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What is wrong with humanity? What kind of a world do we live in?


Seinfeld
2.6: The Chinese Restaurant

The Premise

Jerry, George and Elaine wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant.

Observational

Rating Seinfeldepisodes isn’t as easy as it looks. Most of them are pretty, pretty good so you have to use the full five stars judiciously if you’re going to properly recognise the crème de la crème. The Chinese Restaurant is one such episode. I’d been merrily amusing myself with the season so far, noting the steady increase in quality from episode to episode. And then Restaurant is served up as a gourmet feast; each mouthful is a succulent delight. Seinfeld and David ensure every line sings and every digression sparkles. It’s so stuffed with goodness, it makes the previous episodes seem comparatively underfed.

NBC really didn’t like the script because “nothing happens”, and you can see why they might think that. It’s a fairly outlandish premise (and for only the eleventh episode made, they hit their stride very early). Set in real time, and with the only glue being that they are trapped waiting for the duration, it’s a wonder that David and Seinfeld had the material to fill it out, except that when you watch it you realise there isn’t a moment of dead air or a vignette that doesn’t play. Apparently the time pressure (to get to the movie) was a sop to satisfy the studio, but the only aspect that doesn’t quite work is the convenience of Jerry bumping into a woman who works at his uncle’s office (which uncle, Leo?), the very uncle he lied to so he could go and see Plan 9 From Outer Space that evening.

ABC didn’t like the finished article either (consistent, you can give them that), and delayed showing it until later in the run. Jerry has proved charitable about their attitude; they may not have appreciated it, but they still let them make it. And it became one of the series’ defining moments.

There’s no Kramer this time, which upset Michael Richards (the original conception was that Kramer didn’t go out, although we just saw him do exactly that in The Busboy). His character is often the highlight of an episode, so it’s a strong statement of how tight The Chinese Restaurant is that you don’t miss him. The remaining trio all have multiple great moments, with George and Elaine suffering particular frustrations.

George probably has the pick of the material, as dictated by his penchant for embarrassment and self-delusion. His story about needing a poo while having sex with girlfriend Tatiana is a classic example (and one of the earliest) of the series getting away with being risqué by discussing a subject in a roundabout way. When George tells Jerry the bathroom at her house doesn’t provide enough privacy (“no buffer zone”), he doesn’t need to go into graphic detail about exploding bowels and straining noises. Indeed, the network limitations requiring them to speak around a subject result in turns of phrase much funnier than explicit language. George talks about the need to “relieve this unstoppable force”. And his reported exit is beautifully inappropriate (“I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but I think it would best that I left”).

His rage over the phone guy, whom he sees as rudely hogging the public phone (that’s one plotline that would go straight in the bin today), is spectacularly self-righteous and disproportionate (“What is wrong with humanity? What kind of a world do we live in?”). As ever, the fury and indignation (“I really hate this guy”) is completely diffused when the guy confronts him:

Phone Guy: Hey, sorry I took so long.
George: Oh, that’s okay. Really. Don’t worry about it.

His petty behaviour (although entirely understandable; with George it’s all about how he reacts, not that we don’t share his irritations) receives a perfect rebuke when he protests that he was ahead of the next person to pick up the phone (“Well, if you were here first, you’d be holding the phone”). Later, his miserliness comes to the fore when he opts for the smallest share of the table bribe (“I’m not going to eat that much”). But the crowning moment occurs when we learn that Bruce mistook his surname for Cartwright (“I yell “Cartwright, Cartwright”. Nobody answer”), and told Tatiana he wasn’t there.

Elaine’s on pugnacious form, railing against customers who are grateful to be given a table (“It’s enough to make you sick!”), cinema snacks (“I’d rather lick the food off the floor!”), and her own jaded attitude to eating out (“Now I just feel like a big sweaty hog, waiting for them to fill up the trough”). To top it all, she descends into her unique brand of freak-out as everyone else continually gets shown to a table (“Where am I? Is this a dream? What in God’s name is going on here?”)

Jerry is much more mild-mannered than his friends, even though he has the greater vested interest (the cinema visit is his idea). He has fun winding up Elaine, particularly when it comes to her suggestion that men are more suited to making deals with restaurateurs (“The women’s movement can’t seem to make much progress in the world of bribery, can they?”) and his tickled response to her failure to get a table by this means (“What sort of a sorry exhibition was that?”) Elaine already had a good laugh at his expense though, when he engages in a conversation with his uncle’s employee without admitting he has no idea who she is (“Definitely, I plan to. And I’m not just saying that”). This moment marks out Jerry as a polar opposite to George; instead of being flustered and wracked with nerves, Jerry exudes wry self-amusement. No one could be less flustered at a potentially embarrassing situation.

There other star is James Hong as the restaurant manager, Bruce. Hong is perhaps best known as Lo Pang in Big Trouble in Little China. His benign indifference to our desperate trio makes their vexation all the funnier. He even segues into offering relationship advice to Jerry about Elaine (“Well, actually we did date for a while, but that’s really not relevant”). And naturally, as soon as they depart the restaurant, resigned to a failure of an evening, their table is called.

Quotable

Elaine: Do you notice how happy people are when they finally get a table. They feel so special because they’ve been chosen. It’s enough to make you sick!
Jerry: Boy, you are really hungry.

George: For 50 bucks? I’d put my face in their soup and blow.

Woman: Well, if you were here first, you’d be holding the phone.
George: You know, we’re supposed to be living in a society. We’re supposed to act in a civilised way!

Elaine: Movie hotdogs? I’d rather lick the food off the floor.

Jerry: Who’s Cartwright?
George: I’m Cartwright!
Jerry: You’re not Cartwright.
George: Of course I’m not Cartwright!

Jerry: I can’t go to a bad movie by myself. What, am I going to make smart remarks to strangers?

Verdict:


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