TV Unspooled: Seinfeld, "The Marine Biologist"
In which I experience a wildly beloved sitcom for the first time.
Hello and welcome back to this currently unnamed feature where I watch and write about an episode of a television series I’ve never seen before. Last time, I took a look at The X-Files episode “Unusual Suspects”. Today, I embark on my first taste of Seinfeld, with the (I’m told) iconic episode “The Marine Biologist.
It’s undoubtedly one of its great powers that the internet tears down nation borders in terms of conversation. Language remains a barrier, yes, but otherwise, the entire world of those happy to discuss any given topic in English is smushed together, with regional and national differences becoming nothing more than cute anecdotes. I find this to be a great positive. Occasionally, it throws up a situation where a TV series that almost no one around here has ever watched an episode of is a beloved, iconic staple for those I find myself talking to online.
Seinfeld was not a success in the United Kingdom. The generally attributed problem here was that it was poorly scheduled, airing new episodes at midnight, which is technically true, but also paints a different picture to how things actually played out. BBC Two initially aired the second season of the show (the first was skipped entirely, which from what I’ve heard sounds not unreasonable) on Wednesday nights at 9pm in late 1993. Ten episodes of this season were aired in this timeslot, mostly in production order, before the final two were held, seemingly because they ran out of scheduling space as Christmas-adjacent programming took over. It seemed like these episodes didn’t rate so well (unfortunately I couldn’t find any viewing figures from 1993), and when the show eventually returned, it was on the less suitable Saturday nights (traditionally an arena for broad skewing family fare followed by cheap shows that drunk people can fall asleep to). Here, the two holdover episodes and the first half of season three managed to air across spring and summer 1994 before the show abruptly disappeared for a year, the rest of the season not turning up until June 1995, this time managing just eight weeks to finish out the season before disappearing again (having skipped two episodes along the way). It eventually returned for season 4 in January 1996, just before midnight, and this set the drift towards the later hours that it became associated with for the rest of its existence.
This set the context for a show that the vast majority of people in this country just haven’t seen, and for the most part aren’t even aware of its existence. I’ve only heard of it from Americans on the internet. And I’m someone who writes a newsletter about random episodes of TV, so you know I’m an expert on this stuff. What this means is that I’m in a position of having no exposure to Seinfeld, but plenty of exposure to a deep array of subsequent shows heavily influenced by it. Seinfeld is a show with a reputation for being hugely distinctive and of its own style, but with it being such a hit, surely every quality that made it unique has been ripped off and repurposed a thousand times at this point, right?
Well, not exactly. The best, most distinctive art has an ability to retain its of its own flavour even after being imitated. As much as everyone has tried to bottle its potent quality, there remains but one Twin Peaks. Seinfeld has something of the same touch, even if we can see how many more recent series draw inspiration from here. Part of this is that, as a 90s comedy, it hits at the midpoint of an evolving landscape. It’s a self-referential style of humour, willing to drop in small jokes early on in the episode and assuming you’ll remember them later, and being comfortable having a tone that many may find slightly off-putting. But it is very much a multicamera sitcom. Its punchlines thrive on a reliable studio audience ready to laugh. As Jaime Weinman, forever the expert on this subject, has pointed out, “unlike single-camera, which is basically a little movie, multi-camera is a combination of different formats: a bit of film, a bit of radio, and a great big heaping helping of theatre”. As well as giving the actors the energy of the audience to play off of, it creates in its own way a greater remove from reality. Viewers will often accept a not entirely realistic portrayal of events here because, hey, it’s obviously staged anyway. Further to this, it lets scenes sit for longer, with the single camera format demanding a faster pace (see 30 Rock for a show that uses this to great effect) but the more obviously staged multicam allows characters to stay in particular sets for extended periods. Seinfeld really makes use of these things.
What I’d often heard about the show is the way it would have A, B and C plots interconnect, and this was very much on display in this episode. The A-plot here initially presents itself as an Elaine solo adventure but quickly works Jerry into the mix, essentially by accident. Even though Jerry doesn’t have a “plot” here as such, the script still manages to give him plenty to do, as he sets the ball rolling for George’s story about having to pretend to be the titular marine biologist, before segueing over to Elaine’s thread as soon as he’s no longer needed there. Kramer (who I didn’t even realise was a series regular until looking it up), meanwhile, seems to have less of a plot than a few brief gags until the episode relies on them right at the end. Some of the interweaving here feels like contrived coincidences, but the multicamera format and staging being one step further removed from reality helps the audience accept that. Pulling this off is not easy.
The show that Seinfeld gets compared to a lot is Friends, usually in the context of fans of the former trying to dismiss the latter as a worthless knock-off. This is unfair, since Friends developed its own distinct identity (and it is an extremely good sitcom, you are wrong if you say otherwise), but strangely, “The Marine Biologist” reminded me a lot of some of the early episodes of that show. In what I’m sure was not an accident, those early steps felt like an attempt to be “quirky” in the same vein as Seinfeld, before mostly giving up on this and leaning into being the sincere, unironic version of Friends we know today. A thing Seinfeld advocates always argue is that their show is more high brow and “smart” than Friends, which felt true in this episode (though not necessarily as a good or bad thing), but what I never used to understand is why both shows became such huge hits despite one being seen as less broadly appealing and more insular than the other. After watching this episode, I think I have a better sense of it. While Seinfeld’s style of humour is in some ways more niche, its characters fit much more of an everyman archetype than the glamorous leads of Friends. In “The Marine Biologist”, Jerry takes a stance about disliking rich people in limousines, with their disregard for ordinary people. This is in many ways more populist than anything Friends ever did. If the show had the same sensibilities but focused on characters doing much better in life, perhaps with a fictional Jerry Seinfeld as rich and famous as the real thing, or with actors as conventionally attractive as the Friends gang, its humour may have been too off-putting. A show like Modern Family, for example, compensates for its well off family played by good looking actors with broad jokes. As it is, Seinfeld manages to hit the right balance by hitting both higher brow humour and populist, everyman character beats. Megahit shows always have their own special alchemy, and maybe this was part of Seinfeld’s? I don’t know, I’ve only watched one episode. But I suspect I’d enjoy this show a lot if I watched many more. The fun of this project is trying to understand an entire show from such a small glimpse.