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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Seinfeld: "The Handicap Spot"/"The Junior Mint"/"The Smelly Car"

Illustration for article titled Seinfeld: "The Handicap Spot"/"The Junior Mint"/"The Smelly Car"
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"The Handicap Spot"

This occupies a weird space in Seinfeld history, as it features John Randolph in the role of Frank Costanza, his only performance before Jerry Stiller was re-cast in the role for season five. It's weird, because Frank is a role so thoroughly owned by Stiller, so ingrained on the public consciousness, what with the serenity now and the airing of grievances and so on. The scenes were re-shot with Stiller for syndication, but Randolph's performance is an option on the DVD, and I went for it (checking out Stiller's performance later), just to see if he was as spectacularly wrong for the part as I remember. And he was.

Nothing against John Randolph—he's going up against my having seen Stiller's performance dozens of times, and it's an impossible battle to win. His two biggest problems are that he looks too old for the part, not implausibly so, but it's still noticeable. And he's too damn nice. Frank is supposed to be irrational, almost insane in his fixations; this guy is just grumpy because George wrecked his car. And he's, like, doing charity work! The whole thing didn't make a lick of sense to me. Even the re-shot scenes with Stiller seem out of place because Frank's being given awards for being nice and shit. Weird!

In general, "The Handicap Spot" is a solid episode, mostly notable for just how awful and callous the gang are in it, even more so than usual. Which is fine by me! It starts with George taking the handicap spot at the mall—Kramer assures him handicapped people never drive. "If they could drive, they wouldn't be handicapped." George thinks they're all just trying to look normal. "They'd give anything to be equal, anything! But when the check comes, where are they?" he asks, in a wonderfully offensive comment that makes no logical sense. Even he can't justify that one. Of course, that blows up in their faces, and George's dad's car is irreversibly vandalized as a result.

Jerry and Elaine are less to blame for this whole storyline, but Jerry does get to have some fun by suggesting they use Elaine as a shield, because men won't hit women. "Not if they don't know you!" Jerry pulls the same trick later, having Elaine make an awkward call he doesn't want to make. "That's your thing!" he tells her. "Calling people I hardly know and demanding they return expensive gifts; that's my thing?" "Yeah, that's your thing."

Really, Jerry and Elaine are just as callous in their scenes with "The Drake" and his fiancée, "The Drakette," who break up after their engagement party and then keep all the gifts. The bastards! The scene would be great dialogue-free just to have a look at that marvelously square flatscreen TV (ah, 1993), but Jerry and Elaine's awkwardness as the Drake, whom they have repeatedly professed to love, cries in front of them is amazing to watch. "Are there any good Italian restaurants out here?" they ask, before fleeing. Soon George is in on it, looking to make some money getting the TV back to offset the miniscule amount he spent on a new wheelchair for a handicapped person he injured. But the Drakette is giving the TV to charity. "How could anyone be so selfish and inconsiderate!" George moans.


It all comes together like any good Seinfeld episode should, although for me, the fact that Frank's charity work is the catalyst for them to reclaim the TV hurts the show a bit. I just can't accept that he'd be winning awards for his humanitarian episodes! Luckily, when season five rolls around and Stiller puts his stamp on the role, the writers really get a handle on his character. You can't have him existing without explaining the bundle of personality disorders that is George Costanza. Sure, his mother goes part of the way to explaining that, but that's not enough!

Another problem is that the final punchline falls flat. Kramer suggests George park in front of a hydrant when they go back to the mall to return the TV; OK, it's the obvious gag and brings everything full circle. I guess they had to do it. But really, they should have ended with the sight of the handicapped woman George injured (and Kramer briefly dated) rolling down a hill screaming because George spent $5,980 less than he should have on her wheelchair. If that's not classic Seinfeld, then I don't wanna know you.


Grade: A-

"The Junior Mint"

This is an episode that gets mentioned a lot in best-of lists or what have you, and I've never quite understood why. Like "The Pez Dispenser" or that later episode with the jujubes, it's focusing on a less-famous form of candy to the point where it doesn't matter if it's product placement (and I don't know that it was); it's funny. And it has the cute storyline about Jerry's no-name girlfriend, where the writers can sneak in a lot of female anatomy names past censors. But I must have seen this episode a half dozen times, and I still don't really get what all the fuss is about. Don't get me wrong. I like it, but to me, it's an average episode at best.


Still, let's get to the funny. I think the best thing about "The Junior Mint" is Jerry saying the world "mulva," over and over. I could pretty much watch a show centered around Jerry Seinfeld saying the made-up word "mulva." Honestly, it'd get a laugh out of me if he said "vulva," but him saying "mulva" is 10 times better. All of the other words Jerry presumes for his mysteriously-named girl aren't bad, but "mulva" works the best because it sounds hilarious, and he actually starts to think it could be her name. The idea of him trying to guess her name feels like something you'd see on a David Spade sitcom nowadays, but they do wring one good joke out of it: both Kramer and George introducing themselves to her and leaving before they get her name. George even seems aware of it, which is so confusing it makes the laugh even bigger.

I remember, the first time I saw the episode (I imagine I was 10-11 years old) I had no idea what "Dolores" could rhyme with. Really, it is quite a clever way to end the whole thing—not with a screamingly obvious name but one that gets you thinking for a second and makes the payoff that much better. But who knows if that's actually her name? It seems like quite a connection for schoolyard bullies to be making, but hey, they can be inventive.


The second-best thing about "The Junior Mint" is George watching Home Alone and crying. There are his complaints that he didn't like Home Alone 2 because he hadn't seen the original ("I was lost!"), even though they're the EXACT SAME MOVIE (except the second one doesn't even take place in a home. Crazy!). Then, there's him crying, in what I assume was a potshot being taken against two of the biggest movies of the early 90s for their slick mawkishness. "The old man got to me," George tells Jerry. He's not the first; he won't be the last. But I always preferred Brenda Fricker in Home Alone 2.

But the main plot, with Elaine's fat/thin ex-boyfriend and Kramer eating the junior mints? It never did much for me. I like Kramer's enthusiasm for the mints (Dr. Siegel, who recurs a bunch of times on this show, agrees that they're refreshing) and I like Jerry eventually caving to say that yes, they are delicious. But the story of the mints saving Roy the artist's life never comes together in a satisfying, Seinfeldian way. It's more just your standard goofy sitcom plot. Maybe that's because this episode was the first credit for Andy Robin. He'd get many more, mostly in seasons 7-9.


But there is one other great entry in Seinfeld callousness: George buying Roy's art because he thinks he's going to die, then actively trying to prevent Jerry from saving his life by reporting the junior mint so he can collect on a dead artist's work. "Who are you to play God?" he cries. Standard goofy sitcom plot or not, there'll always be a few gems like that.

Grade: B+

"The Smelly Car"

This is a Larry David/Peter Mehlman script that really relies on the performances of Seinfeld and Louis-Dreyfus (and the rest of the cast and guest stars like Nick Bakay) to convince us of just how bad the smell is. And they succeed admirably! When Jerry is moaning that the smell is like a living entity following them around that can't be killed, you really believe him. You can almost see the damn thing. Really, it's a very simple plot for Seinfeld. The car stinks, they stink, and they can't get rid of it. There's even an extended, silent cleaning montage, and it's pretty rare for this show to do something like that. But it's necessary because of the simplicity of the idea. As Kramer puts it, so wonderfully: "You stink."


What really works for me in this episode is the return of Susan Ross, who's turned into a SEXY LESBIAN since breaking up with George. Seinfeld's politics on the lesbian thing are a little 1993—nothing so offensive, but a little too much emphasis on how easy it seems for a lesbian to switch between men and women. The joke survives because George thinks he drove Susan to lesbianism, and he's so horrible he just might have. On the flipside, Kramer ignites a relationship with Susan's girlfriend, Mona, who has never before been with a man. When asked how he pulled that off, Kramer says it's simple. "I'm Kramer!"

Another reason the Kramer thing is so funny is that, as Susan points out, it's just another item on the list of ways he's wrecked her life, after the vomit and burning down her cabin. Susan finally looks completely comfortable with another woman, and he has to go and ruin that too. So the joke works, even if I felt a little uncomfortable. Maybe my sensitivity meter is too high on this issue for whatever reason.


Either way, George's conversations with Susan are a joy to behold, especially since Susan is getting to reclaim a little dignity back. In the episodes where she was annoyed at George or (even weirder) horny around him, it made her look a little silly. But she's very cool when she shuts down his awkward babbling in their first scene. "I have always encouraged experimentation. I'm the first guy in the pool; who do you think you're talking to?" he asks. "I know who I'm talking to," she replies, shutting him up rather beautifully. Also in this episode, she lends him money she knows she'll never get back, mocks his renting Rochelle, Rochelle and leaves with "Oh, by the way George, you stink."

George, of course, is instantly drawn to Susan again. Even more so than their last break-up, she's completely out of bounds to him. Plus, being George Costanza, nothing turns him on more than lesbianism. "Let me see if I understand this… on second thought, no," Jerry says of the whole situation, but it makes perfect sense to me. But I am so glad that the writers didn't get them back together again. For one, that would have been even more dismissive of gay women if George being a vaguely charming little potato-head was enough to get her in the sack (he even says, "You're just so hip!"). For two, that joke had been done already, and happily, they had the dignity to wait a few more seasons before trying it again (spoiler alert!).


But the actual resolution with George's crazy ex-girlfriend Allison shooting Susan a sexy glance is almost as silly. I never understood where Allison even came from anyway. She just showed up in an episode and was obsessed with George all of a sudden. So it makes even less sense that she'd suddenly make eyes at Susan. The writers are looking for a cute way to wrap things up, but it just doesn't work at all. Still, it could have been worse. At least Susan basically gets to keep her dignity. For now.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • George thinks really good-looking women walk too fast. "They're a blur, it's like they got a motor on their ass."
  • Two call-forwards in "The Handicap Spot" are paid off in "The Junior Mint." Jerry says he's been thinking about getting a yo-yo, and in the next episode, he does. The other might not have been intentional, but Jerry draws a triangle free-hand on a napkin; Roy in "The Junior Mint" is an artist concerned with triangles.
  • This also leads to Kramer's great line: "If I had a kid, I'd call him Isosceles. Isosceles Kramer!"
  • George got a veggie burger. "Loaf of crumbs."
  • The Drake's house is ridiculous: all glass tables and white furniture.
  • Kramer's girlfriend in "The Handicap Spot" calls him "a hipster doofus."
  • Jerry met his girlfriend in the produce section. "Very provocative area. Lot of melons and shapes. Everyone's squeezing and smelling."
  • George confuses Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. "Susan B. Anthony, I think I'd have a problem with." "Yeah, I think you would," Jerry agrees.
  • Two call-backs: Kramer says "remember where we parked the car" in "The Handicap Spot," referencing "The Parking Garage." And Elaine enters Jerry's apartment to say "PROGNOSIS NEGATIVE," my favorite fake movie title in the show.
  • George on lesbians: "They're so fascinating; why is that? Because they don't want us. You gotta respect that!"
  • Kramer seethes at George Steinbrenner for trading away the Yankees' best prospects in "The Smelly Car," the first mention (I think?) of our future recurring character. Frank will bring up that trade of Jay Buhner later, for sure. He also mentions Willie McGee, Frank McGriff, and Doug Drabek. And people wonder why the Yankees didn't win a title between 1978 and 1996!