Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Seinfeld" Episodes That Wouldn't Work Today

This is not about sports, although there will be a couple of references.

Is Seinfeld the greatest TV show of all time? Hardly. At its best, it was phenomenally funny, and made you think. At its worst, the four main characters -- Jerry Seinfeld playing a fictional version of his standup comedian self, Jason Alexander as job-hopping George Costanza, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as publishing executive Elaine Benes, and Michael Richards as hipster doofus Cosmo Kramer -- were horrible human beings, and it was played for laughs that, even then, should have made some people squirm.

New York magazine just published an article ranking all 168 episodes. I disagreed with it a bit, as there were too many episodes from the last two seasons that were ranked highly.

It made me think about how well some of those episodes, most now 20 or more years old, would play if they were shown for the first time today. Some of them wouldn't work, either due to changing mores or changing technology.

A lot of these episodes have cultural references from the main characters' youth: The 1960s and '70s. Remaking this show now, with the characters being in their 30s, would put their formative years in the 1990s and 2000s, meaning such pop-culture references as the Kennedys, "Mrs. Robinson" and Mannix -- to say nothing of 1960s Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Joe Pepitone -- wouldn't have the same resonance. So I'm not going to count an episode just for something like that.

These will be listed in chronological order, not in order of egregiousness. And I remind you: This isn't about how good or bad the episodes were -- sometimes, an episode can be funny in spite of being tasteless -- only about whether there's a plot device that wouldn't work on a new show today.

1. "The Pen," Season 3, October 2, 1991. Elaine on drugs was funny then -- even if this was done better with John Ritter on Three's Company a few years earlier. But just as drunkenness isn't nearly as funny as it used to be, neither is being drug-addled.

The Friends episode "The One Where Nana Dies," where Ross throws his back out at his grandmother's funeral, and takes too many painkillers for it, did slightly advance the plot: Under the influence, he tells Rachel he loves her, and Rachel thinks it's the drug talking, causing a confused Ross to pass out. But in this Seinfeld episode? The muscle relaxant for her own back pain just makes Elaine look like an addled idiot.

2. "The Parking Garage," Season 3, October 30, 1991. Unlike most of these, this one wouldn't fail today due to changing attitudes toward victims of discrimination. This one would fail today because whatever they were buying at that mall could have been ordered online. Or, they still could have gone to the mall, but one of them could have typed the number of the parking space into their phone's notepad. Either way, they then would have had to fill 21 minutes with snappy dialogue.

Come to think of it, why didn't Jerry, George and Elaine just strand Kramer and take a New Jersey Transit bus back to Manhattan? After all, knowing how screwed up NJT buses were then, as well as now, that could have been an episode all by itself! (Elaine's fish still might not have made it, but they would have had a better chance than waiting for Kramer.) Hell, Jerry even did a joke on the show, a few years later, about how a bus is just a big ass, isn't it?

3. "The Cafe," Season 3, November 6, 1991. No, I'm not referring to the racial implications. Or the religious ones: Pakistanis are, by definition, Muslims. I'm talking about Jerry's line about being frustrated at watching Babu stand in his restaurant's doorway, with no one walking in. (Then why watch at all? "I don't know. I'm obsessed with it.") Jerry said, "You know, from here, I could probably shoot him. I'd be doing both of us a favor."

After Columbine High School, the Beltway Sniper, the Aurora theater, Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Charleston church, among many, many other shooting sprees -- all of which happened after Seinfeld's 1998 finale -- if this was funny then, it sure as hell isn't funny now.

4. "The Contest," Season 4, November 18, 1992. No, I'm not talking about the main plot line. Although George calling himself "King of the County" makes no sense: Counties don't have kings! In England, they have dukes. But, in America, counties have sheriffs and/or county executives. That's well below a king.

In this case, I'm going to make an exception to my time-period rule. If John F. Kennedy Jr. were still alive, there would be considerably less bittersweetness. But considering how, unlike Seinfeld's last episode, his life's last episode actually did include a plane that crashed off the coast of Massachusetts, the references to him are no longer funny.

And if they did try to remake this one today, who could they use? Ron Reagan Jr. is way too old now, so are George H.W. Bush's children, and, between them, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama only have daughters, not sons. Maybe they could borrow Prince Harry: After all, he likes coming to America, although, in his case, what happened in Las Vegas didn't stay in Vegas.

5. "The Shoes," Season 4, February 4, 1993. "Get a good look, Costanza?" Okay, we knew George was a lech (Jerry, too). This is not news. And if NBC executive Russell Dalrymple's daughter were 20 and visiting from college, it still wouldn't make George look too good, but at least she'd be an adult.

But, George, she's 15 years old. Fifteen. And her father is an executive at NBC -- the network of To Catch a Predator. Anyone watching this now has to think of Chris Hansen's line to the predators they catch: "Have a seat over there."

6. "The Outing," Season 4, February 11, 1993. Whether Modern Family would have been successful without this episode is debatable, but we're getting closer and closer to the day when a major celebrity (which, within the context of the show, Jerry was not) outs himself is not major news. The scene of the Marine telling Jerry he's coming out, thus ending his military career, also dates this episode.

7. "The Dinner Party," Season 5, February 3, 1994. Seeing a guy having double-parked and boxed in himself and Kramer, George says, "You know, this is how dictators get started!" As in, if they can get away with this, they'll see what else they can get away with, and they'll think bigger and bigger, until they can get away with taking over an entire country -- maybe more than one.

George cites Benito Mussolini as someone who wouldn't "circle the block six times, looking for a space." Kramer cites Idi Amin. Think how many cars he could've boxed in with those long limos he liked. The double-parker? An Englishman whose beret, full face, mustache and long, military-style coat make him look like Saddam Hussein. (The guy in the spa probably wasn't the real Salman Rushdie, either.)

Today, with even people who remember World War II being in their 80s, and genuine dictators being endlessly mocked and unable to truly hurt the U.S. -- even Vladimir Putin is seeing his economy ruined by the stronger man, Barack Obama -- it's not dictators we fear anymore. It's terrorists. Including home-grown bigots.

8. "The Marine Biologist," Season 5, February 10, 1994. It would have been very easy to check George's Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn page to discover that he was, in fact, not a marine biologist.

9. "The Switch," Season 6, January 5, 1995. The episode that introduces us to Kramer's mother (and has Kramer catch Newman screwing her), and reveals his first name (Cosmo), also makes jokes about bulimia. I'm not sure that would work today.

10. "The Jimmy," Season 6, March 16, 1995. George likes spicy chicken, and Mike doesn't have a problem with Jimmy referring to himself in the 3rd person. But the mockery of the disabled? That is over the line.

And by being a perverted dentist who possibly leads to Jerry being molested (we can't know for sure), Bryan Cranston may have been more twisted as Tim Watley than he ever was as Walter "Heisenberg" White.

11. "The Pool Guy," Season 7, November 16, 1995. A massively stupid episode that should have been a sign that it was time to wrap this sucker up. But that's why it didn't work then, not why it wouldn't work today. Moviefone? You can now check movie times on your smartphone. There's an app for that.

12. "The Invitations," Season 7, May 16, 1996. Susan dies, and George's cheapness (he didn't want to pay for good invitations) and laziness (he wasn't willing to lick his half) are indirectly responsible. And all four characters act like, "Well, that's over, let's go get some coffee."

This was coldness on an insane scale. Sure, Susan wasn't particularly likable, but have some respect for the dead. Say what you want about other NBC sitcom characters, but Sam Malone of Cheers, Dan Fielding of Night Court, Ross Geller of Friends, and others who occasionally did inexcusable things usually had a guilty conscience about it. In the wake of the conservative movement's "war on women," this ending would have been ripped to shreds on social media.

This wasn't killing Henry Blake on M*A*S*H, or Adriana La Cerva on The Sopranos, or anyone on Game of Thrones. Those shows, while having their funny moments, were dramas, and death was not only a common occurrence, it was arguably the main theme of all three shows. This was a comedy -- and it killed a key (if not main) character, throwing her away like a used tissue.

This should have been the series finale. Jerry, Larry David, and the writers could have wrapped it up by having the characters realize, "Hey, we're not good people. We just saw the most powerful evidence of this yet. We need to do something about it." They didn't even have to show us the four doing different things, to show that they had changed. Just show them making the commitment, and end the series that way.

Instead, the show plodded on for two more seasons, which were the weakest since the first two, when the show was still finding its bearings. But this episode set the pattern for those last two seasons, as all four main characters became parodies of themselves. If those last two seasons had been the first two, the show never would have made it.

13. "The Checks," Season 8, November 7, 1996. Beyond being impossibly stupid, and proving that they should have stopped with Season 7, I don't know how they got away with either the Japanese stereotypes or Jerry essentially allowing those tourists to die.

14. "The Little Jerry," Season 8, January 9, 1997. In the wake of the scandals of Pedro Martinez's cockfighting and Michael Vick's dogfighting, this one wouldn't work. Besides, it's racist to Hispanics.

15. "The Susie," Season 8, February 13, 1997. This was a ripoff of the first-season M*A*S*H episode "Tuttle," in which Hawkeye Pierce's made-up friend becomes a cause celebre. (This, itself, was a reworking of the story of a Russian soldier, Lieutenant Kizhe -- no, this is not a Chekov "It was inwented in Russia" idea from Star Trek, it really is a Russian story, one that was made into a 1934 film.)

Making fun of the Army is easy, but somebody at the 4077th MASH should have pointed out that there was no Tuttle. And I seriously doubt that anyone as stupid as J. Peterman appears to be could have risen so far in his business -- or that Elaine could have been so stupid as to believe that Peterman could be that stupid (even if he was).

16. "The Nap," Season 8, April 10, 1997. Phoning a bomb threat in to Yankee Stadium? This was before 9/11.

17. "The Butter Shave," Season 9, September 25, 1997. The start of the final season that never should have been. Perhaps the whole point of the show is that these four people are, to use John Candy's phrase from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, insensitive assholes. But pretending to be disabled, just to gain a job, and then to win sympathy at it?

Face it, George: If you'd told the truth, that you were in physical therapy, and you'd be ready to walk without the cane in a few weeks, you still would have gotten the job, and you wouldn't have needed a big ball of oil.

Throw in the Jerry/Bania rivalry, which was old by the end of the first episode with it, and the Kramer butter, cannibal Newman shtick, and you've got a horrible episode.

18. "The Merv Griffin Show," Season 9, November 6, 1997. Jerry drugging his girlfriend so he can play with her vintage toys (which she never allows when she's awake) is too close to date rape to get on the air in the 2010s.

19. "The Betrayal," Season 9, November 20, 1997. The idea of a "backward" episode could have worked. This didn't. The India stereotypes were offensive enough, but portraying Elaine as a pathetic drunk, and showing George essentially drugging her, was over the line. (Then again, he'd previously slipped an old boss of his a mickey.)

Less offensive, but still stupid: Does anybody really believe that nobody would notice George was wearing Timberlands? Also stupid: Does anybody really think that Elaine would be willing to be Sue Ellen Mischke's maid of honor? That would be like Newman getting married (some suspension of disbelief is required for that), and asking Jerry to be his best man... and Jerry accepts. No, just no.

20. "The Puerto Rican Day Parade," Season 9, May 7, 1998. It didn't work then: NBC actually had to apologize for the episode's bigotry. They did not, however, apologize for the episode being just plain bad, so bad that the article I mentioned at the beginning named it the worst episode in the nine-season history of the show.

As for the finale, one of the most heavily-ripped series finales in television history, there's nothing about that episode that couldn't be done today -- nothing that would be less socially acceptable today, no tech issues -- but it was just plain stupid.

True, the main characters deserved to face the consequences for their various dick moves throughout the 1990s. But the law they broke was unconstitutional. A judge with more sense than Art Vandelay (ironically, he showed as little sense as George did when using that name) would have thrown the case out. Furthermore, why prosecute the people who documented a mugging when you can use their evidence to nail the mugger? The cops should have thanked them instead of arresting them.

Jackie Chiles flopping his closing argument after sleeping with Sidra, a witness for the other side? Okay, she looks like Teri Hatcher (who's still spectacular at age 50), but that's a serious ethical violation. Jackie wasn't even a criminal defense attorney in the first place. And a good defense attorney would have made one key argument: None of the awful things these witnesses from New York are accusing the defendants of has anything to do with the crime at hand. It would have been like a prosecutor at Nuremberg charging Hermann Goering with littering.

Of course, if Julia Louis-Dreyfus -- most recently having played a frustrated Vice President who becomes President on Veep -- were to guest star as Elaine, still in prison, on Orange Is the New Black, that might "break the Internet" in a way that Kim Kardashian never could.

I wonder what Jerry and Larry David could have done with the Kardashians. Maybe have Kramer hook up with one of them? Nah, if "The Shoes" is any indication, they'd have had George try to hook up with Kendall. Or is Kylie the one that's still underage? It's hard to keep up with them.

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