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.”
Yes, there could be. Taken out of context as an aesthetic framing device and ending the opening scene in this way, Morty inadvertently alerts us of what we can expect, and in turn, explore. The episode will be built around pairing the exact same events to one another, happening under completely different surroundings, sometimes in an environment where time appears as broken as any watch Jimmy Sherman has seen*. There, the interconnectedness of all, could then form the beginnings of a Seinfeld aesthetic principal.
Soon Jerry will be making offers to Leo, inevitably having to strong arm him a little to overpay for a watch he’d previously thrown out just as George ‘Bonanza’ is weaseling his way into NBC President Russell’s apartment to beg him to re-offer them the chance to create a pilot. Just as Jerry must overpay, George (and therefor Jerry) must receive significantly less, to make a show they’d almost “negotiated” their way out of. Similarly, Elaine and Kramer are seen creating a pseudo romantic relationship so that Elaine can hopefully cleanly break herself free from an overprotecting partner/therapist as Jerry is seen picking up the waitress as the Seinfeld’s leave the restaurant. Minor mirror editing connections abound as well; Kramer enters the door to Dr. Reston’s (Elaine’s therapist) as George is let in via a protective doorman to Russell’s penthouse, then George asks to use Russell’s bathroom as we cut immediately to Leo and Jerry negotiating in the bathroom over the titular watch, then Elaine and Joe Davola end a brief introduction by sweetly laughing at an Elaine joke as we move to Kramer and Dr. Reston doing likewise. From here the episode is in full interconnected stream; Kramer and Dr. Reston begin smoking celebratory cigars over an unseen alliance with Dr. Reston saying, “If you ever feel, a need to talk to someone… about anything. You have my number” as Elaine scribbles her phone number to Joe Davola and Naomi (the previously unnamed waitress) is seen giving hers to Jerry. As if to almost unwind everything at once, the script offers us potential collisions with all the close interweaving at play (even if we don’t collide—yet); Joe Davola and Kramer pass in the lobby as Kramer exits to see a waiting Elaine that Joe Davola has just left while similarly, a wallet meets the same fate as Jerry’s earlier watch by being disposed into a trashcan before Uncle Leo is there to again snatch it up.
While a tightly constructed plot was a unique Seinfeld innovation and calling card, I’d say that it almost always leads to the full crescendo of the punchline at shows end (think of Kramer asking, “is it a Titleist?”), and thus only real examination as clever laugh. Here is a perfect example of how it also often works, as a means to get into the film grammar of the Seinfeld universe. The art of comedy is generally purely ideological, but sometimes we can see an interconnected merging of the art of film technique (here it’s in the form of story structure) as a wonderful mirroring of the craft of stand-up comedy itself; a world where one line can lead to the next, and the idea is to always circle back self-reflexively. No Seinfeld‘s do it better than ‘The Watch’, the great stand up act juggler of cuts, story-lines and happy accidents.
(* the broken time structure is mostly seen in the Kramer and Elaine storyline. While the Jerry and George stories appear to happen over an hour or so, there’s seems to overly condense events or at the very least not consider proper allotments for, say, traveling in a city)
(Plus, as an aside, I wonder how much of it is true, how much of the pilot sub-plot can we take as an insight into the creative process of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. There most certainly wasn’t some overbearing Psychiatrist who responded in the negative about having a decaf cappuccino maker in his office, but the humanizing aspect that some of it being potentially true to life would be uplifting to any creative person. Seinfeld, as a series, as a collection of scenes, jokes, characters, and situations is an incredibly daunting manifestation of brilliance. If you desire anything close to it, whether it’s as small as just being funny somewhere over drinks, or as large as trying anything professional in the creative vein and you appreciate Seinfeld on any level, the show is a towering collection of little laughs, insights and original turns of phrase now forever embedded in our cultural consciousness. The show purports an influence few others can begin to even approach, let alone equal. If Seinfeld’s genesis in real life is partially contained in how we see the fictional Jerry grow over these several episodes—and I think a few of the parallels, such as the difficulty of the boys writing a female character, lead us to this conclusion legitimately—if can become the most hopeful of shows, as well as the funniest. Can anyone, even people continuously falling asleep at the difficulty (and boredom) of writing a sitcom, articulate this much and with such originality? The development of Jerry seems to imply that yes, many could, and often it’s through accidental work and stumbled upon craft of trial and error while trusting your instincts. The show becomes less a daunting presentation of so much perfection, but rather a world of creative inclusion, where aspiring hopefuls can find admittance by trusting in yourself.)