Best ‘Seinfeld’ Episodes: ‘The Chinese Restaurant’

I’m blogging the best episodes of the shows I’ve written books about—The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld—since they’re both available in their entirety for streaming on Hulu.

Seinfeld is a surprisingly slow starter that doesn’t hit its stride until the brilliant, avant-garde episode “The Chinese Restaurant,” which is the 11th of season 2. Like most Seinfeld episodes, it’s self-contained. But it’s unusually laser-focused on one central conceit: This is about Elaine, George, and Jerry waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant. That’s it. All three characters have “storylines,” but they’re tightly woven here because all three are stuck together the whole time: George wants to use a pay phone to call the woman he’s seeing; Jerry wants to eat in time to get to a movie; Elaine is hangry. (Kramer wasn’t present for this one because the writers were still devoted, at this point in the show’s run, to the idea that his character was a shut-in. He became quite the opposite later.)

This episode was the only one that came close to getting the hook from NBC network executives. The show was on a long leash from the start, but this one was truly baffling: What was the logline here? How would the TV Guide description read? Three characters wait for a table at a restaurant, then don’t get it? But after co-creator Larry David threatened to quit if they pulled the episode, they gave in. It was a turning point for the series, which was still relatively low-rated: Critics loved this artsy, Waiting for Godot-like conceit, and raved about it in print. The good buzz helped to push Seinfeld toward its ultimate sensational success.

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