I’ve considered all of the episodes, from the early ones where the show was feeling its way to the later ones where the characters almost became caricatures of themselves, which would have been quite a feat since they were caricatures in the first place.

And I won’t review them all here, because you readers can nominate your own. I'll just tell you my decision, and my decision was made far easier recently when I rewatched one episode, this time with The Boy. That episode, which is The Best Episode of Seinfeld, is: “Jerk Store.”

That episode really has it all. It has George’s feuds and lack of employment skills. It has Elaine’s delusions of grandeur and power and problems with dating. It has Kramer’s bizarre life. If you were going to watch one episode of Seinfeld, it would be "Jerk Store."

Yes, the episode focuses on George and is named after Jerry. But there

was a lot of text and we all needed a break, and do you really want to

look at George and Jerry? Or, God forbid, Kramer and Newman?

And it has Jerry’s dealing with a tennis pro’s efforts to make things up to him. If you’ve seen the episode, you’re nodding. If you haven’t, I can’t really encapsulate it all, but I will show you what makes “Jerk Store” the best.

Spoiler alert!
George goes to a meeting at work, eats a lot of shrimp, and has to fume as a coworker says “Hey, George, the ocean called and its running out of shrimp.” He can’t think of a comeback fast enough, but comes up with one on the way home. The remainder of the episode is George’s problems first dealing with additional insults at work, and then fending off friends’ efforts to convince him that his comeback is not so great. Kramer, for example, tries to get him to tell the guy “I slept with your wife.” Kramer, you have to know, is distracted by the thought that he might slip into a coma at any time.

Finally, George sets up a new meeting with the guy. Let's watch what happens:

I was rewatching that one, with The Boy, and I knew what was going to happen and I still loved it, and loved it more because The Boy didn’t see all that coming, didn’t see the double or triple whammy coming, and when I first watched it, I hadn’t either. So it might have been nominated as The Best Episode of Seinfeld just because of that ending for that story line.

But it was more than that, I think. Throughout the episode, the viewer knows that something will go wrong, but doesn't know the magnitude of it and how it would happen, and that episode, like the other great ones Seinfeld ran but better than any of them, really hit you out of left field. The buildup as George strives to put his comeback to use, only to have the rug swept out….

Well, I’ve analyzed it too much now and probably killed the joke. But “Jerk Store” is The Best Episode of Seinfeld ever.

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