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"So we go into NBC, we tell them we got an idea for a show about nothing. They say, 'What's your show about?' I say, 'Nothing.' I think you may have something here." - Jerry Seinfeld on George's sitcom idea in "The Pitch"

Seinfeld: Season 4 DVD Review

By Jonathan Boudreaux

In the middle of its fourth season, Seinfeld moved to Thursday nights following NBC's soon-to-be retired hit Cheers. What had once been a cult favorite soon became a popular hit as new viewers tuned in to see the exploits of comedian Jerry Seinfeld (played - and who would have guessed it - by comedian Jerry Seinfeld), his nebbishy pal George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Jerry's ex-girlfriend Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Jerry's wacky neighbor Kramer (Michael Richards). These new fans weren't to be disappointed - season four contains several of the series' most talked-about episodes.

The season takes a few episodes to really find its legs. It doesn't help that the first six episodes are multi-parters. These installments aren't necessarily bad, but the rhythm of two-part episodes is different from single episodes. Coincidentally, the season's first standalone episode, "The Bubble Boy," is also its first masterpiece. While dining with Elaine, Jerry is snookered into agreeing to visit a sick fan, an immune system-challenged "bubble boy." His father, a truck driver for Yoo Hoo, claims that when his son saw Jerry perform on TV, he "laughed so hard we had to give him another shot of hemoglobin." Jerry planned on spending the weekend with Elaine, George, and George's new girlfriend, Susan (Heidi Swedberg), at a cabin belonging to Susan's father. Luckily, bubble boy's upstate home happens to be on the way to the cabin. Unluckily, George, who's driving the lead car, accidentally loses Jerry, who doesn't have a copy of bubble boy's address. While Jerry and Elaine argue over what to do ("Poor bubble boy. He's sitting there waiting for you in his bubble or igloo thing or whatever."), George and Susan reluctantly play a game of Trivial Pursuit with the sick kid. This episode is screamingly funny. Larry David and Larry Charles, the episode's writers, make the decision to have the bubble boy be an obnoxious creep, an audacious move that still doesn't blunt the other characters' callous behavior toward him. The full-contact round of Trivial Pursuit spurred by a misprinted answer ("Moors!" "Moops!" "Moors!" "Moops!") is absolutely unforgettable. Even the simple technique of repeating the phrase "bubble boy" approximately one million times in the space of a twenty-three minute episode adds to the silliness.

The series' most infamous episode - "The Contest" - also occurs this season. The episode's conceit is simple yet bold: when George's mother (the brilliant Estelle Harris, who makes her first appearance here) catches her son in an intimate moment involving her copy of Glamour magazine ("I go out for a quart of milk, I come home and find my son treating his body like it was an amusement park!"), the gang places a bet to see which of them can go the longest without participating in this extracurricular activity. The Emmy-winning script by Larry David introduced the brilliant euphemism "master of my domain" to our lexicon and helped the series to truly become must-see TV. We know what the episode is about, but the script never explicitly says it. "The Contest" effortlessly takes a potentially incendiary subject and renders it utterly inoffensive yet hilarious.

Season four is practically a "Greatest Hits" collection of notable episodes. Remember "The Pick," when Jerry tries to convince his model girlfriend that she did not see him pick his nose, Kramer becomes a Calvin Klein model, and Elaine earns the nickname "Nip" after her Christmas card photo proves to be a tad too revealing? And it's impossible to forget "The Outing," where George and "single, thin, and neat" Jerry have to convince a reporter that they're not a couple.not that there's anything wrong with that. Not to mention "The Junior Mint," where Kramer drops a piece of candy into the abdomen of a patient while watching a surgery and Jerry struggles to remember the body part-rhyming name of his girlfriend (Mulva?). Each of these episodes provoked much water cooler talk when they premiered over twelve years ago, and have become so much a part of our pop culture history that many people can still quote lines from them.

It's notable, however, that the season's main story arc - George and Jerry developing a sitcom pilot for NBC - did not generate any landmark episodes. These "pilot" episodes have their funny moments, but they lack the timelessness of regular Seinfeld episodes. A sitcom famously deemed to be "about nothing" featuring a season-long plotline about its characters pitching a TV series "about nothing"? The conceit feels like the ultimate in navel gazing.

Still, this season is a strong one. The characters continue to develop into the apathetic, insensitive creatures that often provide the series with its greatest laughs. It's a standard rule of sitcoms that main characters have to be sympathetic. Not so with Seinfeld. Indeed, we love them more with every selfish, terrible thing they do. In "The Visa," Jerry's pal Babu Bhatt (Brian George, reprising his role from season three's "The Café") gets deported because Jerry and Elaine misplaced his visa renewal application. They just shrug it off. In "The Bubble Boy," Jerry tells his horrified girlfriend that her laugh sounds like "Elmer Fudd sitting on a juicer." In "The Junior Mint," George doesn't want Jerry to save the ailing patient by reporting the errant piece of candy. Why? Because the patient is an artist, and he hopes that the guy will die so that the artwork George purchased will rise in value. Jerry, George, and Elaine fail even when they try to be nice. They happily participate in an adopt-a-grandparent program in "The Old Man," but things go horribly wrong. George's idea of small talk is to try convincing his charge that at 85 years old, he'll soon be dead. Elaine can barely look at her adopted grandparent because the woman has a large football-shaped goiter on her neck. (Elaine complains that the agency should have told her, "And by the way, this woman almost has another head.") Jerry loses his adoptee after destroying his dentures in a garbage disposal. Viewers who like sitcom characters to be fine, upstanding citizens can stick with Leave it to Beaver. The rest of us will then be free to enjoy every misanthropic moment of Seinfeld.

Guest stars in season four - some already famous and some about to be - include Corbin Bernsen (L.A. Law), George Wendt (Cheers), Fred Savage (The Wonder Years), Vaughn Armstrong (Star Trek: Enterprise), Clint Howard (Gentle Ben), Bob Balaban (Gosford Park), Jessica Lundy (Hope & Gloria), Brian Doyle-Murray (Saturday Night Live), Carol Mansell (Down to Earth), Grace Zabriskie (Twin Peaks), Jane Leeves (Frasier), JM J. Bullock (Too Close for Comfort), Denise Richards (The World is Not Enough), Megan Mullally (Will & Grace), Teri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives), Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU), and Jeremy Piven (Entourage).

The twenty-four episodes that make up Seinfeld's fourth season are divided onto four discs. The simple, bold design of this set will be familiar to owners of the first two Seinfeld releases. The discs are housed in slim, clear keepcases. The front covers each feature a different publicity photo of one of the show's stars. The back covers include episode numbers, episode titles, and plot synopses. The double-sided coversheets show through to the insides of the cases and feature a photo of the exterior of Jerry's apartment building. Each DVD is imprinted with a publicity shot of the same star depicted on its case. The four keepcases slide into two cardboard sleeves, both of which feature the same publicity photo of the cast members. A booklet listing the basic production credits for each episode is also sandwiched between the keepcases.

The imaginatively designed DVD menus are also similar to those in the previous two releases.

Video and Audio

Grain is evident in some scenes, but overall, Seinfeld: Season 4 is a beauty. The crystal clear video looks much better than the broadcast versions, and the audio is great, too.

English, French, and Spanish audio tracks are included, along with English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. The commentary tracks are subtitled in Spanish and Portuguese, while the "Notes about Nothing" trivia tracks (see below) are available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

The episodes are also closed captioned.

Extras

Ten episodes include commentary tracks by the cast and creative team: Jerry Seinfeld on "The Contest" and "The Junior Mint;" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards on "The Cheever Letters" and "The Outing;" writer Peter Mehlman on "The Implant;" production designer Tom Azzari and director/producer Tom Cherones on "The Pilot" parts 1 & 2; and writer Larry Charles on "The Trip" parts 1 & 2 and "The Airport." A quick sampling of these tracks reveals that they are mostly expendable. The show's stars have especially little to say. Viewers would find better use of their time by adopting a crotchety old person or by visiting an immune-challenged nutjob.

Twelve episodes contain "In the Vault" deleted and extended scenes: "The Trip" part 1 (2:05), "The Wallet" (2:42), "The Cheever Letters" (3:38), "The Opera" (3:05), "The Virgin" (:51), "The Contest" (2:02), "The Airport" (:29), "The Pick" (1:44), "The Movie" (1:48), "The Outing" (2:28), "The Old Man" (:52), and "The Junior Mint" (:59). In some cases, the deleted material is only a few fleeting seconds of the clip's running time, but all of the material is quite funny and well worth a look.

Two episodes - "The Airport" and "The Old Man" - have alternate endings. The endings don't vary wildly from what actually made it into the final episodes, but they are interesting nonetheless.

One of the episodes features an alternate version. On disc four, "The Handicap Spot" is presented in its original broadcast version and in its syndicated version. When the show was originally broadcast on NBC, actor John Randolph played George's father. The role was recast with Jerry Stiller in subsequent seasons. For continuity's sake, Larry David re-shot portions of "The Handicap Spot" so that Stiller would appear in the syndicated version. This DVD marks the first time that the original version has been seen since it first played on NBC. The original version can also be viewed with an optional introduction in which Jason Alexander speaks in tribute to the late Randolph, who died in 2004.

Sixteen of the episodes are supplemented by "Inside Looks," featurettes that explore the creation and filming of the episodes. Each runs from two to ten minutes and features interviews with NBC execs, the cast, and the creative team. These are a must-see for fans of the series. The "Inside Look" for "The Outing," for example, includes footage of Fran Drescher playing George's mother. It seems that Estelle Harris was not available on the night of filming. Drescher stepped in so that the studio audience would still be able to follow the plot, and Harris filmed her scene later.

All twenty-four episodes in the set feature "Notes about Nothing" - subtitle tracks that present facts and trivia about the show in general and the episodes in particular. The information presented ranges from informative to extraordinarily trivial: descriptions of script changes, ratings info, explanations of pop culture references for the culturally stunted ("Diana Ross is an entertainer who first gained fame as the head singer for the Motown group the Supremes"), info on the supporting actors, and the specific dates when the cast first read and filmed the episodes. The number of notes makes it practically impossible to follow the episodes and simultaneously read all of the text. Still, diehard fans may want to at least sample the tracks on their favorite episodes.

In "The Breakthrough Season" (19:09) featurette on disc one, NBC execs, the cast, and the creative team discuss the genesis of season four's Jerry-and-George-pitch-a-show-about-nothing story arc, Seinfeld's rise in the ratings after its move to Thursday nights, the show's Emmy win for Best Comedy, and the surprising lack of controversy over "The Contest." Some of this footage will be familiar to viewers of this season's "Inside Looks" and the supplemental materials from previous seasons, but it is still a worthy extra.

"Regis & Kathie Lee Parody" (4:39) is an incredibly funny clip from Live with Regis & Kathie Lee. On their show one morning, Regis and Kathie Lee commented at length about the terrific Seinfeld episode they had both watched the night before. In response, the gang at Seinfeld filmed a parody of the conversation (featuring Seinfeld and Louis-Dreyfus) and sent the tape to Regis. This clip from Live features Regis and Kathie Lee talking about the tape, introducing a clip of their original conversation, and, finally, playing the Seinfeld parody. The portions of this clip featuring Regis and Kathie Lee are quite scary - they are both extremely fatuous - but they make the parody that much funnier. Even better is the fact that neither Regis nor Kathie Lee seem to understand that they are being made fun of.

Disc two's "Master of His Domain (Exclusive Stand-up Material)" (8:03) is a collection unused stand-up footage filmed for the fourth season. Some of the clips are funny, but others were rightfully left out of the actual episodes.

"Not That There's Anything Wrong With That" (21:11) on disc two collects foul-ups from the show's fourth season. Blooper fans should get a kick out of these often funny mistakes.

Disc three's "Sponsored by Vandelay Industries" (2:58) is a montage of ten NBC commercials promoting Seinfeld's move to Thursdays nights (following Cheers) in February 1993. Some of these spots are pretty funny.

Even funnier are eleven "1992 Olympic Promos" (4:14). When the summer Olympics appeared on NBC in 1992, the network jumped at the chance to simultaneously promote the athletic events and its regular primetime lineup. The Seinfeld crew appeared in a series of commercials in which they discuss the Olympics. These are quite wonderful. (In one, George and Jerry theorize on the events at the first Olympics, including "Poke-the-eye-of-the-Cyclops-and-run-till-you're-dead.")

Disc three also includes twenty-six publicity stills and behind-the-scenes photos in the "Photo Gallery," a one minute, fifty-three second slide show set to the Seinfeld theme.

Summary

Hilarious episodes, nifty extras, nice packaging, and beautifully remastered audio and video - TV fans simply cannot go wrong with Seinfeld: Season 4.

5/13/05

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