6.) "Seinfeld" 4.13 The Pick (Watch it now at Youtube.com)
The Pick is a perfect episode of television. I talked a bit about short stories in the "Six Feet Under" post, and I'll go ahead now and update those claims by saying that, well, there are quite a few episodes of "Seinfeld" that are as compact as complete as any great short story. This is one of them. I was talking to a couple friends last night at the Anthill Pub, and mind you, the three of us disagree on a lot of things (we're all writers and very obsessive), but we did agree on this: "Seinfeld," especially in the first half of its run, is more often than not pure genius, and the reason it was around for so long (and that similarly accelerated shows like "Arrested Development" were not) is that its incredibly literary methods are masked, not only by a novel premise at the coat tails of the family-friendly "Full House"-centric classic sitcom era (four friends living in New York--count how many times that's been duplicated--too many), but also by the writing. Each episode of "Seinfeld" is so tightly written, and the situations are so profoundly absurd, that the comedy works for almost anyone, and you don't need to understand or even try to understand how it achieves its unique comedic glory. But it is extra fun when you do try to understand. That's what I'm doing here.
The Pick is like a short story in that it really does follow a lot of basic rules (rules is a bad word, but I'll use it anyway) that short stories follow in order to achieve credibility and that sense of completion. Even though most short stories do not leave us with perfect, tidy endings complete with big, red bows, they do leave us with a sense of completion, a sense that the story has, in its way, achieved everything that it can, and the rest is all implied. Ron Carlson is a great writer who has published several books in addition to being the Director of the MFA program here at UC-Irvine. He's also a lovely man and an incredible teacher. Anyway, Carlson, in his book Ron Carlson Writes a Story and also in everyday teaching moments has a few terms and methods that he applies to the creation of a short story and how to, I think, sort of achieve this sense of completion. The Pick is amazing in how it actually follows quite a few of these methods and rules, and this is part of why it's so perfect, and why it really does feel like a short story.
According to Carlson (and he's right, yes, he's right), one of the first things a short story should do is build an inventory for itself: establish the people, places, and things of the story. This might seem simple to you, but it is not. I teach my beginning fiction students that, before they can really start to achieve any sort of success with a story, they need to establish the Who, What, and Where, because if you don't have a solid foundation to stand on, a world for its characters to walk around in, and things for them to manipulate, then you simply don't have a story. Realize how inventory works is different for every writer, but "Seinfeld" builds inventory in a very traditional way. Granted, this is an episode of television, so we've already got most of the inventory we need (we're in New York, we know our characters, and we have some understanding of the situations they always seem to be getting themselves into), so inventory, in this case, is going to be all about setting us up for the current outer story. Which things are going to be tapped twice in this episode? Here's how The Pick does it:
The episode begins with the standard Jerry-in-stand-up format. He tells a joke about a model, and since we've probably seen the show before (or even if we haven't), we know that a model, in some way, is going to be integral to tonight's episode. Then, we're in Jerry's apartment (a main setting where most of this episode will take place), and we're given a bit of exposition through George's pining over losing Susan. The dynamics are set right away. Elaine is yelling from the other room while Jerry reads the paper at the table and George is on the couch. So, even if you've never seen an episode of "Seinfeld" in your life, you begin to understand that these people are friends, they hang out in this apartment quite a bit, and they're pretty comfortable around each other. Comfortable enough to yell through the bathroom door at a conversation happening in the kitchen. The conversation itself characterizes these people and the dynamics between them, and it sets up several key pieces of inventory: Elaine's therapist, George's ex Susan, Tia the model Jerry met on an airplane, a Christmas card, and Elaine's new religious bf Fred. Kramer walks in and asks for some Double Crunch. You can bet that each and every one of these things is going to be tapped twice in this episode, which is another Carlson-ism: If you want to make something real, tap it twice. George goes to the therapist. He asks Susan to take him back. Elaine puts her picture on a Christmas card. We meet Fred at Elaine's office. Even the Double Crunch shows up again. We meet Jerry's model friend, Tia in the next scene, in which another major piece of important inventory is revealed: a new Calvin Klein perfume called Ocean. That'll be tapped again, too, when Elaine is wearing Ocean, and then when CK himself makes a cameo on the show and gives Kramer his own CK ad.
The key piece of inventory in The Pick is Elaine's nipple, which turns out to be exposed on the Christmas card she had made and sent out to hundreds of people she knows. The nipple is used several times, including in the therapist's office with George and later when Elaine tells Fred (in a particularly hilarious moment) that she can "see the nipple on [his] soul." In addition to all of this, the last piece of inventory introduced in this episode is the notorious (and eponymous) pick, which shows up first when Tia sees Jerry scratching his nose and mistakenly assumes that he's actually picking his nose in the car. Later that week, Jerry debates the meaning of "the pick" with George in his apartment after Tia won't return any of his calls. This moment is indicative of one of those things that makes "Seinfeld" tick--"Seinfled" is a show about very narrow misunderstandings: the meaning of "the pick" versus "the scratch" and Elaine's nipple, which is only just exposed, but if there ever was a show where the phrase only just has any sort of meaning at all, it is "Seinfeld." So the conversation in which Jerry and George decipher the meaning of "the pick" is a moment of particularly excellent "Seinfeld" logic. Anyway, the pick shows up again in full force once George does somehow convince Susan to take him back. Once he gets back to her apartment, however, he realizes that he doesn't really want her back at all and, yes, uses the pick to get out of the relationship.
Another thing tapped twice in this episode is the literary allusion: Jerry's Merchant of Venice allusion while defending "nose-pickers" everywhere ("If we pick, do we not bleed?") and then Elaine's previously mentioned allusion to The Scarlet Letter ("Because it is not me that is exposed, but you! For I have seen the nipple on your soul!") This is like the icing on the proverbial cake. In a show so fraught with literary significance itself, these high literary allusions are an ironic, not-quite-but-almost-metafictional wink at the reader who reads closely. And by reader, I mean member of the audience, but remember that here, on my little TV blog, television is literature. I like to read TV as much as I like to watch it.
Anyway, this episode is not magnificently Christmassy, the only real Christmas element being Elaine's Christmas card, but it's a GREAT episode nonetheless. That much, I've already pointed out, so I'll go now and ready myself for the next installment on this list. Hopefully, I'll do some other things, too, like eat, sleep, and do work.
UP NEXT: "Tree, nog, and roast beast" = How Whedonites do X-mas.