Though reviews of new shows will be forthcoming (The Following, Banshee, House of Cards), I’d like to occasionally take a detour and go back to TV’s past as I did with some of my old Friday columns years ago (the Retro Friday Flashback). However, instead of taking a brief look at one particular show, my intention now is to look at the series as a whole, attempting to review, analyze and offer some fun info about each episode. Some of these I will be watching for the first time while others I’ve seen repeatedly in reruns but definitely think they’re worth your viewing time.
First up: Seinfeld
In the winter of 1993, my college friend Mark and I decided to visit our old classmate, Andy, in Brooklyn. Neither of us had ever been to New York so we thought it would make a great road trip. We’d stay with Andy in Brooklyn and spend some time in Manhattan sightseeing. The “Big Apple” was, after all, the “home” of Seinfeld and we were huge fans of the show.
To avoid the hassle of moving his car every morning for the street cleaning, Mark decided to park along Prospect Park which was only a block or two away from Andy’s brownstone. Obviously, I had no issue and wholeheartedly seconded the decision because why go through extra trouble if you don’t have to?
On a bitter cold Saturday morning in January, we returned from breakfast and were preparing to leave. I headed back to the brownstone while Mark made a side trip to grab some things from his car. When he returned, he noted that the back window of his vehicle was bashed in. I asked if anything was taken. He said a jacket and some of his clothes and a portable “boombox” that we used to play cassettes on for the drive (his vehicle had no cassette or CD player) were missing but wasn’t overly concerned because he only used the boombox on car trips anyway. I asked if a large suitcase housing my thirty or so cassettes was in the trunk. Of course not. They stole that too. I had once spent an entire summer making mix tapes (which took a lot of time in those days!) but I rarely listened to them since CDs were more prevalent now. Like him, I shrugged it off.
After replacing the window (which is a whole other tale best saved for another time), we headed back west. At one point, I asked him where the backup pack of batteries we’d purchased had gone. He stole a quick glance of the back seat and said “You know what? They took those too”!
My reply: “Great. Not only did they take the boombox AND the cassettes but now they have longevity. They can listen to those tapes for at least ten hours.”
He immediately commented that what had just transpired was exactly like a “Seinfeld moment”—those everyday occurrences where something odd happens but your reaction takes it up a notch just to make it even more outlandish.
Though Seinfeld had only been around a few years at that point, it was already working its way into the hearts and minds of viewers. Never a huge hit at the beginning, it slowly built an audience and was gaining steam that it would never lose throughout the rest of its run.
But when the show premiered as The Seinfeld Chronicles on July 5, 1989, it was lucky to have existed beyond that pilot.
In this first episode (referred to originally as only The Seinfeld Chronicles and later in syndication as “Good News, Bad News”), things started out promising but a little rocky.
After watching both versions again, there are a few minor differences. The content is the same but the original theme music was a bit jarring and very telling that this was shot in the 80s. While Jerry performs his stand-up act at the beginning, he’s nearly drowned out by synthesized music that features what sounds like a tambourine shaking. At one point, I thought either something had come loose on an appliance or a rattlesnake had crept into the house. That opening music, along with the musical return from the first commercial break (or where it was supposed to be since I watched it on DVD) and the similar theme that again played over the closing credits, reminds one of a montage clip from Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. It was a welcome change to hear the familiar Seinfeld theme in the syndicated version.
The story, though, is pure classic Seinfeld.
The tale (after Jerry’s stand-up act) begins at Pete’s Luncheonette (replaced later in the series with Monk’s) where Jerry comments on the second button of George’s shirt claiming that “it’s too high” and concluding that this particular button “makes or breaks the shirt”. This particular exchange of dialogue is inherently funny in its “nothingness”, representative of the little, normally banal, things people chat about during the day while putting a unique spin on it. It will also become noteworthy as being the last conversation shown in the series finale.
Jerry and George then begin to discuss the impending arrival of a woman Jerry met on the road while performing and whether or not her visit will be a romantic interlude or just a friendly visit (or even if she’ll contact him at all when she gets into town). Their discussion segues from the restaurant to the laundromat where the patrons listen intently to their odd banter about the rules of relationships punctuated by George’s desire to do something more interesting than watch Jerry’s laundry swirl about in the dryer.
The genius of discovering the foibles about society’s “rules” as well as the tendency to overanalyze every little detail about people, places or events establishes itself firmly at the beginning of the episode and is something that will separate Seinfeld from every other sitcom on the air for years to come. Looking back at this particular show, you can also spot other ideas and themes which would reoccur as the series unfolded.
For example, George gives Jerry advice to do the exact opposite of his instincts when Jerry laments that he forgot to clean the bathroom. George tells him that’s something someone would expect so to do the opposite would make Jerry stand out in the woman’s eyes. George, however, admits that he doesn’t take his own advice (something he would do only once many years later in the episode, “The Opposite”).
This is the first (though by no means the last) time Jerry would get screwed over for being a nice guy. When the female friend, Laura, arrives, she asks if she can stay for a few nights and he says yes. He even agrees to accompany her on the touristy five hour boat trip the following morning. Of course, minutes later, he discovers that she’s engaged and there’s no possibility of an intimate moment between them during her stay. In this regard, one might conclude that Jerry is only being nice to have sex with her but, at this stage, his character needed to be likeable so he does mention that she’s a friend and he’s not expecting anything. That said, in the back of his mind, there’s always that hope that something would happen (because, he is, after all, a man!)—until he gets shut down.
Overall, The Seinfeld Chronicles/”Good News, Bad News” holds up relatively well over time which was something I wasn’t expecting. There’s some solid, albeit rudimentary, story structure here with some great one liners. The episode in and of itself is considered a breath of fresh air for its time as it was so different than every other run of the mill sitcom. Though it would be a while before Seinfeld morphed into something that really clicked with viewers, the pilot shows flashes of brilliance (the interspersed stand-up, the stray observations) but is not without fault (Kramer was woefully undeveloped as Michael Richards hadn’t found the character’s center yet and was playing sort of a Reverend Jim from Taxi mixed with one of his manchild characters from the late night sketch series Fridays).
It’s still amazing to look back and recall that around the time the show premiered, I saw Seinfeld perform live at Marquette and it only set me back $15. About sixteen years later in 2005, I’d spend nearly eight times that much to watch him perform again.
Considering the longevity of the show and the smiles it’s put on my face in the past 20+ years, I’d say that it was money well spent.
Other silly random observations:
Jerry is so excited to watch the Mets’ game he’s recorded on VHS that he immediately informs an incoming phone call not to ruin the score for him. Then Kramer comes in and does just that. It just strikes me as funny to this day because I still know people who record live sporting events when information is at our fingertips. I say if you miss it, you miss it. Odds are you’re going to see the score before you have a chance to watch the game. At least in 1989, we weren’t confronted with a barrage of information from a variety of sources.
While not necessarily detrimental to the show, the character of Claire (played by Lee Garlington) didn’t add anything to the show and it was wise on the part of co-creator Larry David to create Elaine for Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
This episode was filmed at the same studio (as well as on the same stage) as another long running TV favorite, The Dick Van Dyke Show.
NBC originally passed on the show after a very weak response from a test audience. Network executive Rick Ludwin saw its potential and found extra money to give the show a budget to shoot four more episodes.
Obviously, this being the first episode, there's not much to go on in terms of supporting characters, best lines and memorable scenes but don't worry...they're coming!
Next up: Season 1, episode 2 (“The Stakeout”)
Seinfeld reruns air on the local FOX affiliate, WPGH TV-53 at 11pm on weeknights and TBS from 6:30-8pm Monday through Friday.