Summer sitcom rewind: ‘Seinfeld’ – ‘The Red Dot’

Continuing our occasional summer look back at classic sitcom episodes, it's time to discuss “The Red Dot” from “Seinfeld” season 3, coming up just as soon as my favorite book is “Venetian Blinds” by Art Vandelay…

“Seinfeld,” the short version: For that, take a look at this story I wrote at the start of this month on the 25th anniversary of the airing of “The Seinfeld Chronicles” pilot.

As I noted at the end of the last summer sitcom rewind piece, I was limited in my “Seinfeld” options by whatever episodes Crackle happened to be streaming this month. (The way my luck's going with this project – more on that at the end – the calendar will turn over to August and “The Contest,” “The Outing” and “The Opposite” will all suddenly be available.) “The Red Dot” isn't likely to make a lot of “Seinfeld” fans' top 10 lists, but that ultimately speaks more to the incredible run of great episodes the show produced – particularly during seasons 3 and 4 – than to any deficits of “The Red Dot” itself.

The episode is still embryonic “Seinfeld” in some ways, particularly in the lack of any real Kramer subplot – he turns up for the one scene, does a few fake Hennigan's commercials, and vanishes – and the unusual device of having Elaine's ex-boyfriend Dick interact with Jerry during the stand-up sequences(*). But even if not every one of the regulars gets a story in this one, the Jerry, Elaine and George subplots all converge nicely in the end – in a way that became the show's defining characteristic – with the attempt to use the damaged cashmere sweater to stop Dick's drunken rampage, and the episode features a major leap forward in the evolution of George Costanza as a character.

(*) Jerry's act occasionally advanced the plot, but usually in scenes that were shot and edited differently from the isolated stand-up routines  sprinkled throughout each episode. Until Dick begins heckling him, these look and sound like they should be separate from the rest of the story.

As many of you probably know, Larry David modeled George on himself, while Jason Alexander initially modeled his performance on early Woody Allen. By season 3, Alexander had figured out the verbal and physical tics that would become such an iconic part of the character(**), but his transformation into one of the great pathological liars of this or any age really begins with “The Red Dot.” The scene where a panicky George starts shouting excuses to Elaine about why he bought her the damaged sweater – “I had a 103 temperature when I bought that sweater! I was so dizzy, I was seeing red dots everywhere!” – is a delight. Even better, though, is his calm, almost sociopathic response to Mr. Lippman's objection to George having had sex with the cleaning woman on his desk: “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I gotta plead ignorance on this: if anyone had said anything when I started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon…” It's perfection. (As George would tell Jerry a few seasons later, “It's not a lie… if you believe it.”) The show's writers have talked about “The Red Dot” as an important foundational episode for George, and you can see why in that Mr. Lippman scene.

(**) This is where I remind you that Alexander never won an Emmy for the role.

The cleaning woman is something of a problematic character. On both “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David has demonstrated a great love of ethnic caricature, but is sometimes more successful than others (say, with Babu) at letting them transcend their basic schtick. Here, actress Bridget Sienna at least gets that great monologue about the rich man in Panama with the cashmere sweater, which starts out in familiar territory and then takes a very dark and crazy turn as she refuses to let go and he drags her through the streets and kicks her. Overall, though, the series' reputation for presenting a very white POV of '90s New York was not undeserved.

But the sweater itself is a great comic concept, and the decision to make the eponymous red dot invisible to the audience only takes it up another level. From our perspective, George isn't being unreasonable in thinking that Elaine, or the cleaning woman, or Dick would be perfectly happy with such a gift, even as it's clear from their reactions (as well as Jerry and Kramer's) that the sweater is actually horribly disfigured.

Jerry accidentally sending Dick off the wagon (which leads to much confusion about the meaning of on the wagon vs. off) was incredibly dark for a sitcom in 1991. “Cheers” had told many stories about Sam's struggles with alcoholism (including the amazing episode “Endless Slumper,” about the good luck charm that helped him stop drinking), but it was always treated as a sad thing. Here, we are getting the story entirely from Jerry and Elaine's perspective, where it's an inconvenience and an excuse to argue over whether Jerry did it on purpose – just black comic fodder on a show that would begin to specialize in showing its “heroes” casually destroying other people's lives. And the fact that we see a sober Dick drinking tea in the closing tag is the sort of mostly-happy ending the show wouldn't feel the need to do even a year later (when Jerry was responsible for Babu's deportation); had he stayed drunk, maybe Dick would have been among the many characters testifying against Jerry and company in the series finale.

“Seinfeld” was a show about horrible people doing horrible things to outsiders (and occasionally to each other), in a way that would make later comedies like “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia” possible. This is still on the lighter end of the gang's misdeeds, but it also has some excellent interplay between the four of them (the Hennigan's commercials, Elaine tricking George and later failing to trick Jerry with the same stunt). These are not nice people. But they are very, very funny people.

A few other thoughts:

* Jerry admits that he's always been attracted to chambermaids, and in one of my favorite post-Larry David episodes, “The Maid,” he begins a very ill-advised affair with his own cleaning woman.

* As Jerry Seinfeld himself would cop to – and as the show would have fun with during the show-within-a-show arc of season 4 – he never really turned into an actor in the way that Ray Romano, Roseanne Barr and some of his other stand-up contemporaries did. That said, his bad acting – say, his reaction to swigging the Hennigan's – becomes amusing in its own way, and it's not like “Seinfeld” ever needed him to play serious the way “Roseanne” or “Everybody Loves Raymond” did with their stars.

* “Seinfeld” goes topical: George references Clarence Thomas (whose contentious confirmation hearings were earlier that year) in asking the cleaning woman to keep their relationship quiet, and when Dick rampages through the Pendant Publishing offices, Elaine compares it to “Cape Fear,” which was released (the De Niro/Nolte version, anyway) a month before this episode aired.

* I believe “The Red Dot” is only the second episode to ever reference George's favorite alias, Art Vandelay, first dreamed up in the series' second overall episode, “The Stake Out.” The Vandelay name would, of course, become much more famous later in season 3 when George invented the latex company Vandelay Industries to help with his unemployment claim.

Up next: I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. This is one of those ideas that I think seemed better in theory than it's worked in practice, in part because a lot of the shows that I believed were readily available to stream (particularly a lot of the '70s ones I wanted to hit like “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi”) are only available in a limited capacity that doesn't include the episodes I would want to do. And while writing about “The Red Dot” was fun, it's more of a promising middle ground episode than one that represents “Seinfeld” at its absolute peak.

There are definitely some great episodes to choose from, especially if I look at more recent shows like “Arrested Development” and “The Office,” but the Internet also does not lack for coverage of those shows and ones like them. So I'm going to take a step back from the project, take some planned time off post-Comic-Con, and decide whether I want to do any more of these or simply admit defeat and focus on some other interesting things. When I first started doing these summer TV rewinds, after all, there were far fewer exciting summer options than there are now. I'm not saying the idea as a whole has outlived its usefulness, but it's a harder thing to justify doing when I feel perpetually behind on so many current shows I want to be watching and/or writing about.

So we'll see. (Maybe I'll just do more “Cheers” episodes, starting with “Endless Slumper.”) But as for “The Red Dot,” what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at