The long-touted notion that Seinfeld was really a “show about nothing” is of course, hyperbolically untrue. Seinfeld is about many things, which is why it has endured as a sticky pop culture phenomenon. Although it came from an era before TV “binges,” it did accidentally pioneer a format so endless rewatchable, that Seinfeld has become, in the 2020s, one of the most binge-worthy shows on Netflix. You might think each episode of Seinfeld was self-contained and didn’t necessarily flow into the next, but what made the show so hilarious was actually the fact that there was a ton of continuity.
And, in its fourth season, exactly 30 years ago, on September 23, 1992, Seinfeld delivered the first part in a brilliant two-part episode that’s probably less celebrated than it should be. As a pair “The Wallet” and “The Watch” represent some of Larry David’s finest writing on Seinfeld, and it’s all just as funny now as it was 30 years ago.
If you look through various top 10 and top 20 lists of Seinfeld episodes, you’ll almost always expect to see long-praised classics like “The Contest,” or “The Soup Nazi,” or “The Chinese Restaurant.” In 2021, Variety’s list “The 20 Best ‘Seinfeld’ Episodes, Ranked,” mentioned all three of those, but didn’t even bother ranking “The Wallet” or “The Watch.” The data-driven IMDB ranking of the episodes includes other bangers like “The Marine Biologist” or “The Frogger,” but also leaves out “The Wallet.” The excellent list from 2022 over at IndieWire includes “The Junior Mint” and “The Bizzaro Jerry,” but also excludes “The Wallet” and “The Watch.” Here at Fatherly, WE didn’t even include “The Wallet!” on our Netflix must-binge list!
So, when I say “The Wallet” and its sequel, “The Watch,” are underrated Seinfeld episodes, I’m not just saying it for fun. This two-part classic literally is not often rated as highly as it should be. Without getting into the plot (or plots) there’s one reason right off the bat that this episode should be on everyone’s best-of-Seinfeld lists: Elaine’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) prank that leads to one of her all-time greatest entrances on the show, ever.
Elaine’s Seinfeld return
As George, Kramer, and Jerry discuss Cuban cigars, Jerry’s parents, and George’s questionable negotiation techniques, a buzzer sounds and a muffled voice says, “Federal Express.” Against Kramer’s suggestion that all home delivery “isn’t safe,” Jerry buzzes up the delivery person. A few more minutes pass, and then there’s a knock at the door and, again, the words “Federal Express.” Jerry opens the door, and it’s Elaine! She’s pranked them and the entire cast does this insane hugging dance. It’s absurd and it shouldn’t work and it’s totally delightful. Behind the scenes, “The Wallet” signaled Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s return to Seinfeld after having minimal involvement at the end of the third season. IRL, Louis-Dreyfus was pregnant, so Elaine was mostly absent for the beginning of Season 4, but here, in episode 5, she’s back!
Okay, so right there, with that scene alone, the argument could be made that this episode is underrated. But it gets much better. Unlike some of the more over-the-top episodes of the later seasons (“Kenny Rogers Roaster,” “Frogger,” et al.) “The Wallet” occurs in Season 4, where we are smack-dab in the middle of the Larry David writing heyday. Infamously, although he co-created Seinfeld with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David left the series after Season 7, which, arguably is why you have slightly less grounded episodes in Season 8. And, if you watch Season 4, and specifically this pair of episodes, you can see David’s approach is actually quite different than where the series ended up. (If you’re curious about how all of this played out, read the fantastic book Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.)
The show about nothing in the show about nothing
Although a large part of “The Wallet” and the “The Watch” revolves around Jerry’s father Morty (Barny Martin) losing his wallet, and Jerry trying to pretend like a watch he threw away is really just out for repairs, perhaps the most hilarious thing about this pair of episodes is the meta-fictional storyline of George trying to get he and Jerry more money for their sitcom pilot, but turning down a perfectly good offer. The idea that George and Jerry have written a show about nothing and are hoping NBC picks up the show is one of the most hilarious hall-of-mirrors in all of Seinfeld. Because George Costanza (Jason Alexander) was a cipher for Larry David, the concept of these two trying to create their own TV series inside of the exact TV series we’re watching is beyond brilliant. This idea is so funny that Larry David has revisited it several times in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
But perhaps what makes the series pitch in Seinfeld so great is that in “The Wallet,” George basically sabotages everything by passing on a $13,000-dollar development deal. In real life, Seinfeld and David only got $25,000 to develop “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” and that deal was tense, too. So again, all of this was pretty close to reality, which is probably why it’s so damn funny.
The everyday gags
When you look at Seinfeld’s popularity, the episodes that make the biggest impressions are, again, the ones that are larger-than-life. But, if you think about Seinfeld’s general appeal, it’s the smaller, everyday gags that really are the soul of the show. And it’s here where “The Wallet” and “The Watch,” shine. Jerry’s complex series of lies is simply because he can’t admit to his parents that he threw a watch they gifted him into the trash. Elaine can’t break up with her psychologist boyfriend because he seems to have a way of talking people out of things; which, works on Kramer, too. Jerry’s dad is obsessed with having to wait too long at the doctor’s office and hates the sound of velcro. Nothingness truly abounds in this episode, and it’s glorious.
Where Larry David’s writing really takes off in these two episodes though is in the twists; Uncle Leo picked up the discarded watch, and while Jerry attempts to replace his father’s wallet as a gift, the existence of velcro on the wallet, means Morty throws it in the trash, not knowing his son slipped $400 dollars in the wallet. Jerry is basically a good person. George is essentially right to ask for more money but does it the wrong way. Elaine does need to get out of the relationship, and Kramer is a good friend for trying to help her concoct a lie to make that happen.
None of these things are unrealistic per se, even if the way in which the events are connected is obviously contrived. So often, what makes Curb and Seinfeld great is when the joke is simply that two unrelated things are, in fact, connected.
There’s a beautiful simplicity to the tangled web of Seinfeld, and in “The Wallet,” and “The Watch,” this grounded approach made for absolutely classic TV.
You can stream Seinfeld on Netflix.
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