Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Seinfeld: "The Pilot, Parts 1 And 2"

Illustration for article titled Seinfeld: "The Pilot, Parts 1 And 2"
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

"The Pilot"

So here we are, at the end of Seinfeld's little experiment in plotting, and it's been quite a wonderful ride. I knew it already, but watching the whole of season four over the last couple of months has reinforced for me just how incredible a season of TV it is. There's no dud episode, there are so many great recurring characters, and episode after episode, line after line is just burned into the public consciousness. I love all Seinfeld, but having seen the seasons prior, it's obvious this is the point at which the writers and actors were totally comfortable with the ins and outs of the characters. Everything's perfectly evolved at this point; pretty much the final piece of the puzzle was that appearance by Frank Costanza. Obviously, there's lots of great stuff in the rest of the show, but I'd stake money that this is the best it ever got.

"The Pilot" features a great montage of all the characters we've encountered over the season watching the pilot episode of Jerry, from major recurring characters like Jerry's parents ("How could anyone not like him!" says Helen) and Newman (asleep in front of a Yankees game) to one-episode wonders like Sidra, to off-screen characters like the bubble boy and John F. Kennedy Jr. Maybe it's a bit of padding for a double-episode of a 22-minute sitcom, but the whole thing feels very much like a reward for Seinfeld's loyal fans. Part of the fun is being able to catch all the little nuances, in-jokes, references and callbacks in the show; I know many commenters will certainly agree.

The central plot of the episode is obviously the filming and airing of the pilot, so it's all very meta, with actors playing fictional versions of the already-fictional George and Kramer and Elaine. But since this is a double episode, there are some other little silly things to keep things moving, like Kramer's constipation (mostly an excuse for some fine physical comedy), George's cancer scare, and Elaine's campaign against the big-breasted waitresses of Monk's. It's all good stuff, although it's not worked in very well. Elaine's plot, especially, feels shoehorned in from some other script. But George's cancer scare works very well with his mounting fears of success and money and fame, fears we know Larry David shared when Seinfeld hit the air.

"God will never let me be successful; he'll kill me first," he moans to his therapist, who points out that he's an atheist. But he believes in God "for the bad things," a feeling I certainly share sometimes. As we've seen all this season, especially when it comes to Susan, George just doesn't know what to do with a good thing when he's got it, and he immediately wants out. He'd never admit it, of course, but he's happiest when he's on the outside looking in, wanting something, raging at the unfairness of the world and why things always have to happen to him. That's not to say it gives him pleasure; it's just George at his most comfortable.

Hell, he's not even aware of it, which makes the gag about the actor playing him (a marvelous Jeremy Piven) so great. "Michael Barth" is disheveled, balding, and miserable-looking ("I just came from the podiatrist," he says at his audition), and everyone immediately gets that he's perfect for the role, and he is, indeed, hilarious. I really love the scene during filming when Piven worries to Jerry about not knowing his lines and Jerry can't help but be amused. "You're just like him; it's amazing!"


Also, can we talk about Jeremy Piven for a second? He's not the only actor this ever happened to, but I swear to god, this guy aged in reverse. He's not even 30 in this episode, but he's perfect as the sweatpant-wearing, balding George. He was also on Larry Sanders at the same time, where he was not quite as pathetic but still very disheveled. As he moved through shows (Ellen, Cupid), he got less balding, more charming, before somehow seeming ten years younger as douchey agent Ari Gold on douchey Entourage. It's an amazing feat; maybe it's all that sushi.

At the same time, while Piven is perfect as fake-George, everyone else is kinda terrible, especially Jerry himself. At this point Seinfeld is very comfortable onscreen, and I think he mostly does a great job in the role, but that's more out of my being accustomed to him than anything else. But "The Pilot" plays up Jerry's "bad" acting very well (I especially like how high-pitched he is when he hits the line "BECAUSE HE'S MY BUTLER!") as a nice bit of self-reference. Everything else about the pilot seems kinda funhouse-mirror too: Jerry's grossly outsized apartment with its bizarre pastel colors and its kitchen in the wrong end of the room or Larry Hankin's too-quiet, scarily intense Tom Pepper, who takes the role of Kramer.


While Piven is a perfect sad sack as George, Hankin is superficially a good choice for Kramer (he's all tall and thin and weird-haired), who turns out to be a nightmare because someone weird enough to play Kramer would have to be actually weird. I don't know if this is an intentional dig at Michael Richards, but if you watch some of the DVD features on the show, it is clear that Richards was incredibly intense about his character and the perfect timing of all his little tics and motions, and it's not like history has vindicated him as a totally normal dude. Pepper's weirdest act is his theft of a box of raisins after his audition. As George notes to him, it's not really that he stole them; it's more why he'd ever bother stealing raisins. He's not forthcoming on the topic, saying he'll pull George's heart out of his chest and shove it down his throat.

The scenes we see of Jerry feel like the show, except with the outlandish butler subplot and the aforementioned tweaks that make everything feel drastically wrong. The auditions use actual material from past episodes, but I'm pretty sure all the stuff in the actual pilot we see is new. There's also a nice, lame opening credits sequence that's pretty spot-on: exaggerated laughter from all the cast members, sax in the background, all very early 90s sitcom. In the end, the plug gets pulled because Elaine was dismissive to Russell Dalrymple, but it's also because the NBC exec who replaces him is on the fence about the show, and I think the episode's writer (Larry David, of course) is giving her every right to be. Even he's admitting that given the weird aspects of the show, a star who had never acted before, and its general lack of an ad-friendly hook, it's a miracle Seinfeld survived that four-episode first season.


Within the show's universe, though, it's really all Elaine's fault. After her one date with Russell following her cleavage-baring in "The Shoes," she lost interest, which is really to her credit considering all his wealth and power. But he's smitten beyond belief, with her disinterest in everything he has to offer only increasing his interest. The whole thing is completely out of nowhere, but I figure they needed a reason for everything to come to a head, and they wanted resolution with the Dalrymple character, who was very memorable in his five appearances on the show, mostly for his standoffs with George and his generally dry demeanor. It's fun to see him have such a polarizing crisis of confidence, and the scenes on the Greenpeace boat (with Larry David and Larry Charles) are very sweet in their ridiculousness (I feel like Charles suggested that idea; it's his kind of madness). Larry David does some of his best bit-part acting in that final scene, really, crying out to the drowning Dalrymple that he'll write to Elaine Benes and tell her of his heroism. It almost makes you forget that the poor man is DEAD. The perfect balance of whimsy, spoof, cynicism, and black humor: Man, I love Seinfeld.

Stray observations:

  • "I've never been to Mars, but I imagine it's quite lovely."
  • "Again with the sweatpants?" Jerry asks of George. "You're telling the world, I give up, I can't compete in normal society."
  • Crazy Joe Davola's re-appearance is a stroke of genius, especially his John Wilkes Booth cry of "sic semper tyrannis" as he jumps down to start his mayhem. It's never explained what that mayhem was; much like in "The Opera," it's best left to the imagination.
  • Jerry does misquote him, though. It means "thus ever to tyrants."
  • That's a young Mariska Hargitay as the bald-mocking actress for Elaine that George rejects.
  • Kramer's pseudonym: Marvin Van Nostrand. He'll use it many times more; he was Peter Van Nostrand in "The Nose Job."
  • "Am I that charming and beautiful?" Elaine asks. "No!" Jerry replies. "Why do I set you up?" "I don't know."
  • "How could you be a doctor and not say, 'Get outta here!' It should be part of the training!"
  • "I've lived my whole life in shame. Why should I die with dignity!"
  • My favorite fake fact Jerry makes up about Elaine: "She loves throwing garbage out the window, yet she's extremely dainty."
  • Or maybe that she talks during sex. "Dirty talking?" "No, just chit-chat, movies."
  • Kramer's insights on himself: "Sex, I like the bottom. Let them do all the work. You should be writing all this stuff down!"
  • Tom Cherones plays himself as the director bugged by George's note-giving.
  • "Whether it's raisins, prunes, figs, or any other dried fruit, just keep it to yourself."
  • Kramer's enema was "wet and wild."
  • Jerry finds Morty's wallet from "The Wallet" stuck in the couch in a nice little wink for the loyal audience.
  • Other people watching the pilot are the Salman Rushdie lookalike, Susan and Allison, Marla the virgin ("ooh, he's horrible, horrible!"), Ping and his lawyer ("I thought he was dark and disturbed"), the Drake and the Drakette, Calvin Klein, and the model from "The Pick."
  • Hope you guys are excited for season five! I'm taking a week off to recover, then it'll be back to the grind Feb. 10th.