Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 18, 2004)
While the TV on DVD genre exploded over the last few years, one of the more prominent holdouts came from Seinfeld. Arguably the biggest series of the Nineties - and some folks’ choice as the greatest TV show ever - for years signs indicated we’d not get Seinfeld on DVD until some distant point in the future. The story went that the program still made so much in syndication that there was no reason to undercut those profits with DVD sales.
Obviously minds changed, for Seinfeld has finally emerged on DVD. Two separate sets come out the same day. This one includes Seasons One and Two, while the other package presents Season Three.
These shows will be discussed in their production order, which is the way in which they appear on the DVDs. This creates some broadcast inconsistencies; for example, Season Two’s “The Stranded” didn’t actually air until Season Three. The plot synopses come from http://www.tvtome.com – thanks to them for their good work.
The Seinfeld Chronicles (Pilot): “A girl Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) met on the road wants to stay with him when she comes to New York. George (Jason Alexander) thinks that she is just using Jerry as contingency plan. Kessler (later Kramer – Michael Richards) comes by to borrow a couple of pieces of meat. The girl calls and asks Jerry if she can stay at his apartment for the night, when she arrives she asks to stay for another night. Jerry is disappointed when everything is going his way until he finds out she is engaged.”
As one watches the pilot, it’s hard to believe Seinfeld ever became so great. Okay - that’s not wholly true, as one can see the sparks of the series’ later inventiveness. However, the pilot is almost totally free from humor, as little about it seems amusing. It’s got potential but little else.
Note that the set includes two cuts of “The Seinfeld Chronicles”. In addition to the “Original Pilot Version”, we get the “Revised Pilot Version”. I believe the pair differ solely due to their opening credits; the “Revised” edition uses the standard opening credits and theme, while “Original” presents the first stabs at those elements.
Male-Unbonding: “Jerry ponders a few courses of action when he sees that he no longer has anything in common with a clingy and obnoxious childhood friend. George has trouble with his latest relationship. Kramer has the idea to open a chain of make-your-own-pizza parlors and is looking for investors.”
“Unbonding” marks a demonstrable improvement over the pilot. No one will mistake the episode for one of the series’ greats, but at least the characters start to resemble the ones we’d come to know later. In addition, it tosses out just enough humor to make it enjoyable.
The Stake Out: “Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) brings Jerry to a birthday party where he meets a woman who fascinates him. Jerry doesn't know her name and wants to meet her again, so on some advice from his father, he and George stakeout the lobby of the building she works in.”
If nothing else, “Stake Out” introduces us to George’s architect fantasy and the name “Art Vandelay”. Otherwise, the show’s rather bland. It provides the occasional chuckle, but the characters aren’t formed yet, and that makes the program ring false. The ending reconciliation between Jerry and Elaine causes particular problems; if doesn’t turn sappy, but it comes too close for Seinfeld.
The Robbery: “While out of town Jerry's apartment gets robbed (Kramer left the door open); so he considers moving. However, the apartment that George shows him is also an apartment that he wants, so they try to decide who will get it. Whoever wins, Elaine wants their apartment. Meanwhile, Kramer searches for the stolen property.”
Ditto my comments about the prior show for “The Robbery”. It lacks the great banter and play the marks the best episodes, but it doesn’t come across as a total dud. It just seems a bit uninspired in the greater scheme of things.
The Stock Tip: “Jerry and George get some inside information that gives them hope for a new stock. Elaine has trouble with her boyfriend's cats. She's allergic to them. Jerry plans his first weekend trip with Vanessa. George says they are "relationship killers." Kramer has an idea for a rollout tie dispenser and warns Jerry about the market. Jerry becomes worried when the stock drops and they have trouble locating the broker who has information on when to sell their stock. They find out he's in the hospital. Jerry confronts his dry cleaner about his shirt. Elaine considers the cat problem. Anxious Jerry sells; George plans to go down with the ship. Jerry's trip is a disaster, but the stock turns okay for George.”
“Tip” succeeded in a few ways. For one, it includes DVD One’s funniest bit: Jerry’s confrontation with a dry cleaner. In addition, the episode offers our first look at a program that tries to branch out substantially beyond just one story. The prior shows went with one overriding plot, but “Tip” indulges equally in the stock and Vanessa elements. It’s still not a great show, but it provides some advancement.
The Ex-Girlfriend: “George has doubts about his current relationship that he broke off. Elaine is curious about a relationship that she has with a guy in her building that has degenerated over the past two years. Jerry is reluctantly drawn into George's ex-relationship when he picks up some books left at her apartment. Although he wants to break it off with her, she has this "psycho-sexual" hold over him and he becomes worried about what George might think if he lets this relationship develop. Elaine confronts the guy in her building and Jerry's relationship maybe in jeopardy when his girlfriend sees his act.”
Seinfeld launches its second season - after a really short first one - with another episode that continues its progression. We can see the characters develop a little better, though some nearly dramatic moments veer away from the series’ “no schmaltz” manta. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly funny program capped by the hilarious breakup scene at the end.
The Pony Remark: “Jerry's parents come to town for a 50th anniversary party. Jerry bets Kramer that he won't complete his plans to renovate his apartment with levels in a month. Jerry takes Elaine to the dinner and he makes an observation about children who have ponies, this remark offends the guest of honor. When she dies soon afterwards, Jerry wonders if he should go to the funeral or go to his championship softball game. Elaine wonders about the fate of the apartment, when she hears the widower is moving to Arizona. George wonders if it will ever be possible for him to have sex again.”
After only one episode, Phil Bruns gets the boot as Jerry’s dad, and Barney Martin replaces him for good. We also get a new and significant character via Jerry’s Uncle Leo (Len Lesser). Perhaps not coincidentally, “Pony” presents the series’ first truly great episode. It marks a move toward darker material, as Manya’s death provides fodder for comedy; what other show would have featured a character more worried about the cost of a flight than the demise of a relative? It’s a consistently terrific program.
The Busboy: “George inadvertently meddles in the life of a busboy, by getting him fired. He tries to rectify things; however, he winds up compounding them by losing the busboy's cat. Elaine discovers that a week is much too long to have a houseguest. She does everything in her power to get him out. The busboy's life is saved and made for the better after his involvement with George, until he meets Elaine's houseguest.”
In an unusual move, “Busboy” only uses Jerry in a supportive role; he does little active in either the main plot or the secondary Elaine part. To me, that’s a cool thing, as it demonstrates the series’ willingness to broaden its horizons. George acts a little out of character as he tries to help the Busboy, though one could argue he does so mainly out of fear. The show also almost violates its “no hugs” philosophy when the guys nearly console Elaine. Despite those slips, it’s a good show.
The Baby Shower: “Elaine needs to use Jerry's apartment to hold a baby shower for a woman that once dated George. George reflects that she was "unequivocally the worst date of my life." Jerry has to go out of town for a show, so he lets Elaine use the apartment. Kramer sells Jerry on the idea on getting an illegal cable hookup. The party begins. The cable guys come to install the hookup. Jerry's show gets canceled, so he returns to the apartment with George (who's prepared to confront the bad date). Jerry is the victim of his own confrontation.”
And the hits keep on coming here with another fine show. “Shower” demonstrates a greater ability for the series to integrate its different plot lines and also to broaden them across the characters. Each participant has a major role through the various stories, and they mesh well.
The Jacket: “Jerry buys a real expensive new suede jacket with a colorful inner lining. George has a song from Les Miserables that he just can't get out of his mind. Kramer is supposed pickup a magician friend's doves, and needs someone to help him for two minutes; Elaine takes on the job. Kramer promises she'll get "a lift" to the hotel where Jerry and George are meeting her and her father, Alton Benes, an author cut from Hemingway cloth. Jerry and George suffer while waiting with Elaine's father. When it begins to snow, Jerry turns his new jacket inside out to protect it, but Alton Benes doesn't want to be seen on the street with him.”
An otherwise mediocre episode, Lawrence Tierney’s gruff turn as Elaine’s father helps redeem “Jacket”. He plays the role so insanely straight that the comedy works even better. The rest of the show doesn’t prosper, however, and it meanders at times.
The Chinese Restaurant: “Jerry, Elaine and George stop for a quick Chinese dinner before a showing of Plan 9 From Outer Space on the big screen. However, while waiting a really long time to get a table, Jerry sees a woman whose name he can't recall; George needs to use a phone he can't have and Elaine needs food, more than those seated ahead of them.”
One of the series’ most famous episodes, “Restaurant” offers its purest focus to date on its efforts to be about “nothing”. Indeed, “Restaurant” really isn’t about anything; there’s no true plot to it, as it concentrates simply on the events that occur during their wait. That makes it perversely fun and a very good program.
The Phone Message: “George blows an invitation upstairs with his latest girlfriend and then when he tries to make restitution he leaves progressively nastier messages on her answering machine. He gets the chance to prevent her from hearing her messages by having Jerry switch the tape out of her machine, while he distracts her. Jerry and his girlfriend have a disagreement about TV commercial for pants commercial and his telling his friends about their conflict.”
Throughout the series, Jerry would find bizarre reasons to break up with women. Technically, he doesn’t break up with Donna here, but his displeasure with her fondness for the Dockers ad sure acts as a catalyst for the end of their relationship, and we’d see him act that way many times in the future. As well as that seminal moment, “Message” works because of bits like the caper to change the answering machine tape.
The Apartment: “Kramer tries mousse in his hair. Jerry gets Elaine an opportunity to get the apartment right above him, before he realizes the possible implications. George tests the ‘man with a wedding band’ theory of meeting women.”
More growing pains occur in “Apartment”. For one, we meet Harold and Manny, two characters who looked like they were intended to become recurring but who failed to accomplish that. In addition, the main plot about Jerry’s concerns feels like something we might find in a more standard sitcom. The show enjoys some funny moments but fails to coalesce.
The Stranded: “Jerry & Elaine go to a party with George, while there they send signals to each other to get out of bad party conversations. Afterward, George abandons them there, when he leaves with a co-worker he has a chance with. Jerry and Elaine keep the hosts up late while waiting for Kramer to come and pick them up. The host later takes Jerry up on his offer to drop by when he is in the city, just as Jerry is leaving. He stays in Jerry's apartment for the evening and parties with Kramer and a lady of the evening. Later George pays the price for his romance in the workplace and he tries to shoplift at the drug store where he says they still owe him ten dollars.”
Seinfeld guest actors work best when they meld with the tone of the show. Michael Chiklis - as the party host - fails to connect with the series’ spirit, which deflates the episode. He’s not funny in the role; he seems more like he’s wild-eyed and hepped up on goofballs. Not that “Stranded” would have excelled without him; as with the prior episode, it feels more like standard sitcom shtick than usual.
The Statue: “Jerry has a box of stuff his grandfather left him. Inside is an interesting looking statue that could replace one George's parents had years ago, but he broke. George plans to pick the statue up later but in the meantime he tells his parents about the replacement statue. Meanwhile the boyfriend of a bitter Finnish author (whose latest work Elaine is going to edit) is going to clean Jerry's apartment. When Jerry returns to his apartment it is cleaned beyond reason. Later when Jerry and Elaine are at the author's apartment, they see the statue on her mantelpiece. Getting it back may jeopardize Elaine's chance at being an editor, but save George from his parent's wrath.”
While a guest actor drags down “Stranded”, good support helps buoy “Statue”. Both Michael D. Conway as Ray and Nurit Koppel as Rava so fully invest in their roles that they turn potentially iffy characters into winners. The story is fairly pedestrian, but these performances allow “Statue” to do well.
By the way, I always knew that Friends used Seinfeld as a heavy inspiration. This set demonstrates just how strongly the former “borrowed” from the latter. I could cite all sorts of connections, but just in “Statue” we find at least a couple. For one, the Friends character played by Alex Baldwin in Season Eight reminds me an awful lot of this episode’s Ray, and the story in which it appears an apartment cleaner steals items gets recycled that year as well.
The Heart Attack: “George thinks he's had a heart attack. The doctor tells him otherwise, but he might want to get his tonsils and adenoids removed. Elaine is interested in the doctor and he is interested in her tongue. George not wanting to deal with the cost, follows Kramer's suggestion of going to a holistic healer. The healer's cure turns George purple and the ride to the hospital is delayed over a Chuckle.”
Once again, a guest actor helps out, as Stephen Tobolowsky makes a simplistic character a funny one. He’s cast against type, as he usually does nerdy businessman sorts, but it works. “Attack” relies on too many easy jokes - I never liked the cliché’ “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV riff” - and shows some more growing pains, but its third act and the Eckman scenes prosper.
The Revenge: “George quits his job in a huff after he is demoted to using the regular bathroom. Newman tells Kramer that he plans to jump off the building. Jerry suggests that George just go back into work next Monday morning and pretend like nothing happened; however, that doesn't work. Newman jumps, from the second floor. George plots revenge, and with Elaine's help, tries to slip his boss "a Mickey." Jerry suspects that his launderer is a larcenist after he discovers that $1500 he had stashed in his laundry bag is missing. Kramer helps Jerry get revenge by bringing a bag of concrete in to put into one of the wash machines.”
Throughout the show’s run, George gets many different jobs. “Revenge” presents his first firing, and it offers some great moments as we see him muse about possible career options. At times, the show seems too tied to its concept, as it focuses more on the plot about getting back at folks than I’d like. Nonetheless, it tosses out more than a few funny moments.
Note that two different renditions of this episode appear. There’s the “Original Aired Version” and the “Syndication Version”. The difference comes from Newman’s off-screen lines at the end. In the syndicated cut, Wayne Knight loops them in to match his later work as Newman. The “Original” edition includes those lines from a different actor.
The Deal: “Jerry and Elaine are watching TV late at night and stumble across "naked people" and that gets them both discussing whether they could have a relationship and not jeopardize their friendship. George says it can't be done, but Jerry and Elaine devise "a system"; however, it develops a little trouble when her birthday comes along.”
Season Two comes to a close with a somewhat limp episode. The DVD’s extras note that this story was invented primarily to placate NBC executives who wanted romance between Jerry and Elaine; the folks at the series went along with it to help ensure they’d return for a third season, at which time the concept quickly vanished. “The Deal” feels like an episode that no one at the show wanted to pursue. It’s slower-paced and drippier than usual; the scene in which Jerry and Elaine make their bargain comes across as something outside of the Seinfeld universe, and there’s even a hug! The show feels false for the series and it doesn’t provide a strong experience, though Jerry’s birthday present and card are pretty good.
Seasons One and Two of Seinfeld don’t present the series at its absolute best, but don’t take that as a slam. Most great shows work that way. Seen in isolation, these programs succeed strongly; they only lose some points by comparison to the material that would come in future years. Nonetheless, the DVDs include more than a smidgen of excellent material and they’re well worth a look.