Seinfeld Volume 3 (Season 4) Review
Seinfeld is back and little has changed for the killer line-up of characters, with the title stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his famous apartment once again the centre of a very inviting universe in which he satirises everything and everyone he comes across in his day to day life, not least of which are his friends. George (Jason Alexander) is still the same self-loathing neurotic little man he's always been, obsessing over the smallest details in his mundane life which ultimately cause him more trouble than the answers he seeks could ever be worth. Kramer (Michael Richards) has grown but only in the sense that his entrances have become bigger and more crowd-pleasing, while his unique perspective on life has him doing everything from converting lesbians to burning down cabins. Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is still the beautiful, sassy ex-girlfriend of Jerry's who has gone on to become one of the guys, offering a female perspective on many of the subjects broached yet giving as good as she gets with that electrifying personality of hers. So all is well and good if you were smitten with them first time round, while the show about nothing continues to prove in Season 4 that it's anything but, placing its characters in situations and relationships that are certainly feasible but very obviously heightened from reality to ensure the viewer doesn't get bored watching their own life play out onscreen (though the advent of reality television suggests half the worlds population are happy to waste away doing exactly that).
Where the characters remain largely unchanged the show's structure has been overhauled quite significantly. This gives us not only an overall story arc which plays out to varying degrees within episodes over the season's course, but a greater sense of continuity with recurring characters and call backs to previous events in the season which go a long way to creating a living, breathing world. Some are more successful than others of course, with a fellow comic by the name of Joe Divola stalking Jerry appearing more desperate than actually funny, though we are given adequate respite from his antics over the 24 episodes. Implemented with more success are general recurring elements such as girlfriends, boyfriends, encounters and events which are often given a frame of reference at some point over the season. This makes the world feel just that little bit more tangible than it already is, working with the show about nothing ethic to mimic the coincidences and relativity that occurs in normal life. It's still a comedy show, but it just feels better this season.
The most notable new aspect however is the story arc which involves the creation of a show about nothing within the show about nothing, taking the experience Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David had in reality which evolved into Jerry playing himself in a sitcom, and allowing the audience to experience the creation of such a show. This was a gamble that could have blown up in the writers' faces as it breaks many of the rules established within the first three seasons, first and foremost that of putting the characters in situations that while not unbelievable, are out of reach for the majority of viewers. There is also the issue of fulfilling the story arc regardless of how it is received, and the difficulty of maintaining openness to the show for late adopters. Lastly and most potentially damaging is the sheer desperation such a plot device can smack of, writing for yourself within a show about yourself, but they make it work, mostly through the casual approach in which Jerry and George take on the offer of creating a pilot for NBC, writing it in the background of the episodes away from the viewer until the arc is sewn up in a special two-part episode where they actually cast and film the pilot. There are numerous elements that work in favour of this storyline, with the most prominent being the decision to use the opportunity to revel in the train wreck that was primetime network sitcoms of the day, as alongside many direct jokes and references George develops the most ridiculous plot device for their show in order to reel the NBC executives in. The other ace comes through the casting of the NBC executives and extending their purpose beyond that of giving Jerry and George anxiety attacks during their occasional meetings, with Heidi Swedberg as Susan becoming something of a regular guest as one of George's many love interests and Bob Balaban as Russell providing some excessively broad comedic moments through his obsession with Elaine. Elsewhere you really have to hand it to the casting within The Pilot episode of the show within a show's characters of George and Kramer, with Jeremy Piven and Larry Hankin respectively doing some fine work to parody the characters.
Outside of the main story arc the writing this season is at its best when pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on television in the early nineties for a primetime family sitcom. Usually this involves issues of a sexual nature, with The Contest approaching the subject of masturbation with classic results as Jerry notes "its part of our lifestyle" when comparing the pastime between men and women. The catchphrase commonly associated with the series "Master of his domain" relates directly to this episode's storyline pitching the four central characters in a contest to see who can hold out longest. The results are often hilarious as the characters' resolves are tested one by one, and the succession in which they fall is not what you may have guessed when the cards are initially laid on the table. In The Outing Jerry's sexual preference is challenged, responding to a popular rumour at the time of broadcast the episode serves to both set the record straight and tackle the issue of homosexuality while satirising it (the ‘issue’) at the same time. The setup and execution is quite sublime with only minimal plays on the traditional humour of the series required, with Jerry and George's bickering working perfectly to create the illusion of them being a couple while the reaction from Kramer is amongst his best moments of this particular season.
Some personal quibbles from the first few seasons still remain however, mostly the humour which revolves around the incessant bickering that takes place between the characters and many of the guest roles where a raised voice results in a whiney outburst that although often funny, even hilarious can every now and then be a step too far requiring a calm, deep breath to regain composure when viewing. The season also has a few bad eggs in the opening quarter, with a two-part opening episode that loses instant appeal through the absence of Elaine (Julia-Louis Dreyfus was busy with her first child at the time of shooting) and tries far too hard to wrap up the quarrel between Jerry and Kramer instigated at the end of season three via an outlandish trip to Los Angeles that sees Kramer fingered as a serial killer. Of course it’s a misunderstanding and some of the references to hard as nails cops straight out of Dragnet are amusing but the episode just feels wildly out of place with the season it bookends and the episodes from season four that follow. Similarly episodes such as The Bubble Boy feel equally out of place, with the actors executing their lines with great comic timing but never able to shake the fact what they are reading is so obviously scripted and choreographed for the audiences pleasure rather than appearing natural and based in reality.
The complete fourth season comprising of 24 episodes are presented in their original NBC Network versions (1-2 minutes longer than subsequently syndicated broadcast versions) and spread across four-discs. Visit the Official Website for episode guides, clips and more.
Picture and Sound
Picking up where the Season 3 transfers left off the use of digitally restored high-definition masters continues to impress with Seinfeld looking better than ever before. Beyond the natural level of grain, slightly muddy colours and average detail levels which are all inherent of the times and methods used to film the series the transfer is very satisfying with good colour definition and sharp textures bringing out the ghastly fashions of the day.
Complementing the transfer is the original English stereo mix which for a dialogue heavy show does its job perfectly delivering clear voice tones in amongst the laugh track. French and German viewers are catered for with Mono dub tracks while a range of subtitle options make this release suitable for many foreign viewers.
The range of extras found over the four-discs will be familiar to those who picked up the previous seasons on DVD and continue to impress and disappoint in equal measure...
Yada, Yada, Yada - Audio commentaries from the cast and crew are present on several episodes with only Larry David not returning after his efforts on the first three seasons...
Commentary with writer Larry Charles on The Trip (Parts 1 & 2) and The Airport - Having written these episodes Larry Charles takes the opportunity to explain his motives which mostly revolve around trying to broaden the shows setting, using alternative locations and expanding the comedy through them. Unfortunately his comments are intermittent and often brief making for an uneasy viewing experience that has you partly concentrating on the episode and partly taking in the commentary, when really I prefer to be taken in by one or the other.
Commentary with actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards on The Cheever Letters and The Outing - Dominated by Dreyfus and Alexander who are the most enthusiastic about the show and talk about some of the themes, storylines and extras, but mostly end up attempting to recall the episode and listen and laugh along with it. This trio were the most successful commentators on the first two volumes for the same reason they are here, sharing the same chemistry onscreen as they do off this makes the tracks work to create a friendly atmosphere you can enjoy the episodes in.
Commentary with writer/actor Jerry Seinfeld on The Contest and The Junior Mint - Despite Jerry's habit of explaining the storyline and noting the plot devices to move things along he does a good job of discussing the episodes' evolution and commenting on the time spent on the show and the people he worked with.
Commentary with writer Peter Mehlman on The Implant - Similar in tone to the efforts by Larry Charles, Mehlman manages to be more coherent and frequent with his observations on where the ideas came from and how the show was put together. That and he gets to talk about how much he fancies Terri Hatcher (a man of taste).
Commentary with production designer Tom Azzari and director/producer Tom Cherones on The Pilot (Parts 1 & 2) - As per their contributions to the first two volumes this commentary provides a welcome mixture of technical and production insight while including words on the story and performances. Sadly like most of the other commentaries found on this set it never truly grips you through its lack of engaging material.
The Breakthrough Season - This 20-minute documentary continues in the same fashion as that found on the first volume with interviews with cast and crew joined by archive footage as the season and the first signs of the show's later success are discussed in reasonable detail.
Inside Looks - Present for nearly every episode and created using newly recorded interviews with the cast and crew these inside looks last from anything between two and eight minutes and provide some frank discussion on the episode in question. Ranging from discussing the table reads to network concerns and even audience reaction these short featurettes always make for insightful viewing and like those found on the first two volumes are one of the most valuable bonus features found on Season Four.
In the Vault - Deleted scenes from over half of the episodes are presented and can be anything from downright hilarious to utterly boring, usually making their excision self-explanatory. Their presence is most welcome though and for once I'm glad not to find audio commentary from a director trying to say "we had to cut this for time" in a variety of ways.
Not that anything was wrong with that - A 21 minute outtake reel which is consistently hilarious mostly thanks to the infectious Dreyfus who giggles her way through many a scene. It's also nice to see Richards enjoying the atmosphere a little more, appearing more at ease compared to his uptight and overly into himself attitude found on the first volume's outtake reel.
Master of His Domain - 8 minutes of exclusive stand-up material from Jerry Seinfeld that never made it into the show. As the stand-up bits are my least favourite aspects of the series I can take or leave this bonus feature, but you may very well find this contribution one of the most refreshing.
Sponsored by Vandelay Industries - These original NBC Promos run just under three minutes and consist of numerous promotional spots the cast made advertising the mid-season move to a new broadcast slot.
1992 Olympic Promos - With the new season of Seinfeld set to air at the same time NBC were covering the Olympics that year the cast and crew produced several promotional spots with Jerry, George and Kramer discussing various Olympic events.
Notes about Nothing - Available on the large majority of episodes in English, French, German and Dutch languages these notes provide a wealth of trivia regarding the shows storylines, guest stars (complete with mini-biographies), reaction from the press and public, quotes from the cast and crew relating to the episode and much more including girlfriend/boyfriend counters for the shows regulars and the counter noting Kramer's many entrances (which is well into the hundreds by the end of this season).
Photo Gallery - Just under two minutes of promotional and set photographs.
Regis & Kathy Lee parody - A nice little parody the Seinfeld crew filmed after Regis and Kathy Lee complimented the show on their daytime television chat show.
Easter Eggs - Over the four discs I was able find the three detailed below, can you find anymore?
Disc 1 (Extras Menu) - Birthday Easter Egg - The Seinfeld cast delivery a 'Happy birthday' message though who it's intended for I'm not quite sure (possibly the show?).
Disc 3 (Extras Menu) - Much Ado About Nothing Easter Egg - This short five-minute featurette plays out in the same fashion as the Inside Looks only the topic of discussion is an amazingly petit incident that played out after Julia Louis-Dreyfus parked one-spot over in the NBC lot and sparked off a massive feud with the owner of said spot, Tom Arnold. This apparently became a big story in the press due to the unbelievable response Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr gave, going so far as to deface Julia's car!
Disc 4 (Episodes Menu) - Blue Screen footage Easter Egg - Taken from the final shot of the last episode we see Larry David cracking up on camera.
And lastly, an example of how thorough these discs are in terms of presenting the series as it was originally broadcast you can view The Handicap Spot episode on disc four in its original form with John Randolph playing George's father, Frank Costanza, or in its syndicated form where Jerry Stiller (who later replaced Randolph permanently as Frank Costanza) takes on the role via reshoots. The original version (which I myself prefer) is available with an introduction by Jason Alexander.
More consistent in the quality of writing and with a far greater use of running storylines Season Four improves upon its predecessors and comes to DVD via a fine set packed with features for everyone to enjoy.