Seinfeld: Making it Happen (Or, Well, The Opposite)

George Costanza has always been my favorite Seinfeld character. The George-centric episodes have consistently been my favorite, I recognize Festivus each year, and once had the infamous “Believe it or not, George isn’t at home…” tune as my ringtone (though it probably would’ve worked better as my outgoing message). In other words, it was inevitable that my first Seinfeld post would revolve heavily around him.

Still, I have to briefly touch upon Seinfeld itself first. There are a few key points that usually come up when discussing or analyzing the series. First, there’s the fact that the sitcom has found its way into the American lexicon in a way that, arguably, no other one has. Then, there’s the discussion of how Seinfeld has come to be nicknamed “the show about nothing” (though Jerry himself would say it’s more about “how a comedian gets his material”, while the idea of it being about “nothing” is just a joke). Of course, let’s also not forget the series’ infamous “no hugging, no learning” rule (aka no positive growth for the primary four characters).

Aside from this, I find it fascinating how, for all the show’s relatability in so much as it frequently tackles everyday occurrences, no one ever seems to want to admit to actually identifying with the characters themselves. With Friends, the conversation is very much people debating whether they are “a Phoebe” or “a Chandler”, but no one’s ever really claiming (or longing) to be “an Elaine” or “a Kramer.”

In many ways, this makes sense. After all, Seinfeld is a darker, more cynical sitcom than most others. The entire series finale was even focused on the simple fact that the years had done nothing but make Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer even more selfish than they originally were.

Sitcom Study: Seinfeld’s “The Opposite” (5×21)
Relevant Episode Information: George convinces himself that his bad luck will turn around if he does the exact opposite of his normal instincts; it works. Meanwhile, Jerry realizes that everything always balances out perfectly for him.

 

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I’m a big fan of “fate versus free will” debates and, in many ways, “The Opposite” is a good case study on how and when one can win out over the other. While certain events are ultimately out of anyone’s control, I do tend to believe in the importance of hard work and perseverance (especially in striving to achieve personal goals). I believe in “making it happen”, to the best of one’s abilities, and that there’s no such thing as being “too busy.” I frequently remind myself that if a hobby, goal, or friendship is really important, I will make time.

Similarly, if I find myself in a rut, I reflect on the choices I’ve recently made and consider what I can do differently to be more productive. While I’ve never worried that “every decision…in my entire life has been wrong”, as George does during the beginning of “The Opposite”, I can appreciate and agree with the basic philosophy behind his realization that he needs to do something different in order to move his life forward. George’s life was not going the way he had hoped, so he ultimately had two choices: deal with it or make a change.

By the episode’s conclusion, George has landed a date, moved out of his parents’ house, and started a new job with the New York Yankees. On the other hand, there’s Jerry. As previously mentioned, it’s during “The Opposite” that he finally realizes what’s obvious to anyone who watches Seinfeld; everything always seems to work out for him:

Jerry: “… like yesterday I lost a job, and then I got another one, and then I missed a TV show, and later on they re-ran it. And then today I missed a train, went outside and caught a bus. It never fails! I always even out!”

We all probably know a few people like Jerry, individuals who seem to have good fortune regardless of the amount of effort they put into something. This can inevitably be infuriating but, when all is said and done, it should never discourage anyone from achieving his or her own goals (something I must frequently remind myself). In George’s case, since this is still Seinfeld after all, his growth does not last beyond this episode.

Though, if anything, the fact that this is only temporary can serve as a warning against becoming complacent or eager for the easy way (as George tends to do in nearly every other episode). In other words, don’t be a George. Also, try not to be discouraged by someone who’s a Jerry.

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Bottling Frasier’s Success

In many ways, the success—both commercially and critically—of many iconic sitcoms has come down to one crucial element: familiarity. How relatable are a character’s trials and tribulations to the ones the audience watching has faced? How comforting is the world of a particular sitcom and, moreover, to what extent is it able to serve as an “escape” from reality?

Timeless sitcoms Cheers and Friends are two such shows that exemplify this aura of intimacy between series and viewer. Cheers’ iconic theme song famously boasts the following line: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”––indeed, for eleven seasons millions of viewers came to feel as if they would fit right in among the titular bar’s quirky customers. Similarly, people to this day comment (whether jokingly or not depends on the person) that Friends’ Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross feel akin to true friends—maybe even family.

This is precisely why sitcom bottle episodes (aka an entire episode mostly, if not entirely, confined to the main cast in one primary location) come off as so endearing. Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant” and Friends’ “The One Where No One’s Ready” are memorable examples of this formula and, while I love and have repeatedly watched both episodes, it is the two expertly crafted bottle episodes from my other favorite (and often the most criminally underrated nowadays, out of the three) sitcom, Frasier, that will be highlighted here.

Sitcom Study: Frasier’s “My Coffee With Niles” (1×24) and “Dinner Party” (6×17)

Like any good bottle episode, these Frasier episodes primarily take place in one setting; in the first, season one’s finale “My Coffee With Niles”, it is the characters’ go to hangout Café Nervosa and in the latter, season six’s “Dinner Party”, it is Frasier’s apartment. What puts these episodes into a league of their own—aside from the witty repartee that exists in every Frasier episode but is at peak form here—are two additional factors. First, each episode is not merely about the show’s core cast; it is primarily about its two leading characters: Frasier and Niles Crane, which arguably double as the show’s primary “relationship” in that a consistent, central theme of the entire show is their brotherly friendship and, more often than not, inevitable rivalry. This leads to the second factor: the two episodes focus on exploring, and attempting to answer, two primary questions that are imperative as much to the episode’s plot as to the show’s eleven-year arc.

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1) “My Coffee With Niles”

Relevant Episode Information: Frasier and Niles spend the entire episode chatting about their lives at their favorite coffee shop, Café Nervosa.

Primary Question: Is Frasier happy? Moreover, what does it mean to be happy?

While Martin, Roz and Daphne periodically and briefly speak to the brothers throughout the episode, the crux of the episode is Frasier’s response—and lack thereof—to Niles’ inquiry of whether or not he is happy. Note their initial exchange regarding this question:

Niles: “So, Frasier, now that chapter two of your life is in full swing, do you mind if I ask you something?”

Frasier: “No, go right ahead.”

Niles: “Are you happy?”

[Frasier is silent]

Niles: “Did you hear the question?”

Frasier: “Yes, I’m thinking. It’s a seemingly complex question.”

Niles: “No, it’s not.”

Frasier: “Yes, it is.”

Niles: “No, it’s not. Either you’re happy or you’re not.”

Frasier: “Are you happy?”

Niles: “No, but we’re not talking about me.”

With the show’s first season coming to a close, there could not be a more apt time for Niles to ask Frasier this. By this point, viewers (many undoubtedly initial Frasier Crane fans from his Cheers days) have watched twenty-four episodes in which Frasier has worked to adjust to returning to his home city, tackling a new job, reestablishing relationships with his family and being a country away from his only son. So, is Frasier happy with this life-changing decision? This is not the last time such a question will be asked of him, though it often will take more specific forms, typically regarding his level of satisfaction with his job or love life.

One aspect of the aforementioned exchange that intrigues me so much is the fact that Niles and Frasier differ on the complexity of saying whether or not one is happy. In theory, I agree with Niles; I tend to think and speak of happiness as something akin to love in that it is instinctual—if you feel either, you know, otherwise you do not. In practice, however, I have found myself more on Frasier’s side of this discussion in that I usually take a few moments to reflect on recent events before offering a response.

Furthermore, of course, it is simply not in Frasier’s character to simply say “yes” or “no” to this or really any question without thoroughly weighing the pros and cons. Later in season four, Frasier will spend an entire episode agonizing over whether or not he believes Niles and his first wife, Maris, truly belong together. Even further along in the series, he will also struggle to choose between two women, asking literally anyone and everyone he encounters for input.

In the case of “My Coffee With Niles”, Frasier continues to evade the question until, finally, it is presented to him again, this time by a waitress growing tired of adjusting his order to meet his specificities:

Waitress: “Zimbabwe decaf, non-fat milk, no cinnamon in sight. Now—are you happy?”

Frasier: [really answering Niles’ initial question] “You know, in the greater scheme…yes, I’d say I am.”

Arguably, perhaps it is up to the viewers to decide how true this will prove to be for him as the seasons continue.

2) “Dinner Party”

Relevant Episode Information: Niles and Frasier decide to co-host a dinner party, but struggle to agree on the people they should and should not invite.

Primary Question: Are Niles and Frasier too reliant on one another? Are they odd?

Almost any episode that deals primarily with the brothers Crane rivalry is among the most re-watchable for me. In “Author, Author” and “The Innkeepers”, their egos humorously and inevitably clash as they try to co-write a book and co-manage a restaurant, respectively. In “IQ”, Frasier’s personal ego takes a major hit as he learns that Niles is the brother with the higher IQ—and that it’s more than just a mere couple of points in difference. Many of the show’s best one-liners are also directly relevant to their tendency to one up the other, for instance:

Frasier: “Niles, I would shave my head for you.”

Niles: “A gesture which becomes less significant with each passing year.”

 

Niles: [filling in for Frasier’s radio show] “Although I feel perfectly qualified to fill Frasier’s radio shoes, I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So there’ll be no blaming mother today.”

 

Indeed, “Dinner Party” is not without its bickering moments between the two. Nonetheless, aside from the joy of watching these two play off no one but each other for most of the episode, what makes this episode so memorable to me is that it poignantly touches on the fact that Niles and Frasier do, ultimately, have a loving and very close relationship despite everything. Still, a running joke throughout the series questions if they in fact spend too much time together; other characters repeatedly tease them for bringing the other as a “date” to one function or another.

Here, the brothers accidentally hear someone they are planning on inviting to their party refer to them as “that one” and “the other one”; it is unclear which is which but the underlying suggestion that the two are almost interchangeable to some is clear. Niles and Frasier proceed to over-analyze and debate its meaning:

Frasier: “Perhaps she has a point. Ever since your divorce you have become more and more attached to me. Maybe that’s why she said what she said.”

Niles: “What?”

Frasier: “You get Frasier, you get that Niles!”

Niles: “She didn’t say that. She said, “you get the one, you get that other one.” What makes you think that you’re the one and I’m that other one?”

Frasier: “I am the one giving the party, and you are that other one!”

Niles: “I’m the one that invited her, so that makes you that other one!”

And, in one of my favorite exchanges of the episode:

Niles: “Why is Joaquin on such a strict diet?”

Frasier: “Because the Joaquin they’re bringing to dinner is… their foster child, from a tiny village on the Pampas. He speaks no English and he gets nauseated when he eats American food.”

Niles: “So, he’s not the conductor of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic?”

Frasier: “Oh, you are so “that other one”!”

This episode’s key question is not given a clear answer. Niles and Frasier bicker (whilst becoming increasingly disenchanted with the idea of throwing this party at all), Martin maintains that they are not odd (“just special”), and the episode ends with the brothers resolving to not care what others think and enjoy each other’s company at dinner—before quickly changing their minds.

Well then, are Frasier and Niles too dependent on one another? I am an only child and so cannot personally identify with a sibling relationship. At the same time, I—as, I believe, can most people—understand how rare and wonderful it is to find even one person with whom you can talk endlessly and share similar interests or ways of thinking and that there is nothing wrong with valuing such a friendship. To paraphrase Frasier’s final response in “My Coffee With Niles”, perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is one of the keys to lasting happiness.

Why I Love Sam and Diane, But Not Ross and Rachel

It was only a matter of time before I would have to address a key aspect of any good sitcom: relationships. While types of couples such as “friends before lovers” (i.e. The Office’s Jim and Pam) and “the bickering yet lovable married couple” (i.e. Everybody Loves Raymond’s Ray and Debra) are undoubtedly common, one would be hard-pressed to find a trope more enduring and entertaining to watch than the “on-again/off-again” couple. This trope has become a part of nearly every sitcom and is often predictable to the point where it is usually easy to point out which two characters will engage in a series-long “will they/won’t they” dance as early on as the pilot episode. Nonetheless, two couples in particular stand head and shoulders above the rest as arguably the most famous (or infamous, as the case may be) to popularize this theme: Cheers’ Sam and Diane and Friends’ Ross and Rachel.

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Both couples have reached such an iconic level that, not only is it hard to say one half of either couple’s name without immediately thinking of the other, but each pair are so well-known for particular lines and scenes that one does not even have to be overly familiar with either show to recognize them. For Sam and Diane, these include: the “slap fight” (“Are you as turned on as I am?” “More!”), their legendary banter and “have a good life.” For Ross and Rachel, these include: “lobsters”, Rachel getting off the plane and “WE WERE ON A BREAK!”

Despite some understandable similarities between these two couples, I have always found myself loving Sam and Diane, but not Ross and Rachel. This has definitely surprised quite a few people in my life. After all, any good Friends fan is supposed to love Ross and Rachel, right? When I first thought over why I preferred Sam and Diane, the first answer that came to mind seemed a bit obvious to me: Sam and Diane engage in witty repartee a lot more than Ross and Rachel (in both the shows I watch and in my everyday life, I am a huge fan of banter). Still, I decided there had to be something more to this. Turns out, I was right.

Sitcom Study: Sam and Diane (Cheers) VS Ross and Rachel (Friends)

1) The Banter and Understanding

But first, I simply cannot write a post about Sam and Diane without talking about the sizzling chemistry that exudes every time they speak to one another. Like Star Wars’ Han and Leia or That ‘70s Show’s Jackie and Hyde, theirs is a “love-hate relationship” consisting of a seemingly never-ending battle of verbal judo, forcing the viewer to wonder when they will finally kiss and admit that this banter is only a mask for deeper, more genuine feelings (which, of course, they do). Sam and Diane never make things too easy for each other during their courtship days, but not in a dragged out “too afraid to say anything” way (*cough* Ross *cough*) or a “rambling on for eighteen pages––front and back” way (*cough* Rachel *cough*). Instead, Sam and Diane were all too aware of the other person’s flaws. Diane knew Sam had a history of womanizing and could be cocky and a bit dim-witted; she also recognized his warm heart and believed in him. Sam knew Diane talked too much and could be pretentious and snobby; he also knew she was fun and deeply caring. They were constantly challenging each other and, boy, was it entertaining:

Diane: “Didn’t you ever fantasize about me?”

Sam: “Yeah, I guess I did.”

Diane: “And I you. What did you fantasize about?”

Sam: “Mostly you’d stop using phrases like, ‘and I you.’”

Sam: “At least my dates don’t count the number of letters in sentences.”

Diane: “Your dates can’t form sentences.”

As much as Sam and Diane are aware that the other is far from perfect, so too are they quick and able to recognize their own shortcomings when it matters most, such as the way Sam does here:

Sam: “Diane, please…maybe Frasier can give you an iron-clad guarantee of a lifetime of security, but with me it’s a day at a time. Now, if you can live with that…call.

Due to Sam’s past, there are points in which he struggles with the idea of commitment and marriage––two things very important to Diane. As proven by the aforementioned quote, Sam understands that this has frustrated Diane. Not wanting to make her any empty promises he may not be able to keep (after all, there always is a drawback in thinking too ahead with, say, where you and your significant other’s currently non-existing children will grow up, right Ross?), he nonetheless lets her know he loves her.

2) Proving the Love

    One of my favorite things about Sam and Diane is that, amidst all the banter, they have several beautifully sincere moments that prove just how much they care and understand what is important to each other. In “Sumner’s Return” (2×05), Diane’s ex-fiancé Sumner comes back and makes Sam uncomfortable since Sumner is more academically smart than he is. But whereas Sumner may be more able to hold a conversation about literature or art, Sam’s actions are more sincere; Diane knows this, as exemplified by one of my favorite moments:

Sam: “Why did you pick me [over Sumner]?”

Diane: “You read War and Peace.”

Sam: “So did he.”

Diane: “You did it for me.”

So, while Ross may have been willing to “drink the fat” (“The One Where No One’s Ready, 3×02), neither Ross nor Rachel show an interest in the other’s primary interests in the way that Sam and Diane aim to do for each other. Instead, Rachel frequently joins in on jokes about Ross’ job, while Ross mocks Rachel’s first real step into the world of fashion as “just a job.”

As I have mentioned earlier, one of the most infamous aspects of Ross and Rachel’s relationship is undoubtedly when they went “on a break.” What is a comparably lesser-known fact is that there is an episode of Cheers in which Sam and Diane also take a “break.” Both “breaks” inspire anxiety for both couples but in very different ways that lead to drastically different results for each pair.

In the case of Ross and Rachel, Ross immediately leaves upon hearing Rachel suggest maybe they should take “a break from [each other]”, not bothering to take the time to sit down with Rachel and maturely discuss if this is really the best course of action for them. Rachel quickly realizes she does not want to take a break, and calls Ross only for him to jump to the incorrect conclusion that she is cheating on him with her co-worker Mark (Rachel should have been more adamant about Mark not coming over to talk, but still) and proceeds to sleep with Chloe the Copy Girl. This ultimately leads them to break up for good.

In the case of Sam and Diane, Diane proposes that the pair take a one-day “break” so that the two may have “One Last Fling” (5×18) if they so desire. Similar to Ross, Sam becomes anxious over the idea of Diane being with another man. Unlike Ross, Sam chooses to not have a fling (and neither does Diane).

3) They Knew When to Let Go

   Each couple ends differently by their respective show’s series finale: Ross and Rachel end up together (after six years of not being a couple), and Sam and Diane do not (after six years of being apart).

In Cheers’ season five finale, Sam and Diane are planning on marrying when Diane learns that she has the opportunity to achieve her dream of finishing one of her novels and having it published. Diane does not want to leave Sam, but he selflessly encourages her to live her dream in this heartbreaking moment:

Sam: “Hey, have a good life.”

Diane: “Have a good life?”

Sam: “What?”

Diane: “Well, that’s something you say when something’s over. Sam, I’m going away for six months. That’s all. So no more of this ‘Have a good life’ stuff.”

Sam: “You never know. You could die, I could die, the world could end. One of us could bump our heads and wander the streets the rest of our lives with amnesia. Or maybe, one of us will decide we want something else.”

Diane: “None of those things will happen. I’ll be back here. I will. I’ll see you in six months, OK?”

(Diane leaves)

Sam: “Have a good life….”

Ultimately, Diane does not return in six months. She returns in six years for the series finale where, after a brief engagement, she and Sam ultimately decide that too much time has passed for them to truly be together.

While I of course wanted to see Sam and Diane end up together, I applaud the strength and maturity it took them to let each other go––something Ross and Rachel never seemed to do. Ross usually receives more criticism for his jealousy throughout season three and the fact that in season ten (aka six years after they have broken up) Ross still cannot bring himself to be comfortable over the idea of Rachel kissing someone else (even though he himself has a girlfriend at the time), Rachel is not without blame. At the beginning of season five, Rachel decides it is a good idea to tell Ross she still loves him even though he is married and everyone has advised her why this is a horrible idea; she realizes this is a horrible idea herself, laughing at herself for telling him. And do I really have to address what is problematic about Rachel giving up her dream to go to Paris to stay with a guy she has not been with in six years (and with whom problems have not been fully resolved) or how Ross has never really supported Rachel’s career aspirations in the first place?

While Sam and Diane are certainly not without their flaws as a couple, when compared to Ross and Rachel I ultimately find them to be the far more entertaining, enduring pair––and did I mention their banter?