“The Junk Mail” (season 9, episode 5; originally aired 10/30/1997)
Whatever you might say about “The Junk Mail,” it does have The Wiz in it. Sure, it’s also got everyone walking in on George’s parents having sex in a van, and Kramer being berated by the Postmaster General, who’s played by Wilford Brimley—it’s a very silly episode. But as that Wiz ad shows (and I literally crack up every time I watch it), silly can really work like a charm sometimes.
Even the premise of “The Wiz,” a.k.a. Jack (Toby Huss, who some of you might recognize from The Adventures Of Pete And Pete or Carnivàle) is ridiculous. Elaine is supposedly bewitched by him because she subconsciously knows him from this ridiculous ad. But really, then, why isn’t she cracking up every time she sees his face? That’s certainly the connection I would make after watching an ad where he dances around going “Nobody beats me, because I’m The Wiz! Yes, I’m The Wiz. I’m The Wiz.”
Ah, who cares. All she does is dump Puddy for this guy, and in a lot of ways, it’s about an even trade, since he uses the word “scrump” to describe delicious food, which is just a few rungs down from most major war crimes. I’m just kidding, Puddy. I love you.
Unfortunately, Elaine’s romance with The Wiz is the least prominent part of this episode, just another short chapter in her increasingly bizarre dating life. Mostly, “The Junk Mail” is concerned with Kramer trying to cancel his mail altogether, Jerry trying to offload a van given to him by a nervous friend (the great comedian Dana Gould), and George discovering that his parents are sick of him and are having a lot more sex.
None of these plots are enough to support the episode—generally, when some bit of Kramer wackiness that prominently involves Newman is your A-plot, you’re in for a very silly time. One problem I might have is that this episode apparently references Three Days Of The Condor and Absence Of Malice in its postal conspiracy-tinged plot, neither of which I have seen. I do get the general joke, though, and Newman’s sweaty nerves over Kramer declaring the pointlessness of mail got a laugh out of me. But then it’s all dragged out in a pretty predictable manner, with Kramer interrogated in a dark room, and never really ends up meaning anything.
I actually could have done with more of Gould as fragile Frankie Merman, because he’s a funny guy and Jerry’s fear over driving him into the woods is a nicely specific bit of weird humor. But that’s the C-plot at best, with the van employed for other plotlines more than anything for Jerry in particular. Instead, we get a lot of Frank and Estelle making eyes at each other in front of a disgusted George, which is way too normal a Costanza plot for me.
Yes, the Costanzas are supposed to be warping George in ever-stranger ways, and I’m very much on board with their alienating behavior. But they’re having sex and find their son clingy? That feels like something you’d see on any ol’ sitcom. It’s not like “The Junk Mail” is a bad episode—Spike Feresten is one of my favorites among the latter-season writers, and the whole thing has plenty of decent laughs. But it just feels like it belongs on a lesser sitcom.
“The Merv Griffin Show” (season 9, episode 6; originally aired 11/6/1997)
When I talk to people about these reviews, and about the tonal shift of the show in the later seasons, almost everyone brings up this episode, and it’s either as an example of how they love the zany humor of seasons eight and nine, or they hate it. I’m not quite sure what it is about this episode that sets people’s teeth on edge, but it definitely feels like a controversial one (feel free to prove me wrong in the comments).
Maybe it’s just the general madness of the Kramer plot, in which he finds the set of The Merv Griffin Show (which ended in 1986 and was shot in Los Angeles) in some New York City dumpster. He somehow assembles this set, which stinks of garbage but is otherwise pristine, in his apartment and begins to live his life like Merv Griffin, interacting with his friends by asking them questions off of cards and laughing uproariously at nothing in particular.
The concept is absurd, although unlike “The Serenity Now,” at no point does reality start to follow along with Kramer. No cameras or audience are summoned by the set, and his friends seem to be playing along only because they have nothing better to do. It’s weird that there are no scenes in Jerry’s apartment, since it’s not like the gang ever hangs out at Kramer’s place, but it’s forgivable, I guess.
The real problem with “The Merv Griffin Show” is that, once again, it’s a loosely plotted affair with storylines that barely interact. Jerry’s off doing one thing, drugging a woman he’s dating so he can play with her toys while she sleeps. George is repeatedly killing pigeons by accident because they are ignoring their “deal” with humans and not flying away. Elaine is dealing with a “sidler” at work who appears and disappears without making any noise.
After a scene or two from each of our heroes, they then go onto the Merv Griffin set to talk about it with Kramer/Merv. Things do cross over at the end, with Jerry’s scheming revealed to his girlfriend by Kramer, and a squirrel George rescues being attacked by animal expert Jim Fowler’s hawk (which somehow destroys the entire, previously indestructible, set), but that fun sense of Seinfeld plot mastery is absent.
Is the problem with “The Merv Griffin Show” Jerry’s somewhat egregious behavior towards girlfriend of the week Celia? All he does it put her to sleep (through drowsy Tylenol and, later, boxes of wine served alongside whole turkey) so he can play with her dad’s toy collection. The whole thing is peculiar, and even for Jerry, it seems too juvenile, but it’s hardly disturbing. I guess there’s a weird edge to it where it could be analogous to something much worse, but mostly, it just seems stupid.
I think that “The Merv Griffin Show” really just exemplifies the slight dip in cleverness Seinfeld took as it went on. Most of the old episodes could take any four weird ideas and knit them together into something beautiful; here, the weird ideas just goof around for our amusement. It’s not a bad viewing experience per se, it’s just a lot less brilliant.
- “So you never saw Last Tango In Paris?” “No.” “Too bad, it was erotic.”
- George says his parents would never eat Chinese food after dark. “After dark? At their age, that’s like swallowing stun grenades.”
- Kramer proposes an “interesting trade” for Jerry’s van—Anthony Quinn’s shirt. “He took this off to do sit-ups in the park and I nabbed it.”
- George thinks Frankie might be the Son Of Sam. “I knew it wasn’t Berkowitz!”
- “Here’s a fact: I’m The Wiz! I’m The Wiz and nobody beats me!”
- “Hey, your coffee stain looks like Fidel Castro.” “You’ve been an enormous help.” Classic Elaine.