All Five Episodes of the First Season of ‘Seinfeld,’ Ranked
“In the history of pilot reports, Seinfeld has got to be one of the worst of all time.”
This quote from former NBC President of Entertainment Warren Littlefield perfectly reflected the poor reviews Seinfeld received when it first aired. The initial feedback on the pilot, “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” was that Jerry was a weak lead, with the audience not eager to watch the show again.
And so, it’s a miracle that Seinfeld wasn’t canceled from the start. That was largely because of Rick Ludwin, the NBC television executive who continued to champion Seinfeld and the show despite the negativity surrounding both early on. A major critique from then NBC President Brandon Tartikoff was that the series was “too New York and too Jewish.” (Note: Tartikoff himself was both from New York and Jewish.) However, Ludwin felt, “I’m not from New York, I’m not Jewish, I thought it was funny.” So, using his own television development budget to fund four additional episodes after axing a Bob Hope special, Ludwin completed Season One of Seinfeld, giving the series the footing and credibility it needed to grow and develop into the pop-culture juggernaut it did.
However, looking back, the first five episodes of the show lacked the dynamic plots, humor and authenticity that would develop in later seasons. In fact, most fans would say that Season One features some of the series’ worst episodes. In fairness, though, it would be unfair to grade them on such a lofty scale, and so, instead, we thought it would be more interesting to weigh them against each other…
Episode 1: “The Seinfeld Chronicles”
Plot: Jerry tells George about Laura, a woman he met in Michigan, who is now visiting New York. She tells Jerry that she has to come in for a seminar and that maybe they’d get together, leading Jerry and George to debate whether she has romantic intentions or is just being friendly. Laura later asks Jerry if she can stay at his apartment, but his initial excitement diminishes upon finding out that she’s engaged.
What Works: The format of Jerry doing stand-up to open the episode and his profession as a comedian both worked well and set the stage for the rest of the series. In this episode, Jerry’s joke about laundry day being the only exciting day in the life of clothes is timeless and one of his classic bits. As is his questioning of how detergent commercials depict cleaning blood stains out of clothing: “Is this a violent image to anybody? Bloodstains? I mean, come on. If you got a T-shirt with blood stains all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem right now.”
What Doesn’t Work: The cast feels incomplete without Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose Elaine Benes wouldn’t be created until the post-pilot batch of episodes. Additionally, Jerry, George and Kramer’s characters aren’t fully developed. Jason Alexander is finding his way as George Costanza here, stating in the Seinfeld DVD interviews that the pilot script “read like a Woody Allen film,” so he portrayed a version of the famous director rather than the more Larry David-influenced version we’d later come to know. In the episode, George also appears to be a know-it-all, telling Jerry to not clean his bathroom because “filth is good,” and saying, “I can’t believe you’re bringing in an extra bed for a woman who wants to sleep with you. Why don’t you bring in an extra guy, too?” The jokes are obviously off, with him coming across as annoying more than anything else.
Meanwhile, the reveal of Laura’s engagement doesn’t hit as the funny twist ending Seinfeld and David had probably hoped for.
Episode 4: “Male Unbonding”
Plot: Jerry’s irritating childhood friend, Joel Hornick, keeps calling him to get together. Jerry attempts to “break up” with him but can’t when Joel starts crying hysterically. This leads to a peace offering of George’s ticket to the Knicks game, but Jerry ultimately decides to not go, instead putting together an “excuse Rolodex” to avoid any future plans. Joel ends up taking Kramer, who he spoke to on the phone at the beginning of the episode, after hearing his make-your-own-pizza idea.
What Works: This episode marks the first instance of a storyline from the beginning coming back around at the conclusion, which was one of Seinfeld’s most notable traits. The irony of Joel taking Kramer to the game after Jerry finds an excuse to ditch him is witty and fun. Elaine’s performance and the dynamic between her and Jerry is also great. In particular, their casual conversation in the kitchen to figure out what they should do instead of “sitting around” pretty much captures the essence of the show: a show about nothing.
What Doesn’t Work: Watching Joel is difficult as he’s flat-out one of the most unlikable characters in the series, coming off as desperate, rude and irritating. George’s whiny Woody Allen impression is still in full force as well. George also isn’t critical to the plot; instead, his story is anchored to his complaints about a girl he’s seeing, the bank not accepting his pennies and Jerry giving away his Knicks ticket.
Episode 3: “The Robbery”
Plot: Jerry’s apartment gets robbed after Kramer forgets to shut his front door. George tells Jerry about a great new place on the market, which Elaine prods Jerry to look at in hopes of her moving into Jerry’s place once he moves out. However, before Jerry can sign the lease, he learns that George is now also interested in the apartment. The two flip a coin and play odds/evens to determine who will move in, but ultimately decide that neither can accept it due to knowing it would upset the other. The waitress at the coffee shop overhears them talking about the unit and ends up renting it for herself and her husband.
What Works: Jerry and Kramer have a great rapport when discussing how the robber entered the apartment (“The door… must be closed!”). The interactions between all four of the main characters really take shape for the first time in this episode, specifically, Jerry, George and Elaine as they determine who will get the new apartment and who Elaine is rooting for, as she’ll be moving into the winner’s home. Kramer’s iconic entrances started in this episode, too. Michael Richards accidentally came into a scene late and got a laugh from the audience as he slid through the door, which turned out to be an incredibly serendipitous mistake.
What Doesn’t Work: The last scene of the episode is the waitress’ housewarming party in the coveted apartment, where Jerry, George and Elaine unenthusiastically sit on the couch, lamenting that they didn’t upgrade their homes. Nothing about this scene works. The waitress’ husband is miscast as he overacts when he talks about having barbeques every night, “and the rent is unbelievable!” while the next-door neighbor randomly being an attractive female masseuse comes off as very cliché. At the party, they overhear someone talking about an available unit in the building, with all three simultaneously asking, “What’s the rent?” The ending feels corny, and although it may be excused for another sitcom, it’s below what we expect from Seinfeld.
Episode 5: “The Stock Tip”
Plot: George convinces Jerry to invest with him after receiving a stock tip; when it starts floundering, Jerry decides to sell and cut his losses. Meanwhile, Jerry is planning a romantic weekend getaway with his girlfriend, which backfires when it proves to be a “relationship killer.” To make matters worse, Jerry learns that the stock he sold has now gone up six points, with George making bank.
What Works: The jokes really click. Jerry holding a tiny shirt while trying to get the dry cleaner to admit his guilt in shrinking it is a hilarious visual gag. Another success is the dry cleaner’s mean and unhelpful streak, which becomes a side character trend throughout Seinfeld in later seasons. Finally, George’s extravagance as he celebrates the money he made from the stock market and the rarity of George coming out on top is a lot of fun. Even though he has money to throw away, he removes one dollar from the waitress’ tip, which brings the scene back to reality as George will always be cheap.
What Doesn’t Work: Elaine has an allergy to her boyfriend’s cats, but the storyline is as weak as a kitten and doesn’t amount to anything. Also, Kramer’s pleasure in Jerry’s sorrow as he loses money day after day is funny at first but grows tiring. It’s never made clear why Kramer is so happy about Jerry losing money, and it feels oddly out of character.
Episode 2: “The Stake Out”
Plot: Jerry hits it off with a woman he meets at a birthday party but feels uncomfortable asking her out with Elaine sitting next to him. Jerry wants to get in touch with her, but he doesn’t know her name or number, which leads to Jerry’s dad suggesting he stake out her workplace lobby to see her. Following his dad’s advice, he and George pretend to bump into the woman as she exits an elevator.
What Works: The scene in the law office lobby as Jerry and George wait for the woman to arrive is excellent, with both inventing a backstory about why they’re waiting there and who they’re seeing. This is the first time we see them concoct an elaborate lie together, and the dialogue as they weave a tale about meeting their friend Art Vandelay for lunch is fantastic. Liz Sheridan, who plays Helen Seinfeld, makes a great first appearance, immediately striking a perfect rapport with Jerry and the rest of the cast. Louis-Dreyfus makes her debut as Elaine and perfectly nails the intricacies of playing Jerry’s friend/ex-girlfriend. Jerry and Elaine have never talked about other romantic interests, and they’re in an uncomfortable situation, but it’s never uncomfortable for us. Additionally, this is the first episode where a main character’s thoughts — Jerry’s via voiceover — are read aloud, which becomes an effective running gag for the series.
What Doesn’t Work: Philip Bruns, the actor who played Morty Seinfeld, was okay, but thankfully he was recast with Barney Martin in later seasons as Bruns was a little too calm for the role. In the episode, Jerry is getting ready for a family wedding, and we meet a number of his other relatives as well. But the extended family seems over-the-top and too sitcom-y. They don’t hold a candle to the memorable family members we meet later in the show, such as Uncle Leo or the genre-breaking Frank and Estelle Costanza.