18. ‘The Engagement’ (Season 7, episode 111)

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They’re prisons! Man-made prisons. You’re doing time! You get up in the morning, she’s there. You go to sleep at night, she’s there. It’s like you gotta ask permission to use the bathroom. “Is it all right if I use the bathroom now?”

‘The Engagement’ opens on an interesting if overly ham fisted note, George seated in this apartment playing chess with his girlfriend. He’s overly arrogant at a recent move he’s made to which she almost immediately counters for the winning check mate. This deflating action prompts George to instantly begin break-up proceedings. It’s a strange line of characterization—even for George—as while he had shown severe emotional handicaps in previous seasons, most of them were the result of deficiencies in him and thus mostly sad in nature. The joke always ended with pie on George’s face, and was never this nasty (let alone blatantly misogynistic). Perhaps it’s a sign of things to come (Season 7 was the season that began the changes to all the characters that Seasons 8 and 9 would fully embrace), or perhaps it’s just a means to get Jerry and George contemplating the short-comings in their social lives in the episodes coming key scene. Whatever the reason, it sparks the entire season off in a manner not familiar to anyone who’d previously watched the show with an astute eye.
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The Holy Bible turns 20

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This is a re-post of a piece from another blog, about the Manic Street Preachers masterful album from 1994, The Holy Bible. This week, August 29th, 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the album’s release in the UK via Epic Records.

In many ways BritPop could be looked at as a direct response to American’s grunge movement of the day, specifically the meteoritic rise of Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana. It wasn’t like Britain didn’t like grunge, a quick watching of the Nirvana dvd ‘Live at Reading’ more then shows this, as does the interpretation of Cobain’s career by several of the leading glitterati of the BritPop movement. Noel Gallagher for example, wrote Oasis’ breakout single ‘Live Forever’ as a direct counter to Nirvana’s ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’, expressing essentially that pop stars have some sort of obligation of message to millions of impressionable, adorning fans. It would almost be weird stance for him to take, as in a few short months Oasis would themselves be heavily under the influence of hardcore street drugs (his direct quote on ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’ was, “‘Well, I’m not fucking having that.’ As much as I fucking like him [Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain] and all that shit, I’m not having that. I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That’s fucking rubbish. Kids don’t need to be hearing that nonsense.”). But, as is almost always the case with British pop, it distinctions and chief breaking off point with grunge was a class distinction at heart. As Noel continued, “Seems to me that here was a guy (Kurt Cobain) who had everything, and was miserable about it. And we had fuck-all (the Gallagher’s grew up in a broken home that was incredibly poor), and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fuckin’ thing ever, ’cause you didn’t know where you’d end up at night. And we didn’t have a pot to piss in, but it was fucking great, man.”

What all this says is a critical distinction of the era’s music geographically (it could probably be extended to the entire post-Elvis pop landscape in the specific countries; American pop music deals in rebellion in a expressionistic, nihilistic way that is incredibly individual, while British pop celebrates the class ascension afforded it’s pop stars. In short, that’s the essential dream of becoming a pop star [but both are rooted in the under class]. It’s why the clothes are so important to the British pop star, and why fashion has been relatively consistent throughout its family tree; Pete Townshend wore Fred Perry in 1965, as did Steve Marriott in 1967. Then so did Desmond Dekker in 1971, then so do Paul Weller and Terry Hall in 1979, as did Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn in 1993, and why Alex Turner did in 2006. It’ll be why the next great artist will in 2015, or 2020). The point of all this is to point out that while BritPop on the surface looked like throwaway cheery pop compared to the doom and gloom of grunge this wasn’t actually the case, BritPop was as depressive as grunge (and in some ways more so) and most of the leading records of the movement clearly exhibit this. In fact several are about this depression, often articulated as either individual existential angst (Suede’s Dog Star Man and Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, or more acutely Oasis’ ‘Morning Glory’ and Blur’s ‘Badhead’ and/or ‘Tracy Jacks’) or the collective crumbling of English imperial class culture (Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish or The Auteurs New Wave, or more acutely Pulp’s brilliant ‘Common People’). Nirvana, and the music that came in their wake, was just music colored in slightly different tones.

This key distinction, that’s just a distinction of articulation of similar themes, is but one thing that makes the Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible from 1994 such an interesting record. Continue reading

19. ‘The Watch’ (Season 4, episode 46)

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Two exact same watches. He tells you a week, and him a day. How could that be? Something’s fishy about this.

‘The Watch’, like ‘The Ticket’, is an episode that works wonderfully as itself, but also as a central piece within Season 4’s ongoing story line involving the creation of the Jerry pilot by Jerry and George for NBC (my pick for number eleven in this countdown contains a more thorough articulation of my thoughts on this dynamic, specifically how the affected episodes—more than a half-a-dozen—could form an almost ‘Seinfeld film’ if strung together in correct sequence), but another thought that I have while watching these particular episodes is the idea of attempting a formation of the aesthetics of Seinfeld.

Contemplating the art of Seinfeld has appeared to me up to now to be a completely ideological affair; I can only see artful gestures in what Seinfeld is saying, and sometimes how they are saying it (here I’m purely speaking about actor performance). But what then of how Seinfeld looks or how Seinfeld moves in relation to art. That’s become a much different, and more difficult proposition for me. Mainstream television of this type (most generically specified as ‘sitcom’) is pretty bland visually, what with its lighting being little more than the high-key lightning technique and the blocking usually being the most simplistic of two dimensional space. Characters face each other seated, they walk side by side in straight shots, no choice of filmic grammar other than what produces the most consistent shot in the quickest of time to set up on set. The choice of lightning previously mentioned is a decision in a likewise, time efficient manner; you rig the lights in your most common sets once (in this case Jerry’s apartment and the coffee shot) and conceivably nothing needs to change for the entire duration of the Series except a switching out of a bulb when one inevitably sputters out. Even in the comedy television era that Seinfeld certainly birthed that has had some growth in camera movement and other filmic expressions (Arrested Development and all the faux-documentary style of, say, The Office would be the most readily identifiable examples) often has less to do with artistic decision than the readily affordable nature of handheld digital high quality cameras (FX’s Wilfred, used much handheld work in its wonderful first two seasons, via a digital video camera that retails for under four grand). Even the production aesthetic offers similar common sense decisions which lead us down dead ends in this sort of contemplation; the sets are meant to look as standard as possible (apartments are to offer very little detail other than the surface level, restaurants and bars are totally utilitarian, etc.) while costuming, while offering a bit more and interesting in its authentic everyman way (George is wonderfully costumed; his clothes were selected to fit slightly small in many scenes to accentuate his discomfort and overweight nature, as Elaine often is too; her floral dresses paired with denim jackets and two-tones brogues are an understated comment on her masculine/feminist interplay, while Kramer is an originator all his own. Vintage lounge wear meets poverty, as he wears pants that are hemmed to short and coats in serious need of a cleaning. He’s as factitious as his means allow.), is more used to create an atmosphere of character rather than specific pointed aesthetic wholeness.

But thinking more, specifically after studying Season 4’s ‘The Watch’ again recently, I do think there is something of a cohesive aesthetic vantage point that can be explored. First, there is the generic sameness at the foundation as I just discussed. This consciously puts it next to everything else, makes it not glaringly stick out and lose credibility. Its values outwardly seem pedestrian even if its arguments are rooted in shaking bedrock. ‘The Watch’ does this most interestingly with an acute sense of mirrored duality, seen through its interesting use of juxtaposed cut story-telling device. Everything about the episode is a transposed mirror of what came before or after it, making the episode one long undulating dream of connected points akin to a stand up comedians one hour HBO special. The episode starts in exploration on this theme, even if in just subtle hinting, as the Seinfeld’s—complete with the great Uncle Leo in tow—eat at a nice, what appears to be Italian, restaurant. The conversation ping-pongs between Helen’s exclaiming the attractiveness of the waitress and Morty and Leo’s interjections merely when their convenience allows. Then, as if adding the thesis to which we’re set to explore, Morty offers the earlier quoted, “Two exact same watches. He tells you a week, and him a day. How could that be? Something’s fishy about this.” Continue reading

20. ‘The Red Dot’ (Season 3, episode 29)

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You want me to take an overview?
Please.
I see a very cheap man holding a sweater trying to get away with something. That’s my overview.

As I discussed in my essay for ‘The Bizarro Jerry’ two places down at #22, Elaine often articulated her frustrations about her friends and how their existence didn’t wholly jive with how she viewed herself and her possible existence. While Elaine was singular is this complaint (at least in asking the audience to take it seriously, as Jerry often acted superior to the group as well but this could never be read as anything other that vain egoism), George also often purported a strain in his personality that showed he sought more positives from his social relationships as well. He, unlike Elaine, was the root of his own demise, so these yearnings often found themselves as the butt of the jokes or, on a larger scale, the source of the initial domino toppling with which the entire episodes string of dominos followed suit in cascading around him and the group. Likewise, Kramer existed with an unseen, but often referenced, whole other social network of characters to which he could escape into whenever he felt the main three person Seinfeld universe of Jerry, George, and Elaine to be lacking (plus the characters like the Maestro, aka Bob Cobb, or Stan the Caddy shared more an affinity to hanging out with Kramer than anyone else). It consisted of men seemingly as strange as Cosmo himself; wild stories abound about Lomez and Bob Sacamano and that’s just naming two when several more exist (Doug the cop buddy from ‘The Frogger’, Jay Riemenschneider, Corky Ramirez, Len Nicademo, etc.). (To take a slight detour in fact, I’ve always argued that the Seinfeld spin off lay right here; Kramer’s unseen world was ripe for investigation, and its unknown quality meant that it would be defined as it deemed fit [plus it had the known entities of Newman and Kramer should you need the initial familiarity when in development stage], and not in need of the radical environment change that spin offs so often use [see how Frasier Crane’s relocation to Seattle from the Boston of Cheers for example]).

What all this says is that Seinfeld often explored the deficiencies that each saw the others possess within the group dynamic, a topic supremely explored in Season 3’s wonderful Holiday themed ‘The Red Dot’. Continue reading

21. ‘The Pie’ (Season 5, episode 79)

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I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you wanna hear about your father. But I’ll tell you when he came out of that bathroom and he was kneading that dough, it was a wild scene.

One thing I’ve always liked about Seinfeld is its ability to not only comment on the mundane, everyday object, but to repurpose the idea of that object into a fresh perspective onto which a wonderfully comedic point is made. Meaning that the fulcrum of an entire episode’s genesis might be a piece of clothing, or food, or a place where a very specific social function occurs. The jump from most television is then that the action is therefor based more on human spontaneity and individuality, in essence because it’s showing how several rather idiosyncratic people are reacting to (and then conversationally processing) events happening to and because of them. The tie to an object, or, in this case objects sharing the same name but different (a piece of dessert pie and a pizza pie) potential roles, is not only a means to show scriptwriting creativity (though it does that in spades) it’s also a tie to just how much control we have over our worlds; the world as a collection of objects that could seemingly be the source of any unwritten Seinfeld episode, and in each of those potentialities, we’d see our characters scraping out a present (and therefor future) entirely of their own making.
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