Friday, August 23, 2013

Season 2, episode 6: The Chinese Restaurant

“For fifty bucks? I’d put my face in their soup and blow.” - George

Jerry’s stand-up is a completely dated bit about pay phones. In our current culture, pay phones and cell phones have to be the first technological difference when viewing movies and shows from the 20th century. 80% of the situations characters find themselves would be resolved in a dramatically different fashion with a cell phone. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts about this that I wasn’t listening to the details of the material.

This, of course, is the classic episode, The Chinese Restaurant, and it’s a landmark episode for several reasons. It’s the first episode to take place entirely outside Jerry’s apartment. It’s the first episode in which Kramer does not appear. And it’s the first episode (possibly only?) to take place in real time. NBC hated this episode and pushed it back to the end of the second season because “nothing happens in it.” The more I watch these early episodes the more I realize that Seinfeld would have no chance of survival in the modern network television world. After the airing of this episode the network realized they should just leave Jerry and Larry alone.

Jerry, Elaine and George are on their way to watch a screening of Plan Nine From Outer Space! And they stop in at a Chinese restaurant to grab dinner beforehand. The maitre’d tells them a table will be ready in “5 to 10 minutes.” They never get a table and what follows is 22 minutes of Jerry fighting his memory over a woman at a table that looks really familiar to him, Elaine fighting starvation, and George fights off other patrons for use of the pay phone – first a man in glasses followed by a middle aged woman - so he can call his girl friend and tell her where they are.

When they arrive at the restaurant there is already a man on the pay phone. George waits patiently but he twice timidly asks the man how long he’ll be. Both times the man rebuffs George by silently turning his back to him. After the second attempt George goes to Jerry and asks, “If anything happens here, can I count on you?”

Jerry dares Elaine to go up to a table and just take an egg roll. He’s convinced no one will stop her and they’ll have a story to tell their children. She gets as far as walking up to the table before chickening out and coming back empty handed.

Meanwhile other people are being seated ahead of the group. Jerry and Elaine approach the maitre’d who assures them that those other folks were here first and that a Mr. Cohen is always here to which Elaine responds, “what does that mean?!” And with a perplexed look downwards speaking to no one in particular, “Where am I? Is this a dream?”

George eventually gets use of the phone but his girl friend isn’t home so he leaves a message to call the restaurant. A few minutes later the Maitre’d calls out for a Cartwright(!). George asks if the call was for Costanza. “Who’s Cartwright?” asks Jerry. A bewildered George responds, “I’m Cartwright.”
“You’re not Cartwright.”

The woman Jerry recognizes stops to say hello to him on the way out and – have you every had a conversation with a person you weren’t really sure how you knew them and you can’t even remember their name but they clearly know who you are and they bring up certain, specific things you should know, but not too specific such that you can fake your way through the conversation with ‘yeah’ and ‘I know’ and ‘totally…I agree…I agree…’ as your only responses? Because that is precisely what Jerry did here. It’s only after the fact that he could recall how he knew the woman (Lorraine, as it turns out).

Getting hungrier by the second, Elaine decides to bribe the maitre’d with $20. After taking a while to figure out how to split $20 between 3 people (George pays $6 because he’s ‘not going to eat much’) Elaine slips him the $20. when that doesn’t work she just plead with him to take the money. He takes it and seats another party.

Finally with no time to eat and go to the movie the group leaves. As soon as they walk out the maitre’d calls for them.

Wow. I don’t know what NBC was thinking when they said nothing happened in this episode. I’d never really thought that highly of The Chinese Restaurant. I’d looked at it was a good episode but not world beater or anything but now I understand why this is such a great Seinfeld episode. There was more going on here than any episode I’ve seen. I don’t know how they packed as much as they did into 22 minutes. And there was no wasted moment as the action moves from material to material, set up to joke to set up to joke. And every single one of them works; it’s pretty outstanding. It’s just too bad Michael Richards wasn’t a part of this one.

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