Seinfeld remains one of my favorite shows of all time. During my high school and college years, it would have definitely placed first in the ranking of my favorite shows of all time, and it certainly would have been in first place on the comedies list, miles ahead of its next closest competitor.
Time moves on, however. I’m not sure Seinfeld even occupies the top spot on my comedy list anymore, a victim to time and exposure to shows like the BBC hit “Peep Show”, and the brilliant, burning on both ends of candle “Arrested Development” (although the third and Netflix produced fourth season did enough damage to knock the sublime first and second seasons of the show down a peg).
Seinfeld seems a little dated at this point, a victim of The Seinfeld Is Unfunny Effect. The first three seasons remind me in some ways of the first two seasons of The Next Generation (even though TNG was much, much, much worse): everything about the production screams late ’80s or early ’90s. The shows just don’t feel modern. The episodes look grainy, the pacing is wrong, the editing is slow and drawn out. Despite that, the fourth through seventh seasons remain some of the strongest sitcom seasons in television history. For a few brief years the show found its legendary stride and created some of the most memorable jokes and story lines that still exist in the culture today.
With the entire Seinfeld library having recently moved to Hulu, I embarked on a minor mission to see how the show held up. It’s surprising, and mildly distressing, how easy it is to burn through multiple seasons of half hour sitcoms, but in the end I narrowed down my list of the top five Seinfeld episodes, and ultimately my favorite season of the show. Four of the five episodes are from season five, which I now consider to be the turning point in the shows tone. With the addition of some new writers, the show moved away from its hyper realistic tone of the earlier seasons and began to embrace stories that were clearly conceived by writers but were still very grounded in normal, day to day life. The topics were familiar and from real life experiences, but the plot and characters became a bit more broad and the series began to work diligently to have their complicated plots weave together by the end of each episode.
That said, here are my top five episodes of Seinfeld.
5. The Puffy Shirt
The second episode of season five, “The Puffy Shirt” was written by Larry David, who considers the episode to be one of his favorites. Kramer dates a “low-talker” who asks an unsuspecting Jerry to wear some of her new clothing line on The Today Show, where he’ll be promoting a benefit to clothe the homeless. In the second storyline, George’s luck starts to turn around as he’s found to be a remarkable hand model, one with hands so spectacular that they remind everyone of Ray McKigney, a hand model ruined after he found that no woman could match the beauty of his own hand.
The scene where Kramer reveals the Puffy Shirt is outstanding. Jerry’s reaction to the shirt, and Kramer’s pleasure at revealing it, are wonderful. The business of Kramer forcing the shirt at a reluctant Jerry is topped off with the memorable, “But I don’t wanna be a pirate!” line as Jerry tries to stop himself from laughing.
In addition, we’ve got a great Mr and Mrs Costanza scene in the restaurant. It’s tough to not have the best episodes of the show include these two breakout stars, and here we get to experience the origin of George’s paranoia as Frank Costanza insists that the waiter sees them, he just doesn’t want to serve them.
It all culminates in Jerry ruining the low talker’s life when he slams her business on The Today Show, George burns his hands on a hot iron after insulting the shirt in front of its creator, and all the pre-ordered Puffy Shirts at the factory (“They’re making these?”) are distributed to the homeless.
It’s really not a bad looking shirt.
4. The Marine Biologist
What did I just say about story lines colliding? “The Marine Biologist”, written by Ron Hauge and Charlie Rubin, is peak Seinfeld. To impress a former classmate, Jerry spins a yarn about George having become a marine biologist. Unfortunately for George, the lie works and he and the classmate begin to date, all under the false pretense that George had made something of his life since college, and that he was an expert about all things fish and whale related.
The George plot is so outstanding that it covers over the weakest part of the episode: Elaine’s plot about meeting a famous Russian author and having her new digital organizer (very ’90s) annoy him to the point where he throws it out the limousine window and injures a passerby. The plot doesn’t really work, and it doesn’t tie into the greater story in any meaningful way.
The Kramer arc exists just to set up the climax of the episode. Kramer comes into a huge collection of golf balls, and travels down to the beach to hit them into the ocean. Unfortunately, Kramer’s golf game has left him and he only hit “one really good one, that went way out there”.
After George and his new lady friend stumble upon a beached whale as they’re out walking on the beach (“Is anyone here a marine biologist?”), George becomes a hero by saving the day. Reaching into the whale’s blowhole, he felt an obstruction and pulled out… a golf ball. A Titleist.
This episode is sublime. The collision of plot strands in the end is arguably the finest use of the trick that the show ever did (that one yelp of audience laughter as George reveals the golf ball!), and even the use of the phrase “marine biologist” seems just so Seinfeld-y. During the shows run, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated an affection for odd sounding words and phrases. It doesn’t even sound like a real job! And Larry David’s voice over on the timeless “Is anyone here a marine biologist?” line is simply perfect.
3. The Opposite
Season five ends with an ingenious twist on the George character: if everything you’ve done in the past has been wrong, then doesn’t the opposite have to be right?
When George hits his breaking point, he decides to do “the opposite”. Whatever his gut tells him to do, he’ll do the opposite of that. Telling a woman he just met that he’s unemployed and lives with his parents? No problem. Not getting upset when a jackass driver cuts him off? Easy. Yelling at the owner of the New York Yankees during a job interview? He’ll do it!
Elaine, on the other hand, finds her life falling apart. She gets evicted from her apartment, causes her employer Pendant Publishing to fold, and ends up, to her horror, “becoming George”.
Jerry’s plot line details how everything always works out for him. He loses a gig only to get another one for the same day and pay only moments later. He throws money out the window only to have it come back into his life (albeit with George). His story ends with the realization that as an “Even Steven”, when one friend is up (George), another one is down (Elaine).
Kramer’s plot is mostly forgettable, as he begins a book tour on Regis and Kathie Lee. The most memorable moment from this scene is Regis’ bizarre, “This guy’s bonkos!” line, which, according to Philbin, was performed against his will and at the insistence of the Seinfeld writers.
But really, this episode lives and dies on the George storyline. Every scene with him is hilarious, each getting better and better, until it all culminates in the scene where he screams at Steinbrenner for ruining the Yankees organization. In the episode’s final twist, Steinbrenners response is “Hire this man!” and thus we see the genesis of many great plot lines involving George and the New York Yankees.
2. The Hamptons
“I was in the pool! I was in the pool!”
It’s one of the most quoted Seinfeld lines, sold with delicious zeal by Jason Alexander. This episode is mostly known for the “shrinkage” story, yet another example of the show’s language infecting the cultural zeitgeist. Do women know about shrinkage?
But honestly, the George story is only one of a few excellent threads that run through this one. For some reason, sitcom episodes that involve the beach are always a favorite of mine. Any show that runs for a few seasons inevitably ends up at the beach, and these episodes always tickle my fancy. Here, the entire cast gets a weekend at the Hamptons, home of world famous tomatoes and topless beaches. George is trying to get laid, Kramer wants some lobster, Elaine meets a man with a curious vocabulary, and Jerry mostly acts as a smirking foil to his co-star’s plots.
For me, the Elaine story is… breathtaking. A simple joke that builds around the idea that sometimes “people say things just to be nice”, it’s Seinfeld’s observational humor at it’s best. The wordplay is funny, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is outstanding, and the guest actor playing the soap opera-esque doctor fits the bill perfectly.
Kramer’s lobster story is solid, and worth the wait just for his unaware, happy waving at the end when the police come to arrest him for poaching.
Of course, the George story is the episode’s backbone. He tries to see his new girlfriend naked, is foiled by her exhibitionist ways, and then tries to see Jerry’s girlfriend topless to “even the score”. When that fails, he is instead embarrassed after he takes a dip in the cold ocean and, well, nature takes its course.
A very strong episode with tremendous plots for everyone involved, a catch phrase that endures today, and the beach. It’s almost perfect.
And 1… The Gum
Is this a sleeper choice? The only episode not from the fifth season on this list, The Gum can instead be found in the middle of season seven.
Written by the underrated writing team of Tom Gammill and Max Pross, The Gum is a nearly perfect sitcom script. It’s a master class in writing.
Building around a George plot line where he tries to convince his old friend Deena that he is not, in fact, crazy and obsessed with the returning Lloyd Braun, the other threads of the story all combine to make George’s life that much more difficult. “Crazy” Lloyd Braun made his first appearance in The Low Fat Yogurt, and he appears in this episode having just been released from a mental institution. As Kramer doesn’t want to upset Lloyd, he goes out of his way to accommodate him by endorsing all of his odd behavior, including the excessive buying and chewing of gum.
Because of this hilarious catering to Lloyd’s whims, Jerry is forced to wear glasses that make him blind, and Elaine’s wardrobe malfunction causes her to send mixed messages. When Lloyd and Jerry buy “a lot of gum”, George can’t get the blinded Jerry to respond to his greeting. When Deena doubts George’s sanity, as she knows that Jerry doesn’t wear glasses, George loses it. “Don’t you see!”, he yells, “He was doing it to fool Lloyd Braun!”
It’s a difficult episode to explain. It’s tremendously scripted, and very, very tight. All of the plot threads come together in a totally natural way, and it’s difficult to watch the episode and see the strings being pulled to get to the resolution. It takes the Seinfeld conceit of intersecting plot lines and takes the idea to its absolute apex.
It’s hysterical, and it’s my absolute favorite episode in a show filled with them.