"The Phone Message"

After last week's slate of classic episodes, "The Phone Message" is a good example of Seinfeld not quite at its best, especially in the plotting department. The episode ends badly, with the feeling that the show just ran out of time rather than tied everything together effectively. Having researched the episode (aka looked it up on Wikipedia) I realized that this was the last-minute episode that replaced "The Bet," a dark Larry Charles script about Elaine buying a gun that the cast and crew objected to. (I wish that had been filmed and was in a vault somewhere, but it never made it past rehearsals, apparently). So maybe that's why plot-wise, "The Phone Message" seems rushed, even though it has some fine character moments for both Jerry and George.


What I like about "The Phone Message" is its dual analysis of Jerry and George in the opening stages of a relationship, showing Jerry as a cool sexual Jedi and George as a blundering, angry fool. The episode was scripted by Seinfeld and Larry David, both stories based on their own personal experiences, and it shows the inherent differences in their personalities and yet why they compliment each other so very well.

George has one of his inexplicable dates where everything's gone well and all of his charming behavior occurred off-screen. Being George, he declines her midnight invitation upstairs for coffee ("it keeps me up") and spends the next week obsessing about it. Meanwhile, on Jerry's date, when she asks to go to his place, he coolly responds, "okay, but there's no cake or anything, if that's what you're looking for." Once he's got her back to his, he's just sitting on the couch with her, drinking orange juice. Note Seinfeld's complete self-confidence despite the ridiculous detail of him drinking OJ as a nightcap before sex. That's why we see him with so many hot women over the years. The guy is just irresistibly nonchalant.

Well, until you start a conversation with him about a commercial about pants. Because this is Jerry's undoing: he can effortlessly charm someone into doing just about anything, but if you want to see him more than once, he's going to start scrutinizing every little thing you do and opinion you share. His date Donna says that she likes an irritating Dockers commercial, which Jerry hates because it pathetically tries to imitate the casual back-and-forth dialog friends have. "They're talking about nothing!" he complains. It's hard to know, but is this some sly dig at any criticism the show might have attracted early in its run? I really don't know, but Jerry's outage at people talking about nothing is funny either way.


George, on the other hand, is undone before he even talks to a woman (when she smiled at him, he notes, he looked like "how Quayle looked when Bentsen gave him that Kennedy line") and any time anything goes well, he's already well on his way to ruining it by colossally over-thinking and obsessing over every moment and detail. When his date Carol doesn't return his call, he leaves her awkward message after awkward message, resulting in a ranting (off-screen) call that includes the line, "I'd like to get one more shot at the coffee just so I can spit it in your face." Of course, it turns out Carol was in the Hamptons and hasn’t checked her machine all weekend.

The gag this week is that try as he might, George just cannot sabotage this relationship. The last act of the episode, where he and Jerry cook up a scheme to switch Carol's answering machine tapes and then pile lie upon lie to get into her apartment, is dashed amusingly when we learn she already heard his message and thought it was hilarious. But this is the only part of the episode I don't really like — it feels like the episode needed to end somehow, so this is how they did it, but it kinda makes everything that followed before especially pointless. Still, it's always fun to watch George effortlessly screw up with women.

Kramer and Elaine hardly get a look-in here, as they're just parachuted into scenes to do something (Kramer's bit, proposing some nonsensical new material for Jerry's act, is particularly irrelevant).


Grade: B+

"The Apartment"

Following up on season one's "The Robbery," this is the second episode to focus on Elaine's apartment-envy, and we get some fun freak-outs from excitable Ms. Benes, including her first "GET OUT!" followed by a vigorous shove, which is probably her best-known "catchphrase" on the show. This is also the first episode written by Peter Mehlman, one of Seinfeld's most reliable scribes, who wrote the most episodes in total after Larry David.


"The Apartment" has a lot of funny little details that amuse more than the plot itself, which is a vaguely tiresome shaggy-dog tale where Jerry manages to get Elaine into his apartment building, regrets it, gets out if it when she has to pony up five grand to get an apartment, then he's coerced by Kramer into lending her the money, and, well, it goes on and on. It's one of those Jerry stories where things seem to be going wrong for him and his voice gets high-pitched, then things end up turning out fine for him. The episode's tag, where the people who take the apartment above him turn out to be loud musicians, is almost irrelevant as we know they'll never be mentioned again, so Jerry wins this round, as he wins most rounds.

But there's some great side-plot stuff here. I really enjoyed Glenn Shadix and Tony Plana (both fine character actors who you've definitely seen in something over the years) in their one appearance as Jerry's building managers, and it's too bad we never see them again. Shadix is a rotund southern gentleman and Plana wears dark glasses and speaks rapidly in Spanish, and the two seem to have some sort of symbiotic (possibly gay) Han Solo-and-Chewbacca type relationship. I wonder why they weren't worked into the show more.

George's subplot involves him wearing a wedding band as a "sociological experiment" to see if women will hit on him more. But, being George, he ruins it by mentioning his wife all the time. I always figured the myth about getting hit on once you're engaged/married did not involve you boring people will stories about the old ball and chain. It's about being mysterious and unattainable, right? Anyway, George sees several can't-miss opportunities pass him by, such as the sexy kimono-wearing girl who "really has a thing for bald guys with glasses." That aspect of the plot is a little tired but Alexander's skill at immersing the audience in George's despair makes it work.


Meanwhile, Kramer mousses his hair so it doesn't stick up anymore. It's amazing how long it takes for the show to properly integrate Kramer. I mean, he's usually doing something tangential to the main plot but in later years, I remember his plots integrating with the A-plots a lot better than how he is originally deployed, which is as a two-scene, pinch-hitting joke machine, really. Then again, he actually has quite a lot of impact this episode, in that he's the one who encourages Jerry to lend Elaine the $5,000 and then displaces her with his musician friends. But that's just Kramer being Kramer (a "pod," as Jerry calls him,) rather than one of the humans. "Occasionally, I like to help the humans," he says later, probably his best line of the episode, although it's odd to see Kramer so self-aware.

Anyway, more of a sum-of-its-parts episodes than a real classic, but "The Apartment" is pretty good considering it's Mehlman's debut. As with "The Phone Message," I feel like tired plotting is the only thing holding this episode back from firing on all cylinders.

Grade: B+

"The Stranded"

"The Stranded" was filmed during the second season, but didn't air until the third season because of the breakout of the first Gulf War. Oh, how retro! What's even more retro is the appearance of Michael Chiklis, soon to be the bumbling star of The Commish, in his pre-Shield mode: pudgy, balding, hen-pecked. Who knew this guy would one day win an Emmy as vicious, bullet-headed corrupt cop Vic Mackey?


Chiklis is one of those Seinfeld guest stars who feels a little incongruous now because he's famous for something else, but put him in a silly sweater and he definitely makes sense as a bored suburban husband. I like the central conceit of "The Stranded," which was written by David and Seinfeld with Matt Goldman (a story editor for the first three years who gets his second and last writing credit). Jerry and Elaine are dragged with George to a party on Long Island which is terrifically interesting for George and terminally boring for them.

Some sitcom devices are so routine that you forget if they ever were original, but this episode makes heavy use of a head-patting "signal" Jerry and Elaine devise to help each other out of awkward conversations. Better is their eventual stranding at the party when George goes off with a woman and Kramer has to come pick them up in the dead of night. Jerry and Elaine sit on the couch like two kids waiting for their deadbeat parents to get them from school, literally shouting small talk across the room to their unhappy hosts.

I like how George is so baffled by a co-worker hitting on him at the party and demanding that he make love to her. It's very fitting that he's so thrown by the directness of her approach, considering that his methods of wooing women often seem to involve trickery and deceit. Jerry is a decent man and of course tells George to take the car and go, but Elaine almost spoils the fun by getting in George's lady's face over her fur coat. Is this the last time Elaine will have a problem with fur? That's a trope I remember reappearing. I like how snooty the lady is in shutting Elaine down. "Do you eat fish? Talk to me when you don't eat fish," she says.


"The Stranded" is also oddly-plotted in that it's really two separate, small stories linked by Chiklis' character, who takes advantage of Jerry's hospitality a few weeks later by crashing at his place, getting drunk with Kramer and ordering a comely Southern escort. Kramer doesn't need one, he tells us, because he's got something going on in the next building.

The second half of this episode doesn't really make sense and happens way too quickly, but the sight of Chiklis giggling like a schoolgirl as he flees Jerry's place is kinda funny. The plot dovetails, such as it is, with Jerry and George both getting arrested for minor crimes, as George goes down for shoplifting from a drugstore, to even the scales after not getting enough change another time. It's another sloppy conclusion to a fitfully excellent episode that doesn't really seem to know what to do with itself after it used up all its best jokes.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

"The Phone Message" had a "disappointing" audience of 13 million and Seinfeld went on hiatus for two months after it aired. Everything about that sentence is funny.


George distracts Carol by telling her that his father wears sneakers in the pool. Jerry Stiller is looming, but we won't even get to him this summer. Frank's first appearance is in season four, and Stiller's first real performance in the role is in season five.

Since "The Phone Message" had a couple big scenes set in a car I'll just note here: one of the weirdest things about Seinfeld (and many a sitcom set, but not filmed, in New York City) is the amount of times we see our characters in cars. Especially when they're on a date. I've never heard of anyone in New York driving somewhere on a date.

George admits that he "lies every second of the day. My whole life is a sham."

The apartment above Jerry's rents for $400 a month. Drool.

I never quite understood why Jerry freaks out about Elaine moving into his apartment - how much would they really be aware of each other's every movement? At this point, their sexual chemistry is dormant and they're well-acquainted with each other's weird quirks, so what's the problem?


It's obvious the most frustrating question Jerry ever gets is "how do you get your material?" This time around, he says, "I hear a voice, a man's voice, but it's in German so I have to get it translated."

I like Jerry echoing Alton Benes from "The Jacket" when he says "Pendant! Those bastards!"