Appellate Judge Dan Mancini could go on and on about this modern classic of TV sitcoms. As a matter of fact, he's done just that.
Our reviews of Seinfeld: Seasons One And Two (published May 18th, 2005), Seinfeld: Season Three (published June 8th, 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.
"Who says you gotta have a story? Remember when we were waiting for that table in that Chinese restaurant that time? That could be a TV show."—George Costanza, "The Pitch"
Larry David is a genius. Let's get that out of the way up front. Before becoming famous in front of the camera on his HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, David was chief among the twisted minds behind Seinfeld. His peculiar sense of humor—particularly his obsessions with the minutiae of his own life, and the gray areas of social propriety and obligation (e.g. if you buy Ted Danson a shirt for a gift, and it's missing a button, is it your responsibility to exchange it or Ted's?)—is the driving force behind both shows.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Seinfeld's fourth season. The show about nothing became the show about itself when David proposed a season-long story arc in which Jerry and George pitch a sitcom to NBC just as the real Seinfeld and David (who was the inspiration for George) had. The line between the show and the lives of its creators had always been a thin one, but David was up to something new. The fourth season of Seinfeld would be like a wicked little ouroboros, turning in on itself, examining and highlighting the very things that had made its first three seasons such groundbreaking television, and delivering comedy that relied on a dense web of self-referential continuity. It would pull the show inside-out and, as its pièce de résistance, end at the beginning with a two-part finale called "The Pilot."
Warren Littlefield and the other NBC executives were skeptical, but Season Four—which happened to coincide with the exit of network stalwart Cheers—made Seinfeld a pop culture phenomenon and the new anchor of NBC's ratings-dominating Thursday night lineup.
Facts of the Case
Volume Three of Seinfeld on DVD contains all 24 episodes of the fourth season, spread across four discs:
• "The Trip (Part 1)"
Picking up where Season Three finale, "The Keys," left off, Jerry
takes George to L.A. with him for an appearance on The Tonight Show.
After seeing Kramer's cameo on Murphy Brown, they want to look him up
while they're in town. The K-man is living in a flea bag hotel, where's he's
attracted the attention of the landlord, Helene (Elmarie Wendel, 3rd Rock
from the Sun), a Norma Desmond-like one-time ingénue of Three Stooges
shorts. He runs into Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) at a café, and
terrifies the actor while trying to pitch a movie treatment to him. The Smog
Strangler is on the loose in the city, and a hard-nosed cop named Johnny Martel
suspects Kramer is the murderer. Controversy erupts between George and Jerry
over whether Lupe, the chambermaid at their hotel, should tuck or untuck the
sheets on their beds. Backstage at The Tonight Show, George annoys Corbin
Bernsen (L.A. Law) and George Wendt (Cheers). Jerry's routine
bombs because Lupe threw out his notes.
Episode Extras: Commentary with writer Larry Charles; Notes About Nothing; Inside Look; deleted scenes.
• "The Trip (Part 2)"
Determined to exonerate Kramer, Jerry and George call the LAPD in order to
vouch for his character. When Lt. Martel sends a black-and-white out to pick up
the clueless duo for questioning, the officers inadvertently nab the real Smog
Strangler (Clint Howard, Evilspeak)
on a 519. George and Jerry argue with the killer over the proper amount to tip a
chambermaid. Kramer is arrested and interrogated by Martel, but is cleared as a
suspect when there's a murder in Laurel Canyon while he's in custody. George
pulls a hamstring when Lupe forgets to leave his sheets untucked.
Episode Extras: Commentary with writer Larry Charles; Notes About Nothing.
• "The Pitch/The Ticket"
After one of Jerry's sets, NBC executives Stu Chermak and Jay Crespi (based on real NBC suits Rick Ludwin and Jeremiah Bosgang) approach him about creating a series. The problem is, he doesn't have an idea for a sitcom. George and Kramer pitch outlandish ideas that involve antique shops and circus freaks, but none of them appeals to Jerry. George comes up with the idea of a show comprised of their inane daily conversations, a show about nothing. While waiting to pitch the show to the NBC executives, Jerry runs into a psychologically unstable writer, Crazy Joe Davola. He makes a faux pas, mentioning Kramer's upcoming party, to which Davola has not been invited. The "nothing" pitch to NBC president Russell Dalrymple (based on Warren Littlefield, and played by Bob Balaban, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) doesn't go well. George arranges a date with Susan Ross (Heidi Swedberg, Hot Shots!), one of the NBC executives, but Kramer vomits on her after accidentally drinking sour milk. Elaine is traveling Europe with her controlling psychiatrist/boyfriend, Dr. Reston (Stephen McHattie, Secretary).
Kramer swaps his radar detector for Newman's (Wayne Knight, Jurassic Park) motorcycle helmet.
The radar detector's a lemon and Newman gets a speeding ticket; the helmet saves
Kramer from a kick to the head by Crazy Joe Davola, though he suffers some
aftershocks. Davola's out for revenge against Jerry, too, because he believes
Jerry sabotaged his deal with NBC. Kramer's confusion and amnesia becomes a
major problem when Newman needs him as a witness in the court case contesting
his speeding ticket. Frustrated that it doesn't keep good time, Jerry throws a
watch his parents gave him into a trash can on the street. It's subsequently
recovered by Uncle Leo. George and Jerry's second meeting with NBC goes much
more smoothly, but George is offended by their offer of $13,000 to write the
• "The Wallet"
Morty and Helen Seinfeld (Barney Martin and Liz Sheridan) come to New York
from Florida so Morty can see a back specialist because of pain caused by their
sleeper sofa (see Season Three's "The Pen"). Morty embarrasses Uncle
Leo, who arranged the appointment, by accusing the prestigious doctor of
stealing his wallet. When the subject of the watch Morty and Helen gave Jerry
comes up, he tells them it's at the jeweler being repaired. Helen's upset when
she finds out Davola's after her son. Jerry's ready to accept NBC's deal, but
George tells Susan they're passing because it's nowhere near the money Ted
Danson makes. Susan gives George a gift of Cuban cigars from her father, but
they make him nauseous so he gives them to Kramer. Elaine's back from Europe and
wants to break it off with Dr. Reston, but can't because he has an eerie power
over her. She pretends she has a new boyfriend in order to drive Reston away.
When he demands to know the man's name, she tells him it's Kramer.
• "The Watch"
Jerry offers to buy his watch back from Uncle Leo so his parents won't know
he threw it away, but Leo proves to be a tough haggler. Helen pushes Jerry into
asking out Naomi, an attractive restaurant hostess, but is horrified to discover
she has an obnoxious laugh. Morty insists on picking up the restaurant tab,
though he doesn't have his wallet. When Russell Dalrymple passes on the show
instead of making a counter offer, George gets his home address from Susan's
planner and pays him an unannounced weekend visit, but Dalrymple plays hardball
on the deal. Kramer calls Dr. Reston at Elaine's behest, but is manipulated into
meeting with him face-to-face. While the two men are discussing Elaine at the
doctor's office, she meets and arranges a date with one of Reston's other
patients: Crazy Joe Davola. Jerry buys Morty a new wallet to replace the one
lost, and secretly puts $400 in it to replace his lost cash. Morty throws it
away because he hates Velcro connectors, and Uncle Leo retrieves it from the
• "The Bubble Boy"
Jerry and Naomi are supposed to join George and Susan for a weekend upstate
at Susan's father's cabin, but Naomi cancels when George compares her laugh to
Elmer Fudd's. At Monk's Diner, Jerry and Elaine meet Mel Sanger (Brian
Doyle-Murray, Saturday Night Live), a Yoo-hoo truck driver whose son,
Donald (Seinfeld writer John Hayman), has an immune deficiency that
forces him to live in a plastic bubble. The kid is a fan of Jerry's and Sanger
asks him to pay him a visit on their way upstate. Kramer uses one of his Cuban
cigars to bribe a golf pro into arranging a round at the Westchester Country
Club. Obsessed with making good time, George loses Jerry on the way upstate and
arrives at the bubble boy's house before him. Jerry fights with a rest stop
diner waitress over an autographed picture. A Trivial Pursuit game between
George and the caustic and belligerent Donald devolves into fisticuffs, raising
the ire of the local townsfolk. When Kramer's golf outing falls through, and
Naomi has a change of heart, they decide to surprise everyone up at the cabin.
The already less-than-perfect weekend is ruined when Kramer's misplaced Cuban
burns down the cabin.
• "The Cheever Letters"
Jerry and George begin writing the pilot for the sitcom, but have trouble
focusing. Jerry is annoyed because Elaine's assistant, Sandra, makes small talk
whenever he calls. When Elaine asks her to stop, she's devastated and Jerry
feels guilty. He goes out on a sympathy date with her, but makes a fool of
himself when trying to respond cleverly to her dirty talk. Kramer's upset
because the loss of the Cubans in the cabin fire means he may have to go back to
playing public golf courses. He arranges a visit with the Cuban embassy in New
York to try and rectify the situation. George is meeting Susan's parents (Warren
Frost and Grace Zabriskie) for the first time, but must break the news to Mr.
Ross that the cabin's been burned to the ground. The insurance company delivers
the only thing to survive the fire: a box of letters that reveal a decades-past
homosexual relationship between Mr. Ross and writer John Cheever.
• "The Opera"
Kramer has tickets to see Pavarotti in Pagliacci. Jerry's reluctant
to go, but is anxious to meet Elaine's new beau Joey. The mystery-man is none
other than Crazy Joe Davola, who, off of his meds, has been leaving threatening
messages on Jerry's machine. He's also built a shrine to Elaine, made of
photographs he's secretly taken of her. The night of the opera, George is
plagued with an ill-fitting tux. He and Kramer attempt to scalp a couple of the
tickets, but George has a run-in with the father of a friend at whose wedding
he'd made a profanity-laden toast years earlier. Kramer's childhood fear of
clowns is rekindled when Davola shows up at the opera house, dressed as
• "The Virgin"
Jerry rekindles a relationship with Marla (Jane Leeves, Frasier), a closet organizer he'd been interested in around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He's taken aback, though, when she confesses to being a virgin. Elaine makes a faux pas when she tells Marla an involved story about her diaphragm. George is bummed out when he realizes that Susan is his full-fledged girlfriend, and he can't date other women. He's trapped in a double-bind: If he didn't have a girlfriend, he could use his job writing Jerry to impress women, but if he breaks it off with Susan the show may be dropped by NBC. Kramer's gotten rid of his TV because of its negative influence in his life, but spends all of his time watching Jerry's. Elaine jaywalks and is involved in an accident with Ping, a Chinese food delivery man, who slaps her with a lawsuit. George comes up with an idea for the pilot that the network suits love: Jerry gets in a car accident, and the judge sentences the other driver to be his butler. George gets Susan fired by kissing her during a meeting at NBC, but finds women are less impressed by his job as a sitcom writer than he'd anticipated.
Episode Extras: Notes About Nothing; deleted scene.
• "The Contest"
George's mother (Estelle Harris, Toy
Story 2) falls, injures her back, and has to be hospitalized after catching
George…you know: he was alone…he had a Glamour
magazine…When he vows never to do that again, it leads to a contest
between himself, Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine to see who can go the longest without
doing it. The challenge become unbearable when a woman in an apartment across
the street from Jerry's spends her time walking around naked; Jerry's intimacy
with Marla the virgin proceeds at a snail's pace; John F. Kennedy Jr. attends in
Elaine's aerobics class; and George is haunted by the silhouette of a gorgeous
nurse sponge-bathing an equally gorgeous patient in the hospital bed next to his
Episode Extras: Commentary with Jerry Seinfeld; Notes About Nothing; Inside Look; deleted scenes.
• "The Airport"
On a flight back from St. Louis, Jerry and Elaine get a single-seat upgrade.
Jerry takes the first class seat, leaving Elaine in coach. Jerry meets a
beautiful model name Tia, while Elaine suffers a surly flight attendant (JM J.
Bullock, Too Close for Comfort) and a "human slug" in the seat
next to her. Meanwhile, George and Kramer try to make their way to JFK to pick
up Jerry and Elaine. Matters are complicated when Kramer takes the Long Island
Expressway to the airport instead of George's Grand Central/Van Wyck route. Once
at the airport, Kramer runs into an old roommate, Grossbard, who owes him 240
bucks, and George has a close encounter with a notorious criminal on his way to
• "The Pick"
George has second thoughts after breaking up with Susan, and decides to see
Elaine's new therapist, Dana Foley (Gina Hecht, Mork & Mindy), to
deal with his obsession. Kramer takes Elaine's picture for her Christmas card,
but neither notices until it's too late that one of her nipples was exposed. Tia
is modeling for print ads for a new Calvin Klein fragrance—The
Ocean—a rip-off of Kramer's fragrance idea, The Beach (see "The Pez
Dispenser" from Season Three). Kramer wants Tia to arrange a meeting with
Calvin Klein, but Jerry's relationship with her is on the skids because she
thinks she saw him picking his nose.
Episode Extras: Notes About Nothing; Inside Look; deleted scenes.
• "The Visa"
George meets Cheryl Fong, an immigration lawyer. He charms her with his
sense of humor, but worries she won't be attracted to him if Jerry and Elaine
are funnier than him in her presence. It turns out Cheryl is Ping's cousin,
"the shark" who's suing Elaine over the jaywalking incident. She
agrees to drop the case against Elaine. Meanwhile, Kramer's away at a baseball
fantasy camp where he plunks Joe Pepitone, then accidentally punches Mickey
Mantle during the bench-clearing brawl that follows. Babu Bhatt is working at
Monk's Diner after the failure of his Pakistani restaurant (see "The
Café" from Season Two), and Jerry has gotten him an apartment in his
building. Unfortunately, he faces deportation when Elaine and Jerry accidentally
lose his visa-renewal application.
• "The Movie"
Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George are supposed to meet at the Paragon to see
Checkmate. The plan goes awry when Jerry gets stuck sharing a cab with
hack comedian Pat Buckles, Kramer has a hankering for a Papaya King hot dog,
George is hassled by a diminutive theater usher, and Elaine stresses out trying
to save everyone a seat in the theater. They miss Checkmate, but somehow
end up at Rochelle Rochelle, a movie about a young woman's strange,
erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.
Episode Extras: Notes About Nothing; deleted scene.
• "The Outing"
George's latest girlfriend, Allison, won't let him break up with her. Sharon
Leonard, a reporter for NYU's newspaper, comes to the mistaken conclusion that
Jerry and George are lovers. A defective two-line phone Kramer buys Jerry as a
birthday gift makes matters worse. Jerry freaks out when George's birthday gift
to him is tickets for Guys and Dolls, and Elaine's is The Collected
Works of Bette Midler. Kramer's offended that Jerry has hidden his
homosexuality from him all these years, and Jerry's mother blames herself
because of a pair of culottes she accidentally bought him from the girl's
department when he was a kid. The news causes George's mother to fall again. She
ends up in the hospital where George is haunted by the silhouette of a male
nurse sponge bathing a male patient in the bed next to his mother's. Still, the
outing may be George's key to successfully dumping Allison.
Episode Extras: Commentary with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards; Notes About Nothing; Inside Look; deleted scenes.
• "The Shoes"
Jerry and George complete the script for the pilot of Jerry, but
George snaps when Dana Foley doesn't find it funny. Kramer proves himself a true
friend by snubbing Gail Cunningham, a chef who dated Jerry three times but
wouldn't kiss him goodnight. Elaine is offended when Gail compliments her
Botticelli shoes. The deal with NBC is torpedoed when Dalrymple catches George
ogling his 15-year-old daughter (Denise Richards, Wild Things). To win back the deal,
Jerry, George, and Elaine set up a sting operation at Pfeiffer's restaurant,
where Gail works and Dalrymple favors the pasta primavera.
• "The Old Man"
Elaine, George, and Jerry sign up to do volunteer work with senior citizens.
Unfortunately, Jerry's assignee, Sid Fields (Bill Erwin, who was nominated for
an Emmy for his work in the episode), is crotchety; George's is too optimistic
to waste time hanging out with George; and Elaine's has a goiter the size of a
football, and once had an affair with Gandhi. Kramer and Newman have become
partners in a money-making scheme: selling used vinyl to Bleeker Bob's Records.
Trouble brews when Kramer and Newman show up at Mr. Fields's house to pick up
some old records he was going to throw out, and George hits it off with the old
man's Senegalese housekeeper.
Episode Extras: Notes About Nothing; Inside Look; deleted scenes; alternate ending.
• "The Implant"
Jerry's enamored with Sidra (Teri Hatcher, Desperate Housewives), a
woman he met at the health club, until Elaine tells him her breasts are fake.
Jerry refuses to accept Elaine's opinion, though, since she's never seen Sidra
naked in the locker room. He goads Elaine into spying on her in the sauna.
Kramer is convinced one of the health club's patrons is fatwa'ed novelist Salman
Rushdie. George has been on nine dates with Betsy (Megan Mullally, Will &
Grace), but hasn't gotten any action because circumstances conspire against
him. He schemes to fly to Detroit on a "death in the family" discount
fare for her aunt's funeral in order to win points with her, but runs into
trouble when he offends her brother Timmy by double-dipping a potato chip at the
• "The Handicap Spot"
At the mall to buy a wedding gift for The Drake, Kramer talks George into
parking his father Frank's (John Randolph/Jerry Stiller) car in a handicap spot.
When the purloined spot causes a wheelchaired woman to have an accident, a
vigilante mob camps around the car, waiting for the driver to return. George,
Kramer, Jerry, and Elaine are trapped at the mall and miss the engagement party.
Later, Frank is arrested for the parking violation just as he's receiving an
award for his charitable work with the United Volunteers. Elaine and Jerry are
furious when The Drake breaks it off with his fiancée, and gives her all of
the wedding gifts, including the big-screen TV they bought him. Kramer visits
the injured disabled woman, Lola, at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, and falls in love
with her. He guilts George into chipping in to buy her a new wheelchair, but
they buy her a used model that ends up being a lemon.
• "The Junior Mint"
Jerry has a date with a woman he met in the produce section of the grocery
store, but can't remember her name. He only knows it rhymes with a part of the
female anatomy. George's long-forgotten childhood account at the Lincoln Savings
Bank has blossomed into $1900 that's burning a hole in his pocket. Elaine's
ex-boyfriend, Roy (Sherman Howard, Day
of the Dead), an abstract painter, is in the hospital for a spleenectomy.
When Elaine sees he's lost a lot of weight, she develops a crush on him again.
Kramer and Jerry get themselves invited to the operating theater to watch the
procedure, and accidentally drop a Junior Mint into Roy's open abdomen. George
decides to invest his windfall in Roy's art on the chance it may be worth
something if the candy kills him.
Episode Extras: Commentary with Jerry Seinfeld; Notes About Nothing; Inside Look; deleted scene.
• "The Smelly Car"
A valet leaves Jerry's car infused with rampant, mutant B.O. The noxious
odor gets into Elaine's hair, jeopardizing her relationship with a new
boyfriend, Carl (Nick Bakay, ESPN's SportsCenter). George bumps into
Susan and her lesbian lover, Mona, while returning Rochelle Rochelle to
the video store. He becomes obsessed with the idea that he drove her to
lesbianism, yet is oddly attracted by her metamorphosis. Kramer initiates an
illicit affair with Mona when he learns she's a golf instructor.
Episode Extras: Notes About Nothing; Inside Look.
• "The Pilot (Parts 1 and 2)"
NBC is supposed to be casting Jerry, but Russell has become obsessed with Elaine after their single date. Unimpressed with his television career, Elaine tells him she might be able to respect him if he worked for Greenpeace or something. Kramer wants to be cast as Kramer, and can't understand why Jerry resists the idea. George makes an appointment with Dana Foley because he's afraid that if the show is picked up and he becomes successful, there will be some sort of cosmic retribution. His neurosis isn't helped when she notices a spot of discoloration on his lip, leading him to believe he'll soon be dead of cancer. During the casting, George is disturbed when Tom Pepper, the actor reading for the role of Kramer, steals a box a raisins. Kramer auditions for Kramer under the name Martin Van Nostrand, but his reading is interrupted by an acute and urgent spasm of his bowels. When he's unable to find a vacant restroom, he misses his window of opportunity and becomes constipated. Monk's Diner is under new ownership and Elaine is upset by the voluptuousness of the new waitresses. She applies for a job to prove they're discriminatory. Sandi, the method actress playing Elaine, wants to date Jerry then break up in order to immerse herself in the role.
On set for rehearsals, George gets under the director's (frequent
Seinfeld director, Tom Cherones) skin, and decides to confront Tom Pepper
about the stolen raisins. Jerry's freaking out because he can't act. Bran,
Metamucil, Ex Lax, and Milk of Magnesia have all proven useless in solving
Kramer's peristalsis problem, but he doesn't want to resort to an enema. Elaine
files a report against Monk's with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,
but discovers an innocuous explanation for the waitresses' ample proportions.
Crazy Joe Davola shows up at the taping of the pilot, seeking revenge. Later,
while watching the broadcast of the show, Elaine finds Morty's wallet stuck
between the cushions of Jerry's couch. The future of Jerry is in jeopardy
when Russell disappears to attack a whaler with Greenpeace, and his replacement,
Rita Kirson, passes on the show.
Episode Extras: Commentary with production designer Tom Azzari and director/producer Tom Cherones; Notes About Nothing.
Over a decade after its initial broadcast, Season Four of Seinfeld still feels revolutionary. Individual episodes like "The Virgin," "The Contest," and "The Pilot" are among the best of the series' entire run, but it's the totality of the season—its dense, complex web of comedy—that makes it something special. To my knowledge, nothing this grand had ever been done on a network situation comedy before, and nothing like it has been pulled off since.
Consider the complexity of the season-long sitcom-development story arc. It bites the hands that feed it by satirizing network suits, the inanity of the average sitcom, and the rubes who tune in to them week after week. When Jerry and George first pitch ideas for the pilot episode of Jerry, one of Jerry's offerings is the plot of Seinfeld's second season episode, "The Chinese Restaurant." Considered groundbreaking television at that time because of its one-act play structure, the episode is a real-time chronicle of Jerry, George, and Elaine's 23-minute wait for a table at a restaurant. The NBC executives shepherding Jerry bristle at the concept, but find a follow-up pitch about a show in which Jerry is in an auto accident and the other driver is sentenced by a judge to be his butler side-splittingly funny. Their favoring a plotline that sounds only marginally more absurd that some of the crud on run-of-the-mill sitcoms over the plot of the episode that was, up until then, Seinfeld's most unique and critically-acclaimed, says much about how Larry David and his staff of writers viewed the suits to whom they answered and television audiences in general. The season is riddled with a comic disdain for the entire medium of television. George is laughed at when he tries to impress a woman by telling her he's writing a sitcom. One gets the feeling that Elaine is speaking for Larry David when she tells Russell Dalrymple in the David-penned episode "The Pilot" that she doesn't like TV and can't respect him because he's the president of NBC. Dalrymple's ensuing insanity elevates David's lampoon of Warren Littlefield into the realm of the absurd.
Larry David's attack on his bosses might come off as hypocritical—a network television sitcom poking fun at the stupidity of television sitcoms and network bureaucracy?—if not for how mercilessly he points his satire at himself. David may rake Warren Littlefield and network television's lowest-common-denominator, consensus decision-making over the coals, but he never spares himself an equal measure of abuse. He is always the butt of his own best jokes. There's something acutely funny about Jeremy Piven (Entourage), who plays the actor cast as George in Jerry, describing his character (and therefore George, and therefore Larry David) as a loser. Funnier still is Piven's line-for-line reading of dialogue from Season Three's "The Note," an episode in which George fears he's a latent homosexual because a massage from a man causes "it" to move. The slapstick antics of Cosmo Kramer may have been a crowd-pleaser, but I'll venture to say it is George Costanza who distinguishes Seinfeld from all other network comedies. Has there ever been a primary character on a TV comedy so unapologetically venal, self-centered, and pathetic? Okay, Phil Silvers's Sergeant Bilko may come close, but in Costanza we're talking about a guy who literally knocks down a clown and an old lady, then runs past children in order to exit a burning house (Season Five's "The Fire"). And the show's writers were absolutely relentless about not softening the character or making him more likable or roundly human as the show evolved. But, then again, David and his team came into Seinfeld with a very concrete understanding of what they considered funny, and almost no knowledge of the formulas and conventions of writing sitcom scripts. Given the right blend of talent, that dynamic is capable of producing the most innovative, least derivative material.
Laudable as Larry David's self-deprecatory humor is, George Costanza would be little more than a Woody Allen clone absent the quirks and carefully-timed line reads of Jason Alexander. The precision, timing, and meticulous construction of character by the entire lead cast is an essential contributor to the show's quality. As broad as Kramer's pratfalls and other antics are, watch closely and you'll see that Michael Richards brings a surprising subtlety to his reactions, and that he has an incredible acumen for performing in the moment, mining happenstance for laughs. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a special talent for finding just the right inflection and cadence to make even mundane lines funny. By the fourth season, each of the leads has fallen into a comfortable rhythm, and they've congealed into a formidable comedy team. The idiosyncrasies of each character, and the intricately realized dynamics of their relationships with one another, provide nearly limitless comic possibilities. As a matter of fact, one of Seinfeld's less obvious charms is the accuracy with which it recreates the texture of friendship. The show is often absurd, its characters sometimes caricatures, but its world is familiar—even to those of us who aren't thirtysomething singles living in New York—because we recognize, from our own friendships, the shared experience and short-hand language that governs the characters' interactions. Seinfeld may be over-the-top, but it's also somehow true-to-life. No small part of the credit for that dynamic belongs to the finely-honed comedy team of Jason Alexander, Michael Richards, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Their complex dance of sharing funny-man/straight-man responsibilities makes the show's foundation of camaraderie feel surprisingly real.
Jerry Seinfeld, too, is at the top of his form. The least of the show's actors, by the fourth season he's gotten good enough to settle into a kind of referee role, the center of calm around which much of the show's frantic comedy swirls. Seinfeld almost comes off as unnecessary, but don't be fooled. He brings three essentials to the show. First, he provides a warm, inviting face for Larry David's cold and cynical comedy. Second, his intelligent, wry wit, less manic than the three other principals, provides ballast for some of the show's more outrageous happenings—he is the somewhat normal door through which we enter this Bizarro World. Third, his willingness to let others on Seinfeld have some of the show's biggest laughs is a rarity among television stars. It's the source of the show's incredible density, which is what keeps the episodes fresh over repeat viewings. Every episode of Seinfeld has as much comedy as three or four episodes of your average sitcom because the episodes trace plotlines for each of the central characters. The way plotlines eventually merge at episodes' ends is one of the great joys of the series. Seinfeld's generosity extends well beyond his co-stars, too. The show boasts some of the best character actor work of any network television show, largely because bit players are allowed to come on and deliver genuinely funny work. It's obvious from the supplemental material on these DVDs that Seinfeld, Alexander, Richards, and Louis-Dreyfus delighted in the work done by guest stars and character performers, rather than being threatened by it. The end result is a show that delivers a rich and detailed universe all its own. The Simpsons may rival Seinfeld in the vastness of its rogues' gallery of characters, but no other live-action situation comedy comes close.
For all my talk of the big-picture brilliance of Season Four's construction, its individual episodes are hilarious in and of themselves. "The Contest" is perhaps the most famous episode of the entire series. The masturbation-centered plotline was, of course, revolutionary in 1992, but the wit and élan of Larry David's script makes the episode more than a curious relic from the days before risqué premium-channel shows like Sex and the City and Queer as Folk. "The Contest" remains a genuinely funny 23 minutes of television. "The Outing" is not only responsible for launching the catch-phrase "…not that there's anything wrong with that" into American pop culture, it also manages to be funny and gay-friendly, while smartly satirizing political correctness. But satirizing political correctness is the show's specialty. Prior to Seinfeld, one has to go back to All in the Family to find a show so willing to speak the culturally unspeakable, and to so successfully translate taboo into laughs. In "The Handicap Spot," for example, Kramer says of Lola, "She has everything I've always dreamed of in a woman…except the walking." The line is both undeniably funny and difficult to imagine coming from the mouth of a character in any other sitcom without sparking outrage. "The Junior Mint" pushes boundaries of good taste as George actively lobbies for Jerry not to intervene to save Roy's life because it would mean no posthumous appreciation in value of the paintings he has sunk his money into. "The Bubble Boy" has the audacity to defy our expectations by giving us a rude and abrasive victim of an immune deficiency disorder who orders Susan Ross to take off her top, and tries to strangle George. Virginity, the elderly, breast implants, body odor, nose-picking, and air travel are among the topics that provide comic fodder for other Season Four episodes. A broad swath of social comment and dissection of human behavior, it's all hilarious stuff. Even "The Trip," whose Los Angeles setting makes it the least satisfying episode of the season, can only be described as weak in comparison to the rest of the episodes. Its convoluted goings-on pack more laughs and a greater degree of sophistication than most sitcoms. Kramer's jig-dancing glee at his release from police custody because the Smog Strangler has claimed another victim is as funny a gag as any in the Fourth Season, and just the sort of ultra-dark moral territory into which Seinfeld alone was brave enough, among network sitcoms, to tread.
As with the two previous volumes of Seinfeld on DVD, the episodes of Season Four have been remastered in high-definition and look phenomenal. The full screen image is significantly sharper than on broadcast television. Colors are bold and fully saturated, and blacks are rock solid. There's a slight patina of grain, entirely appropriate to the source. The image is gloriously free of damage or decay. Audio is presented in a fine Dolby Stereo mix that delivers clear dialogue. The show's bass and mouth-pop theme is fuller and more vibrant than on broadcast television. Audio commentaries are presented in Dolby Stereo Surround, providing plenty of space for the show's original soundtrack to nestle behind the commentary participants. The discs offer subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. But that's not all. Audio commentaries are subtitled in both Spanish and Portuguese, and text commentaries are available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Paying homage to the show's production design, stylized versions of the interiors of Jerry's apartment, Monk's Diner, the plane from "The Airport," and Jerry's car from "The Smelly Car," provide the theme for each disc's animated menus. Episodes can be played individually, or via a Play All option. Each episode has its own menu from which its supplements can be accessed. For maximum convenience, there is also an Extras menu that enables one to play all the episodes that have commentaries, or all the Inside Look featurettes. About the only thing the discs don't contain is an index of scenes. The episodes are divided into chapters, but you'll have to use your remote to jump ahead.
Most of the set's ample supplements are episode-specific. Every single episode has a text commentary. The yellow text appears in the subtitle space at the bottom of the screen, and provides light information about the show, or veers off into tangential trivia about topics raised in the characters' dialogue. Eight of the episodes have audio commentary tracks by a variety of the show's cast and crew. The most satisfying of them are those recorded for "The Trip," and "The Airport" by Larry Charles (The Tick), the writer/producer responsible for some of the show's darkest and most morbid material—both episodes he walks us through in this set, for example, feature notorious killers. Charles is conversational, and his tracks are filled with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and recollections of where storyline ideas came from and how they evolved. Writer Peter Mehlman's track on "The Implant" is nearly as entertaining and informative as Charles's. Mehlman wrote some of the quirkiest, most absurd of the show's jokes and plotlines, and reveals in his commentary that both George's attempt to get a discounted airline ticket for a death in someone else's family, and the controversy over the double-dipped potato chip, were based on events in his own life. Production designer Tom Azzari and director Tom Cherones team for a solid commentary on "The Pilot." The track is excellent but more serious, delving into the complex logistics of producing that particular episode. Unfortunately, the commentaries by Jason Alexander, Michael Richards, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus for "The Cheever Letters" and "The Outing" are less satisfying. The tone is jovial, the trio has a great time reminiscing about the episodes, and they do a fine job of pointing out performance nuances, but the tracks are mostly fluff and not nearly as funny as one would hope. Abandoned by Larry David, who'd recorded tracks with him for the first set of DVDs, Jerry Seinfeld's commentaries for "The Contest" and "The Junior Mint" are mostly disastrous. He does little more than laugh at some of the episodes' gags, point out the occasional plot mechanism, and leave long gaps of silence. I'll give him this, though: His comment during a frantic exchange of dialogue between himself and Richards in "The Contest," that if we think Kramer is funny on TV, we "ought to see that face from three inches away," is maybe the single funniest moment in all of the commentaries.
Fifteen of the episodes are accompanied by an Inside Look featurette. The pieces run anywhere from two to nine minutes in length, and are culled from cast and crew interviews shot specifically for the DVD releases. Sometimes they give entertaining and informative background information, as when Larry Charles relates the tale of one of the show's writers, in the middle of pitching a mediocre story idea, going off on a tangent about a heated argument between himself and friend over a misprinted answer on a Trivial Pursuit card (the anecdote would provide a crucial and memorable plot point in "The Bubble Boy" episode). Another of the highlights is footage of Fran Drescher (The Nanny) sitting in for Estelle Harris, who was not available the evening "The Contest" was taped. Other Inside Looks are brief and fluffy. The featurette for "The Visa," for instance, is nothing more than character actor Brian George (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) recalling his joy at the tantalizing possibility that Babu Bhatt's return might mean a recurring character spot on the show, only to discover that poor Babu is deported to Pakistan by episode's end.
Twelve of the episodes come with deleted scenes. "The Old Man" and "The Airport" each have an alternate ending.
Each disc in the set has some supplements in addition to the episode-specific ones. "The Breakthrough Season" is a 20-minute featurette housed on Disc One. Its focus is the success of Seinfeld's fourth season, and the show's rise to the anchor position of NBC's Thursday night line-up. For its first three-and-a-half seasons, the show survived on the acclaim of critics, the loyalty of NBC brass, and a very small but devoted fan base. This longer-than-normal rise to popularity is a major reason the show's writers and producers were able to forge and maintain such a unique tone and style for the show. The cast and crew, as well as NBC executives Warren Littlefield and Rick Ludwin, all contribute interviews to "The Breakthrough Season." The first disc also contains a five-minute parody of Regis & Kathy Lee in which Jerry and Elaine mock a conversation the daytime talk show hosts had about Seinfeld.
Disc Two contains "Not That There's Anything Wrong With That," a 21-minute bloopers reel. "Master of His Domain" is eight minutes of unused Seinfeld stand-up material shot for the openings and closings of the episodes.
Under the heading "Sponsored by Vandelay Industries," the Extras menu on Disc Three contains three minutes of NBC promos for the show. The disc also houses four minutes of promos aired during the 1992 Olympics, and a gallery of photos set to the show's main theme that runs as a two-minute featurette.
Disc Four contains no supplements other than the episode-specific ones. It does, however, offer two versions of "The Handicap Spot." Larry David's small obsession with continuity first showed itself in the second season episode, "The Revenge, " in which the entirely off-camera Newman, in his first appearance on the show, threatens to commit suicide by jumping from his apartment window. When originally broadcast, David himself provided the voice of Newman. After actor Wayne Knight fully embodied Jerry's postman nemesis in subsequent episodes, David brought him in to re-loop Newman's dialogue for syndicated airings of "The Revenge" (both versions of the episode appear in the first volume of Seinfeld DVDs). The alteration of "The Handicap Spot" runs along these lines. John Randolph (Serpico) was cast as Frank Costanza in the character's first appearance on the show. When the role was subsequently recast with Jerry Stiller as the volatile patriarch of the Costanza family, Larry David went back and reshot Randolph's scenes for syndication. The changes, unlike those made to "The Revenge," are more than cosmetic. Though the dialogue, sets, and costumes are exactly the same in both versions, it's fascinating to see how the two actors' radically different approaches to Frank Costanza influenced Jason Alexander's performance in each version of the scene.
Why should anyone, even fans of Seinfeld, buy the show on DVD when it's still running in syndication? Well, for one thing, the episodes look and sound far better than they do on broadcast television. Plus, the vast array of extras aren't to be missed—this is how TV shows should be released on DVD. The most important reason to pick up these discs, however, is that continuity is far more essential in the Seinfeld universe than it is in your garden-variety sitcom. Seeing the episodes in order greatly enhances the experience. Subtle connections between episodes are often lost in syndication because the shows are broadcast in random order.
The first two volumes of Seinfeld represented some of the best presentations of TV on DVD. Season Four is even better because it contains some of the most memorable episodes of the series, as well as a smartly constructed season-long story arc. The good news is, we still have David Puddy, the Soup Nazi, Jackie Chiles, J. Peterman, George Steinbrenner, Mickey Abbott, Tim Whatley, Kenny Bania, Joe Mayo, Joel Rifkin, Poppy, Jake Jarmel, The Maestro, Lloyd Braun, Bizarro Jerry, the Van Buren Boys, puffy shirts, cigar store indians, lip readers, belligerent doormen, shrinkage, big salads, muffin tops, tainted wedding invitations, reverse peepholes, Kenny Rogers Roasters, Serenity Now, the Summer of George, Festivus, and much more to look forward to in future volumes.
Seinfeld: Season Four is the best. The best.
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