Skip to main content

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:


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.