' ' Cinema Romantico: The Seinfeld Chronicles

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Seinfeld Chronicles

Twenty two years ago today a TV pilot going by the unassuming name "The Seinfeld Chronicles" debuted (or was dumped, to use the parlance of the times) on NBC, sandwiched between summer re-runs of two popular shows. What was I doing July 5, 1989? I have no idea. Probably hoping "Electric Youth" could somehow overtake "Batdance" on Q-102's nightly Top 10 countdown. As America went about its post-Independence Day business would've thought that arguably (unless I'm the one you're asking, in which case it's inarguable) the greatest television show in the history of the world - the show that means if I say to my best friend "I'm reading manuscripts for Pendant Publishing" will prompt my best friend to immediately reply "Pendant? Those bastards" - was airing its first episode, centered around its comedian protagonist, Manhattan dwelling Jerry Seinfeld (Jerry Seinfeld), and his friend Laura flying in from Michigan who may or may not have romantic intentions. Whether or not this is true is debated endlessly by Jerry and his pal George (Jason Alexander) - "She had to come in? Maybe we'll get together? You're a backup! A B plan! A contingency!"

And that is it. Really. Truly. Jerry and George sit in colorfully decorated Pete's Luncheonette on the upper west side (I'm guessing) and debate it. They go to the laundromat (a horribly blocked sequence) and debate it. They go to Jerry's apartment and debate it, briefly with Jerry's unnamed next door neighbor (Michael Richards).  They go to the airport and while waiting for her to disembark the plane they discuss it some more, deciding that her intentions can be deciphered entirely in her initial greeting, before she sneaks up behind Jerry, covers her eyes and says hello, leading to the Pilot's best line. "The surprise blindfold greeting. That wasn't in the manual."

What did the few people watching on July 5, 1989 think as this strange, conversational, unconventional, easy-going show unfolded? Were they confused? Mildly amused? Indifferent? As one of the 17 most noted "Seinfeld" scholars on the planet I decided I needed to screen the infamous Pilot for the first time in......no idea. Even when I was in my most advanced "Seinfeld" re-runs obsession I never really watched the Pilot.

Aside from the familiar kind of dialogue, things are a bit......different. Jerry's apartment is a studio with a Mets poster on the wall, wicker back stools at this kitchen counter and a skylight. Yes, a skylight. Kramer hasn't left the building in 10 years and has a dog. Yes, a dog. As Jerry and George haul in an extra bed for his soon-to-arrive guest Jerry says, "If my father was moving this he'd have to have a cigarette in his mouth the whole way." (Jerry's Dad is never seen smoking.) And, most crucially, there is no Elaine. There is Claire (Lee Garlington, who has gone on to a lengthy career on TV, including most recently in AMC's "The Killing"), the bitter, irrevocably depressed waitress at aforementioned Pete's Lunchonette who spikes George's coffee with caffeine which apparently serves as a means to add a little spice to her crappy day.

Jerry is glimpsed in a blue sweatshirt and grotesquely bright red sweatpants. Kramer is unshaven, wearing a bathrobe and slippers. George is seen in a beanie, a bowling shirt and, at the beginning, a purple shirt. A purple shirt with the top button in the wrong place, a fact which is critical because, as Jerry states in the very first conversation on the very first of 180 episodes, "the top button makes or breaks the shirt." This conversation is repeated 180 episodes later as the final conversation on the show's Finale, a Finale generally viewed then and now as disappointing.

I never agreed with those critics. Oh, the Finale as a whole is weak. No doubt. It's overlong (considerably) and too obsessed with working in cameos of all its past players (a fact which also plagued the giant ending episode of Season 4 which preceded the "Cheers" finale). But the theme, the intent of The Finale was spot-on and, in so many ways, perfect.

Put these characters in a holding cell en route to prison for a year and what do you have? Three guys with no women and only themselves for company. One woman who seems endlessly irritated to be around them, but resigned to the fate she will never be without them. Two guys talking about a misplaced button on a shirt.

Aside from the apartment with the weird furniture and wrong wall decor and a skylight and a dog-owning Kramer without frizzed hair and a George with a beanie and a Pete's Luncheonette, what did the Pilot really give us? It gave us three guys with no women and only each other for company. One woman (Claire) who seems endlessly irritated be around them, but resigned to the fate she will never be without them. Two guys talking about a misplaced button on a shirt.

From July 5 1989 to May 21 1998 and 180 episodes in between, things changed, yes, but nothing was really ever any different.


Sam Fragoso said...

Great piece Nick. I love Seinfeld ... I've seen every episode, owning all 9 seasons (or is it 8?) .. can't remember.

I know recently I tried to make a list my ten favorite Seinfeld episodes ... it was really impossible.

I'll give it another shot throughout the summer - perhaps we can both make one .... from one Seinfeld lover to the next.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you! Always glad to hear of another Seinfeld zealot.

I can tell you that without a doubt that "The Race" is my favorite Seinfeld episode. Beyond that....

Maybe lists are in order. It sounds fun. And terrifying.