"Seinfeld" went self-referential in Season Four, putting a postmodern spin on a sitcom that was already a cult favorite, validating the critics in an ironic way by calling itself a "show about nothing." After a bizarre opening that gave fans their zany Kramer fix, the season plunged daringly into the looking glass, with the plots chronicling how Jerry ends up with his own sitcom on NBC . . . and how, true to comic form, he almost loses it.
"Seinfeld" was an in-crowd show from the very beginning, so instantly popular with intellectuals and the water cooler crowd that it's hard to believe it never cracked the Nielsen Top-30 shows until its "breakthrough" fourth season, 1992-93. After that, the show that TV Guide called the number one sitcom of all-time finished in the top three shows every year of its run.
The premise was simple: the show was about stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld, who was seen doing segments from his nightclub act and also hanging out with a tight group of friends. That in itself wasn't new—after all, Jack Benny and George Burns did something similar in the early years of television. But the show fought off the formula that had settled on the contemporary sitcom like a straitjacket, and "Seinfeld" pioneered the short scene, quickly moving from snippet to snippet with jazz riffs to give it edge, then pulling everything together with a monologue. It also featured one of the all-time great ensemble casts, with Jerry Seinfeld playing himself, Julia Louise-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jerry's former girlfriend turned "gal pal," Jason Alexander as George Costanza, his worrywart best friend, and Michael Richards bringing to life Kramer, the eccentric and over-caffeinated neighbor.
The fourth season features several episodes that are considered classics. In "The Junior Mint," while Kramer is dropping a Junior Mint into the surgical cavity of Elaine's boyfriend during an operation, Jerry is dropping hints to try to find out his girlfriend's name, which he's embarrassingly forgotten. He's learned it rhymes with a female body part, and the water cooler crowd repeated every last guess the day after it aired. Another major classic telecast this season was "The Contest," which won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing—ironic, considering the "Seinfeld" gang thought it might not even get past the censors. You see, the contest was to establish who is "master of your domain," which is to say, to see who could go the longest without masturbating—and even Elaine was in on it. The Seinfeldians were on a sexual roll, because the third classic episode to come out of this season was "The Pick," which saw Elaine sending a bit more season's greetings than she intended—her nipple exposed on a Christmas card she mailed to everyone.
For all its irreverence and daring, "Seinfeld" earned an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series this season, while Richards won for Outstanding Supporting Actor. Here's a rundown on the 24 episodes (all 529 minutes), many of which are also hilarious in a quiet sort of way:
1) "The Trip," Part 1—Invited to appear on "The Tonight Show," Jerry takes George with him to L.A., where they learn that Kramer is the victim of mistaken identity.
2) "The Trip," Part 2—Kramer is suspected of being a serial killer the press has dubbed the "Smog Strangler."
3-4) "The Pitch/The Ticket" (One hour)—Here's where the postmodernism starts, with NBC execs approaching Jerry to come up with a sitcom pilot and George suggesting, finally, a show "about nothing." Newman (Wayne Knight) tries to use Kramer as a witness to get out of a speeding ticket.
5) "The Wallet"—As George tries to get out of the NBC pilot deal, Jerry's dad, Morty, thinks his wallet was stolen at the doctor's office, while Jerry has to explain what happened to the watch his parents gave him.
6) "The Watch"—Jerry tries to buy his watch back from Uncle Leo, while Elaine gets Kramer to help her with a break-up and George tries to mend NBC fences.
7) "The Bubble Boy"—Quintessential "Seinfeld" silliness as Jerry agrees to visit a bubble boy on his way up to a cabin retreat, but they get lost and George ends up fighting the bubble boy. Bill Murray's brother guest stars as the boy's father in this memorable episode.
8) "The Cheever Letters"—Another funny episode, where Jerry manages to offend Elaine's assistant with a remark about women's underclothing and a box of letters from writer John Cheever is the only thing left after the cabin burns down.
9) "The Opera"—Elaine learns her boyfriend is known as Crazy Joe Davola, and she, Jerry, and George have to survive an opera with clowns.
10) "The Virgin"—Jerry dates one, while Kramer drives Jerry and George crazy as they try to write their pilot.
11) "The Contest." Estelle Harris, as George's mother, is hilarious.
12) "The Airport"—It's first-class vs. coach as Jerry and Elaine fly while George and Kramer try to get to their flights.
13) "The Pick"—While Elaine's exposing herself on a Christmas card, Jerry's caught picking his nose by a girlfriend.
14) "The Visa"—No good deed goes unpunished, as Jerry's attempts to help his immigrant friend instead get him deported.
15) "The Movie"—They're supposed to meet, but Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer keep missing each other.
16) "The Outing"—A reporter mistakenly "outs" Jerry and George.
17) "The Shoes"—After copping a peak at the NBC exec's daughter's cleavage, Jerry and George lose their pilot, while Elaine, meanwhile, thinks the world is obsessed with her Botticelli shoes.
18) "The Old Man"—A very funny episode finds Jerry, George, and Elaine volunteering to spend time with senior citizens, except Jerry loses his, George's fires him, and Elaine can't stand to look at hers.
19) "The Implant"—Jerry asks Elaine to go undercover, so to speak, to find out if his girlfriend's breasts are real, while George loses his girlfriend after being caught "double-dipping" (a phrase that became legendary around water coolers).
20) "The Handicap Spot"—Hilarious hijinx as George parks his father's car in a handicapped spot and an angry mob trashes it. Dad Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) debuts.
21) "The Junior Mint."
22) "The Smelly Car"—A valet stinks up Jerry's car; meanwhile, George learns that he drove Susan (Heidi Swedberg) to lesbianism.
23-24) "The Pilot" Parts 1 & 2—Finally, the pilot is a go, but the NBC president becomes obsessed with Elaine, and Kramer gets the trots.
Video: You yadda-yadda fans have never had it so good. This season was remastered in High Definition, and the picture quality is great. The colors are vibrant, and the grain is in the Midwest, where it belongs. The picture is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Audio: Could you listen to those jazz riffs between scenes without top-quality sound? The English soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and in truth it sounds fuller than that, especially when the musical interludes kick in. Spanish and French language tracks are in Dolby Digital 2.0, but I don't notice much of a drop-off. Subtitles are in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Extras: As with the other sets, this one is packed on four discs in four clear, slim keep-cases that fit into a cardboard sleeve and box. There's a color bi-fold insert that lists the episodes and credits (surprising, not the air-dates and guest stars), but for descriptions of the episodes you have to look at the backs of the keep-cases. There are 13 hours of bonus materials, which, of course, counts the commentaries.
Disc 1 holds the first six episodes plus supervising producer Larry Charles on commentary for "The Trip," Parts 1 & 2, while there are "inside looks" (the equivalent of mini-feature introductions) for "The Trip," Part 1 and "The Pitch/The Ticket" and deleted scenes for "The Trip," Part 1 and "The Wallet. The main features are also included on Disc 1: a full-length documentary on "The Breakthrough Season" and a hilarious parody that the cast did on Regis and Kathie Lee. On the episodes there's also a "notes about nothing" feature that's a pop-up trivia track, some of which are quite interesting, some of which are so random and drawn-out that they're distracting and out-of-synch with the onscreen images.
Disc 2 has episodes 7-11 with commentary on "The Cheever Letters" provided by Alexander, Louise-Dreyfus, and Richards, and Seinfeld handling the commentary on "The Contest." Deleted scenes are included for "The Bubble Boy," "The Cheever Letters," "The Opera," and "The Contest." There's also new stand-up material from Seinfeld titled "Master of His Domain," and inside-look introductions to "The Bubble Boy," "The Cheever Letters," "The Opera," and "The Contest."
Disc 3 features episodes 12-17, along with NBC promo spots (including ones the cast made to promote the 1992 Olympics). Commentaries on "The Airport" (Larry Charles) and "The Outing" (Alexander, Louise-Dreyfus, and Richards) are included, along with deleted scenes from "The Airport," "The Pick," "The Movie," and "The Outing," and inside-looks at "The Airport," "The Pick," "The Visa," and "The Outing."
Disc 4 has episodes 18-24, with writer Peter Mehlman offering a commentary on one of his three favorite episodes, "The Implant," and Seinfeld doing the commentary track on the infamous "Junior Mint" episode, while supervising editor Tom Cherones and his production designer handle the commentary chores for "The Pilot." There are "inside looks" for "The Old Man," The Handicap Spot," "The Junior Mint," and "The Smelly Car," and deleted scenes from "The Old Man" and "The Junior Mint."
Though the commentaries have lots of dead air, they're still entertaining for those surprise insights that pop-up like trivia questions. Seinfeld does a better job on the commentaries than his co-stars, but then again he doesn't have to share the microphone. What's surpising, though, is how little some of the cast remembers about the episodes.
Bottom Line: If "Seinfeld" is the number one situation comedy of all time, then this season is arguably the best sitcom season. There are a bunch of classic episodes, and it's the only year that "Seinfeld" won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. Which is to say, if you're only going to buy one season of "Seinfeld" for your DVD collection, this would be the one.