The question of whether or not classic television shows are problematic is something that has inevitably been asked over & over again. Short answer: of course they are! By today’s standards, anyway. The follow-up question of what to do with that information is harder to answer. But people, like television, are capable of nuance, and, most importantly, love to laugh.
Seinfeld, often heralded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, is one of those series that has modern viewers contemplating the appropriateness of the, shall we say, more outdated jokes & plots. Considering it’s a show about inappropriate people doing inappropriate things, I say we dive in and enjoy what we can.
The best Seinfeld episodes occur when the show is firing on all cylinders, with excellent performances from both the lead cast and guest stars (“No soup for you”, anyone?) and sharp writing that defined the show until the end. How problematic are these episodes in light of today’s cultural shift? The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, not as much as you’d think. So, let’s talk about some of Seinfeld’s greatest hits:
“The Chicken Roaster” (Season 8, Episode 8)
Jerry, arguably the most normal and (relatively) well-adjusted member of the group, switches places with Kramer, arguably the least normal. This switch is both literal & figurative, as they start by switching apartments and build until Jerry is displaying very Kramer-like behavior, and vice versa. This is due to a neon sign that’s keeping Kramer up at night. Apparently, sleep-deprived Jerry is a lot like Kramer.
“The Hamptons” (Season 5, Episode 20)
The group takes a vacation to the Hamptons, where Jerry’s girlfriend sees George’s penis right as he’s gotten out of the pool. Needless to say, the, ahem, representation on display at that particular time was not entirely accurate. She tells George’s girlfriend, who leaves him over this.
“The Merv Griffin Show” (Season 9, Episode 6)
Kramer finds thrown-out props from “The Merv Griffin Show”, and decides to set up the show in his apartment. His childlike commitment to this gag is Kramer at his best, and he goes all out on his harebrained scheme. His guests are his friends, of course, who end up sharing more than they mean to. Jerry confesses to Kramer, while on his “show” that he’s been drugging his girlfriend . . . who overhears everything.
“The Rye” (Season 7, Episode 11)
This episode centers around a very complicated plot regarding a loaf of bread. Not just any bread though. This is a loaf of marble rye that is in high demand. Jerry ends up literally robbing an elderly woman. There’s nothing better than seeing the gang on their worst behavior, and the robbery of an elderly woman has got to be up there with one of the worst things Jerry’s done.
“The Chinese Restaurant” (Season 2, Episode 11)
George, Elaine, and Jerry try to get dinner at a Chinese Restaurant before catching a movie. The episode features not one, but two botched attempts by Elaine to approach and speak to strangers: once, when Jerry offers her $50 to take an egg roll off of a stranger’s plate, and again when she tries to bribe the host to seat them.
Her confidence and immediate discomfort is as relatable as it is funny. It’s hard to imagine a time when sitcoms didn’t regularly churn out excellent episodes about characters basically just sitting around, but this may have been the first of its kind (let the “well actually” commence).
“The Marine Biologist” (Season 5, Episode 14)
It all starts with a lie, when Jerry tells a woman George wants to impress that George is a marine biologist. He goes with it, and hilarity ensues. Meanwhile, Kramer is hitting hundreds of golf balls into the ocean, which connects to George’s story in an unexpected but amazing way: George believes his lie and tries to save a whale’s life when there’s something obstructing its blowhole: a golf ball.
As Kramer says at the end of the episode: “Hole in one.”
“The Outing” (Season 4, Episode 17)
When Elaine catches a woman eavesdropping on the gang (minus Kramer), she loudly states that Jerry & George are gay, in an attempt to embarass these two Very Straight Men. The woman listening is a reporter who Jerry is scheduled to do an interview with, and all of Jerry & George’s attempts to prove they’re not a couple only make it seem more like they are . . .
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” has never been funnier.
“The Soup Nazi” (Season 7, Episode 6)
“No soup for you!” The soup Nazi himself might be the most memorable of any guest stars on the series. His presence makes this episode one of the best Seinfeld episodes of all time.
Jerry & George take Elaine to a place with soup so good: “You have to eat it sitting down, your knees will buckle.” The catch? It’s run by a guy who’s very particular about the way customers interact. If you stand in front of the counter too long, start a non-soup-related conversation, inquire as to the whereabouts of the complimentary bread, or show any PDA with your significant other . . . NO SOUP FOR YOU!
“The Contest” (Season 4, Episode 11)
It’s an episode about the gang trying not to masturbate. That’s the plot. And yet, over the years it’s remained one of the most enjoyed episodes of any sitcom.
Any list about the best Seinfeld episodes would be incomplete without at the very least, a mention of this all-time great. It’s so good, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which many critics have likened to a modern-day Seinfeld, did an homage to a scene from this episode.
“The Contest” shows that being edgy doesn’t have to be problematic, as the only way to take offense to this episode is from the way the guys think Elaine couldn’t possibly enjoy masturbation as much as they do. Also: the word “masturbation” is never even used!