These pretzels are making Appellate Judge Dave Ryan thirsty.
Our reviews of Seinfeld: Seasons One And Two (published May 18th, 2005), Seinfeld: Season Four (published August 22nd, 2005), Seinfeld: Season Five (published February 15th, 2006), Seinfeld: Season Six (published February 15th, 2006), Seinfeld: Season Seven (published November 13th, 2006), Seinfeld: Season Eight (published May 30th, 2007), and Seinfeld: The Complete Series (published November 6th, 2007) are also available.
"He is a loathsome, offensive brute. Yet I can't look away…"
Seinfeld entered its third season in the fall of 1991 with critical accolades galore, a loyal cult following, and a strong vote of confidence from NBC. What it didn't have was ratings. Although respectable, Seinfeld's Nielsen numbers weren't in the same ballpark with NBC's Thursday night comedies (led by perennial ratings monsters The Cosby Show and Cheers). However, for the first time NBC slotted Seinfeld into its fall schedule (previously, it had been a midseason replacement series), tucking it in at 9:30 on Wednesday night after Night Court, which was entering what would be its last season. (In the end, NBC would also order a complete 22-episode season of Seinfeld, another first for the show.)
But the creators and producers of the show didn't really care about all of this. Seinfeld was so different from other sitcoms, both in its humor and its production, that they were essentially isolated in a world of their own. The third season of Seinfeld was still written primarily by two Larrys—David and Charles—with little input from outside the tight circle of Seinfeld's core staff. It was still based largely on Larry David's neurotic world view, as filtered through the observational comedy of the show's star, Jerry Seinfeld.
If the first two seasons of Seinfeld were the birth pangs of a show trying to force its way into the world, this third season was its adolescence and young adulthood—a time when the show discovered what it was, and what it could be. Featuring the first few "classic" Seinfeld episodes, the set is remarkably consistent in its high level of quality and humor. Audiences responded, too—the show steadily grew in popularity (as reflected by its ratings) throughout the season. (In fact, midway through the season the show was flip-flopped with Night Court, since NBC felt—correctly, as it turned out—that Seinfeld would do a better job of holding the audience generated by its 8:00 lead-in Unsolved Mysteries.) By the end of the 1991-92 season, Seinfeld's return was a foregone conclusion. By the end of the next season, it would be tapped as the successor to Cheers in the marquee Thursday 9:00 timeslot. The rest is history. Yada yada yada.
Facts of the Case
It's a show about nothing that winds up being about everything.
In case you've been under a rock or living in a cave for the past two decades, Seinfeld is very loosely based on the life of stand-up comedian Jerome Seinfeld (you know him as Jerry), who plays himself. Seinfeld had been performing stand-up since his college days, but made his first real splash—as so many other comics have—on the Tonight Show in 1981. He became a favorite of Johnny Carson, and made many appearances on the Tonight Show and David Letterman's Late Night over the years. He even appeared on Benson for a brief time, an experience that almost completely turned him against television comedy.
Seinfeld, like his contemporaries Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Carol Leifer, and George Miller, had developed an "observational" style of stand-up comedy, inspired in no small part by George Carlin's stand-up act. Seinfeld's jokes weren't gags; they were observations that highlighted the humor in everyday situations—anything from airline food to supermarket checkout stands. It was clever and different, but not as aggressive or off-putting as Carlin's highly political rants were to some. On its own, though, it didn't seem to be the kind of comedy that would translate well to television.
Enter Larry David. David was a largely unsuccessful stand-up comedian who had turned to comedy writing, specifically sketch comedy for television. He wound up as a writer and performer on ABC's Saturday Night Live clone Fridays, where he met a talented physical comedian named Michael Richards. After Fridays went under, and after a brief and unsatisfying mid-'80s stint at SNL itself, David found himself teaming with Seinfeld on a sitcom pilot, The Seinfeld Chronicles. The premise of the show was, roughly, "how does a comic get his material?" Clips of Seinfeld's stand-up act punctuated a stand-alone story that showed the "real life" events that inspired those jokes. David suggested Richards for the cast; he became Seinfeld's neighbor Kessler. Rounding out the cast for the pilot was Jason Alexander, a well-regarded Broadway actor who had just won a Tony for his role in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Alexander was cast as George Costanza, Jerry's neurotic best friend—a character based not-so-loosely on Larry David himself. Rounding out the cast was Lee Garlington (The Sum of All Fears) as Claire, a waitress at the local diner whom Jerry and George knew well.
NBC, who had paid for the pilot, wasn't thrilled by it. They aired it on July 5, 1989 (a Wednesday), in the midst of the summer rerun season. Unsurprisingly, it did not score well in the ratings. And so that was that—or so it was thought. But a few people inside NBC thought the show had promise, and lobbied hard for it. NBC executives relented, and allowed production of four additional episodes, which ultimately aired in May and June of 1990. Some changes were made to the show for these four episodes, however. Claire the Waitress was gone; NBC felt the show needed a stronger female presence. In came former SNL player Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jerry's sort-of girlfriend Elaine Benes (loosely based on Carol Leifer). Kessler had been renamed Kramer, too. Finally, the show was no longer based on exploring the source of Jerry's stand-up act; instead, it just told its observational stories and used the stand-up as a garnish.
The four new episodes weren't highly rated, but critics were, for the most part, extremely verbose in their praise for the show. It was enough to get NBC to order 13 episodes of the show for the 1990-91 season. It began airing in January as a mid-season replacement. Ratings were fairly poor, but again the critical response was extremely positive. And the people who did watch were in extremely attractive advertising demographics, making the show more of a success for NBC than its plain ratings would indicate.
And so Seinfeld finally got a full 22-episode run in the 1991-92 television season—a season that's contained in full on this DVD set. Once again we return to 129 W. 81st St. and find our four protagonists continuing to find new ways to screw up their lives, and the lives of others…
Seinfeld: Season Three has all the Season Three episodes, on four nicely-packaged discs. Note that the episodes are presented in their production order, not in their broadcast order.
• The Note
• The Truth
• The Dog
• The Library
• The Pen
• The Parking Garage
• The Café
• The Tape
• The Nose Job
• The Alternate Side
• The Red Dot
• The Suicide
• The Subway
• The Pez Dispenser
• The Boyfriend (parts 1 and 2)
• The Fix-Up
• The Limo
• The Good Samaritan
• The Letter
• The Parking Space
• The Keys
Seinfeld, at this point in its history, was a remarkably consistent sitcom. At worst, these episodes easily reach the "very funny" standard. At best ("The Library," "The Pen," " The Café," "The Boyfriend"), they are historic. A large part of this stems from Seinfeld's blissful ignorance of most situation comedy conventions. Seinfeld is paced more like a stage comedy; intricately woven dialogue replaces the traditional "gag-laugh-pause-repeat" pattern of most sitcoms. In fact, as one of the episode commentaries notes, a more apt parallel for Seinfeld is the old Yiddish and burlesque theater. Jason Alexander, in an interview, discusses how Seinfeld's humor differs from most comedy. He says that all the humor in the show really arises from the ridiculous situations the characters find themselves in. The characters often act reasonably; it's the circumstances that are funny.
At its best, the third season of Seinfeld is as crisply and wittily staged as a Molière farce. Just look at the density of the dialogue in, for example, "The Pen." Television comedy just hadn't been made like this, at least not since Milton Berle and Sid Caesar formed the first standards of television comedy definitively in the vaudevillian mold. The ensemble nature of Seinfeld first developed in this season, too. The aforementioned "The Pen" was the last episode that didn't feature all four of the main players at least once. (It was the only show without George; Kramer had also been AWOL in Season Two's "The Chinese Restaurant.") Season Three also saw a shift in the way the main characters were drawn. As the season progressed, all became more neurotic, erratic, and self-absorbed. These are people who really did horrible things to each other on a regular basis, but in the end, they were stuck with each other. (Who else could possibly want to befriend these bizarre people?) Even poor Elaine, who started out fairly normal, was halfway to Jerryhood by the end of this season. Other commentators have beaten the "why we like Seinfeld" question to death; I'm not going to do so here. Suffice it to say that there's a lot of these characters in each of us, allowing us to identify with them; yet we somehow find it non-threatening to our egos to laugh at the obtuseness of these four.
Given the level of Seinfeld syndication saturation, it's unlikely that anyone reading this would lack exposure to the show, or not know whether or not they like it. The real question posed by these Seinfeld DVD sets is, "What, if anything, do they provide for the Seinfeld fan that justifies spending their purchase price?" The answer is "quite a bit."
First, there's the convenience of being able to watch your favorite episodes whenever you want. That's a plus right there. (Heck, I've watched "The Pen"—one of the three or four greatest Seinfeld episodes ever—three times already.) Plus, the picture quality is superior to your typical broadcast picture. Colors are very vivid and sharp, as is the overall picture—but not so sharp that you forget this show was filmed and not videotaped. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Sound is adequate—it's a Dolby stereo mix that's nothing to brag about, but it gets the job done. The package claims that these are the full, network-length episodes, not the shorter syndication version episodes—another big plus, if true. However, I have no way to evaluate this claim, although I also have no reason to suspect that it's false.
The healthy bundle of extras is what really adds value to this package. Several of the episodes have commentary tracks, which fall into three main categories. There are the "Larry and Jerry" commentaries, which pair Seinfeld and David. These are about what you'd expect—they don't talk a lot, and they dwell on obscure details from time to time, but there's a lot of interesting tidbits in there. There are also the "Julia/Michael/Jason" commentaries, which reunite the three "other" members of Jerry's Kids in various combinations. They have the best behind-the-scenes info, and their affection for each other is obvious. Finally, there are the "Somebody Else" commentaries. These are usually focused on the episode in question, rather than the show in general. But they have their moments. Apparently, it was a controversy over these commentary tracks that delayed the release of Seinfeld on DVD—so it probably shouldn't surprise me that less than half of the episodes have commentaries.
Possibly the best of the extras is the series of "Inside Looks" that accompany each episode. They are 3-5 minute mini-documentaries that explore aspects of the episode in question—what real-life incident inspired it, information about guest stars, cast recollections of filming the show, and the like. These mini-features are chock full of fun, interesting trivia, and are not to be skipped. Similar, but a little more schizophrenic, are the "Notes About Nothing" text commentary tracks. Similar in nature to the Michael Okuda-penned text commentaries on the Star Trek DVD releases, these commentaries are a rapid-fire series of factoids about people, places, quotes, and events in the show. However, you never know what you're going to get. Sometimes, it's information about a guest star's other credits in film and television. Sometimes, it's an explanation that the Dewey Decimal System is a method of cataloguing books in libraries. Occasionally, it's something that anyone over the age of six—let alone the typical Seinfeld fan—would know off the top of their heads, which seems patronizing and unnecessary. On the whole, though, the text tracks are worthwhile (although much of the good info is recapped in the better "Inside Look" featurettes).
Deleted scenes are provided for some episodes. Usually, these are either alternate takes of scenes that were changed for broadcast, or small bits of scenes that were snipped for time purposes. It's fun to see them, but there's nothing earth-shattering here. (Many of the scenes are either shown or discussed in the "Inside Looks" and "Notes About Nothing," to boot.) More interesting is the "Master of His Domain" feature, a collection of unused bits from the stand-up routines filmed for the show. Some NBC promos, and a photo gallery, are also provided.
There's one substantial featurette included here: "Kramer vs. Kramer: Kenny to Cosmo." Although you'd think, given the title, that this was about the Kramer character and his real-life inspiration (indeed, the DVD box describes it as such), it's actually more of an in-depth look at actor Michael Richards. (But yes, we do briefly see Kenny Kramer, the real-life inspiration for the Kramer character.) It's a good featurette for fans, mainly because Richards is so different than what you'd expect him to be like, given the character he plays. His exceptional skill at physical comedy is a gift, but it's also the result of a lot of hard work and focus. I guarantee you'll have a better appreciation of his efforts on the show after watching this little featurette.
The only thing wrong with this set is that it ends. But fear not, there's plenty more Seinfeld to come. Until then, Seinfeld: Season Three is a winner for fans.
I have a confession to make: Although I watched the show devotedly from its inception (including "The Seinfeld Chronicles") to the final episode, I never watched Seinfeld in reruns. Until now. Frankly, I didn't think the show would hold up well for me in repeats. I was so completely, thoroughly wrong in that assessment that it's hard for me to comprehend that I ever believed it. Seinfeld is far from a show about nothing. It's intelligent, and dense with its intricate style of comedy. Because it doesn't rely on jokes and gags for humor, it holds up to repeated viewings like no other sitcom in recent television history. I was laughing just as hard while re-watching episodes I had seen less than an hour before. How often does that happen with a television comedy?
"I don't judge a man by the length of his hair or the kind of music he listens to. Rock was never my bag. But you put on a pair of shoes when you walk into the New York Public Library, fella."
[Editor's Note: Sony used two differing, competing labels to refer to this collection. At varying points on the packaging, it was referred to as either "Season Three" or "Volume Two." We have opted to label it, for our purposes, as strictly Season Three, since that seems the most logical and helpful point of reference for you, the reader and consumer.]
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