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.