Sunday, February 20, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #4

Seinfeld - Season 4 - Seinfeld put the last nail in the coffin of the traditional multi-camera sitcom.  Apologies to How I Met Your Mother and...and...(I can't think of any other halfway decent multi-camera shows), but modern audiences have concluded that laugh tracks, bright lights, and fake, simplified sets are more of a detriment to comedy than an impetus.  Seinfeld worked because it was often hilariously self-aware of the ridiculousness of the old format, making it the first true postmodern deconstruction of situation comedies.  Never was this more clear than during the show's Emmy-winning, groundbreaking fourth season.  Co-creator/show-runner Larry David and company had the brilliant idea of doing a season-long arc (something they had initially eschewed because Seinfeld was supposed to be about nothing) where Jerry (who, of course, plays himself--a stand-up comedian) and pal George write a pilot for NBC that will star Jerry as himself and ends up being exactly like Seinfeld--following the adventures of a fictional version of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer.  This allowed the writers to poke fun at themselves and the sitcom genre as a whole, and season 4 finds everyone involved at the top of their game.  There are stretches of episodes that represent possibly the best streak of greatness ever sustained by a comedy series.  Seinfeld remained superb for another three seasons or so, two of which could easily have made this list, but when you see the key episodes below, you will understand why there was no real competition.

Key Episodes:

The Contest - The most famous Seinfeld episode of all time, and perhaps rightly so.  The premise is well-known: the gang (including Elaine) holds a wager to see who can go the longest without masturbating.  It may be hard to believe in this age when there are no real boundaries left on television (Two and a Half Men is the #1 rated comedy on TV right now), but in 1992, this was controversial and original.  Of course, the writers had many more restrictions than they would nowadays, which actually forced them to be more creative with the humor.  The non-use of the word "masturbate" is great, but I prefer the montages of the four principals tossing (or sleeping soundly) in bed, indicating whether or not each of them had bowed out of the bet.  "The Contest" has a perfect balance of all four leads, but as usual, Jason Alexander as George Costanza (my choice for the greatest television character of all time) delivers a tour de force performance.  I love Kramer as much as the next guy, but how Alexander never won an Emmy while Michael Richards won three is unforgivable.  Simply put, this episode put Seinfeld on the map and still holds up today as one of the funniest half-hours of TV ever to air.

The Shoes - Jason Alexander mentioned in an interview once that he thought it was a terrible idea for Seinfeld to do a story arc over the course of a season, but that he changed his mind when they cast Bob Balaban in the role of Russell Dalrymple, the president of NBC.  You can see what he meant in "The Shoes," which hinges on a sequence where Jerry and George visit Dalrymple's apartment to hear his thoughts on their pilot script.  The network executive is not feeling well and as he tries to express his opinion, he is forced to run to the bathroom to vomit loudly.  When he returns, he catches George gaping at his 15 year-old daughter's cleavage.  Balaban is a master of deadpan and the interaction between his character and the silly Jerry and the neurotic George in particular is spectacular.  The cleavage incident almost derails the pilot, but Elaine saves the day by showing off a little cleavage of her own.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus actually gets the best material in this episode as she freaks out over the way that Jerry's ex-flame/Kramer's current-flame Gail Cunningham talks about her titular shoes.  This small insight into the way that many women's minds work (my wife had to explain this to me) is exactly the type of human observation that Seinfeld's writers could effortlessly toss in during the series' heyday.  It is doubly genius that this is enclosed within a plot about Jerry's and George's inability to write for/about women.

The Junior Mint - Another classic and not just for the scene immortalized to the left.  This is also the "Mulva" episode where Jerry dates a woman whose name he never learned.  He manages to discern that it rhymes with a part of the female anatomy and spends the episode trying to figure it out without tipping her off that he's in the dark.  The name is revealed in the best punchline in a series full of them.  Jerry Seinfeld never received much credit for his acting in this show and it's true that he often tried unsuccessfully not to laugh during almost every scene throughout Seinfeld's run, but his work in "The Junior Mint" is pretty awesome.  I can watch the scene where he makes out with "Mulva" and responds to her coos of "Oh, Jerry!" with "!" all day.  And then the Junior Mint plot line takes things to another level.  The best testament of how great Seinfeld's fourth season was is to list the episodes that didn't make the cut: "The Bubble Boy," "The Airport," "The Visa," "The Outing," "The Implant," "The Smelly Car."  Only two comedy shows have ever put together a winning streak like that and they are coming up next on the countdown.

The List So Far:

10. Twin Peaks - Season 1
9. Northern Exposure - Season 4
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 2
7. Deadwood - Season 1
6. The Office (U.K.) - Season 2
5. The X-Files - Season 2
4. Seinfeld - Season 4


  1. As I write before: 4th season of Seinfeld is a great choice. I'd also add Outing :)
    Can't wait for top3. Sopranos? Wire? SFU? West Wing? Simpsons? ER? Shield? Twillight Zone?

  2. Ever plan on finishing this countdown?