Sunday, March 13, 2005

The meat of the lineup: Season 4 of 'Seinfeld' separates the best from the rest

All right, now it's time to get serious—seriously funny, anyway—because it was announced last week the fourth season of “Seinfeld” will make its DVD debut May 17.
This new four-disc set, boasting 13 hours of bonus material, is the latest installment in what is arguably the best TV-to-DVD treatment in the history of the medium. The first two sets (season 1-3) made their highly anticipated debut last November and proved that the six-year wait was well worth it. From new interviews to trivia to deleted scenes to lengthy gag reels, “Seinfeld” on DVD truly proved the master of its domain (sorry, couldn’t help it).
The scary thing is, as good as those box sets are, they remain three of the weaker seasons of the show’s nine-year run. Now we’re hitting the real meat of the series. The middle years, seasons 4-8, mark one of the best runs in the boob tube’s history.
Season 4, in particular, is so good, it’s probably not too difficult to come up with a 10-best “Seinfeld” list using just these 22 episodes. So, in order to make it challenging, I’m limiting my best of Season 4 lineup to just five eps. If you only watch these five, this box set will be worth the money.
And the nominees are:
• “The Contest” — The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of ’90s television, this episode received so much acclaim over the years, it’s on a whole other level of pop culture phenomena, where we can no longer look at it objectively. Nevertheless, this show about four friends trying to prove which is “master of their domain” put “Seinfeld” on the map for good and remains uproariously funny no matter how many times you see it. My favorite scene? Tough to pick, but it’s probably Jerry sitting on the couch trying to keep his mind off the naked woman across the street. While Jerry hums “The Wheels on the Bus,” Kramer—staring at the nude neighbor, of course—starts singing, “the woman across the street has nothing on, nothing on, nothing on.”
• “The Bubble Boy” — Another watercooler moment (okay, let’s face it—every episode on this list was a watercooler moment), as Jerry, Elaine, George and Susan head upstate to the Ross’ cabin, with plans to stop off along the way to visit the Bubble Boy. Jerry doesn’t make it but George, unfortunately (fortunately for us), does. A heated game of Trivial Pursuit ensues, culminating with the Bubble Boy trying to choke the life out of George (can’t say I blame him). Never fully seen on camera, the Bubble Boy remains one of the top characters in “Seinfeld’s” long history of great guest appearances. This is an absolute gem from start to finish.
• “The Junior Mint” — Perhaps the most famous of all the show’s product placements (Snapple, Nike, etc.), Jerry is in all kinds of trouble in this classic. First, he can’t remember his girlfriend’s name, but knows it rhymes with a female body part. George’s best guess: Mulva. Um, no. Meanwhile, Jerry and Kramer attend the surgery of one of Elaine’s former boyfriends, where they unwittingly drop a Junior Mint into his open chest cavity. Paranoia ensues. One of the best lines of the entire series hails from this episode: Jerry, with a mouthful of food, agrees to Kramer’s invitation to see the operation by saying, “Let’s go watch ’em slice this fat bastard up.” Entertainment Weekly quotes Seinfeld as saying this was a landmark line in the series, as it led the writers to push the envelope even further down the road.
• “The Cheever Letters” — Speaking of dirty talk, off-color comments take centerstage in this ep, as Jerry can’t keep up with his new fling (Elaine’s secretary) while getting bawdy in the bedroom. His “are those the panties your mother laid out for you” retort is hysterically inept, and leads to trouble for both him and Elaine. Meanwhile, we get to see Jerry and George in full procrastination mode while trying to knock out the script for their “Jerry” pilot. One of my favorite sight-gags of the entire series comes up in this show: As Jerry leans across the table to whisper the dirty talk he heard the previous night, George is so shocked he squeezes the ketchup bottle spasmodically, shooting its contents across the restaurant.
• “The Outing” — The gang’s discomfort with homosexuality is hinted at in the previous episode when it’s discovered Susan’s father had a love affair with author John Cheever. But homo- … not phobia, but –paranoia, is front and center this time, as a prank by Elaine leads an NYU reporter to think Jerry and George are lovers. When the dubious duo finally realize what’s going on, they go to great lengths to convince the college journalist her perceptions are unfounded (George to the girl: “Do you wanna have sex right now? Come on, baby!”). But a malfunctioning two-line phone (provided, of course, by Kramer), proves to be their undoing. When the national wires pick up the story, their lives are thrown into turmoil. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Academy lepers: Unclean! Unclean!

After listening to the cacophony of pundits’ thoughts on last night’s Academy Awards, the myriad complaints seem to have one common thread: The Oscars sucked.
I agree, for many of the same reasons voiced in the past 24 hours:
• The ceremony was, on the whole, boring and predictable. If I hadn’t gotten tired of picking favorites, I would have been 10-for-11 last night (too bad, Marty!); as it is, I only missed three.
• Bringing the lesser nominees (art direction, visual effects, etc.) up on stage together “American Idol”-style was ridiculous. The only thing worse were the presentations out in the seats.
• Chris Rock wasn’t all that funny. He seemed nervous and, apparently, bereft of much humor when he can’t use the f-word. If I hadn’t been watching the show in its entirety for the purposes of this column, I would certainly have flipped the channel when the rookie host launched into his anti-Bush routine. And this has nothing to do with left or right, red or blue; I’m so tired of politics at this point, can’t we at least make it through one Academy Awards ceremony without mentioning the president? At least the rest of the room basically left well enough alone (still in shock from Kerry’s defeat, I’m sure). Even Sean Penn and Tim Robbins managed to hold their tongues.
But there was one particularly funny, dare I say brilliant, part of Rock’s performance: his man-on-the-street pre-taped interviews at Magic Johnson’s movie theater in California. As one person after another expressed their lack of any possible interest in the night’s nominees, they affirmed the growing disconnect between Hollywood’s royalty and its audience. (Do you realize that not one of the best picture nominees grossed $100 million domestically? And this in an age when worthless movies such as “Troy,” “Van Helsing” and “Ocean’s Twelve” hit the century mark!)
Don’t pay attention to the overnight ratings surge this year’s Academy Awards ceremony received. Everyone tuned in to see if Rock would go off and say something crazy, which he basically didn’t. If the Academy brings him back next year, expect a return to Oscar’s recent freefall.
Rock aside, it was Tom Shales, in an excellent Washington Post editorial, who summed it up best: The problem with this year’s Academy Awards was the movies themselves. As I’ve alluded to in previous columns on the films of 2004, the five pictures nominated for best picture were, overall, depressing as a kicked puppy. It’s a sad state when the most “up” ending of the group was the barely-satisfying conclusion to “Sideways.” It’s hard to get excited about movies that focus on death, depression, drug addiction, depravity, and any other “D” you can probably think of. These movies certainly have their place in the pantheon, but five out of five?
The ridiculous thing is, there were so many other choices that, even if they didn’t win, would have livened up the party and drawn in more viewers. And this brings me back to Rock’s excursion to the cineplex: If the Academy wants to really draw massive interest again (without resorting to Rock commenting on homosexuals’ viewing habits), then it must reach out to, yes, The Great Unwashed. You know, those people that spend billions of dollars a year going to the movies—as opposed to the pundits, who see them for free.
I’m not saying popularity is equal to taste. Certainly not. If that was the case, “Hotel Rwanda” would have earned $200 million at the box office and “The Day After Tomorrow” wouldn’t have made it to a second weekend. But I don’t think it’s asking too much for Academy voters to meet the general public halfway.
Here’s my proposal:
The five best picture nominees will be defined by their respective genres. In a February Madness-style competition, the Academy votes for the best films from each of the following categories: action, drama, comedy, family and one wild card from any or none of the above (“American Splendor,” anyone?). The top vote-getters from each of these divisions then vie for the night’s No. 1 award. The rest of the categories will remain open as they are now, but with five films at the top guaranteed to appeal to a wide audience, everyone who goes to the movies certainly will find a horse to back in my new race.
Just imagine how this plan would have affected last night’s proceedings. There were four dramas and one dramedy up for best picture. Obviously the Academy decided “Million Dollar Baby” was the best of the bunch, so what difference would it have made for “Baby” to beat out “The Aviator,” “Finding Neverland” and “Ray” a few weeks ahead of time to make way for fresher blood? “Baby” was going to win anyway; we were just delaying the inevitable.
But how much more interesting would the lead-in to the Oscars have been if “Million Dollar Baby” was going up against a couple films that appealed to a much wider audience—“Spider-Man 2” (action) and “The Incredibles” (family), for instance? “Sideways” could still have gotten in as the comedy and “The Aviator” in the wild card slot.
Following in the steps of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I would like to see more popular films make the cut; who knows, if filmmakers know ahead of time they have a chance to get into the final round with something other than Depression 101, maybe they’ll be more inclined to take on more projects outside their comfort zones. Wouldn’t it be great to see what Scorsese would come up with if he applied his unique vision to, say, the X-Men or Jason Bourne?
Just because a movie makes a ton of money doesn’t mean it’s either good or bad. But I do believe it is a singular challenge for a director to make a quality film that stands up to both artistic and popular appeal, as in “Spider-Man 2” and “The Incredibles.” These two movies made many critics’ top-10 lists for last year, including mine, so why is the Academy so different?
Until it answers that question—and it probably never will—the Oscars will continue to be nothing but a fashion show and a cumulative pat on the back that fewer and fewer people give a rip about.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.