76. "The Rye," Seinfeld (1996)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
The principal characters on Seinfeld don't care much about other people, but they sure care about what people think of them. In "The Rye," George Costanza goes to extremes to look good in front of his fiancée, whom he's deeply ambivalent about marrying, and her parents, who regard everyone with indifference or contempt. As usual, he's most determined when he's doing something absolutely futile.
"The Rye," written by Carol Leifer, may not be the favorite episode of more-obsessive Seinfeld fans, but it works well as a stand-alone entry. You don't need to have seen George, Susan, and their respective parents before to appreciate the horror of their dinner party. (Estelle Costanza: "Merlot? I never heard of it. Did they just invent it?")
Mrs. Ross: Is it possible they took it back?
Susan: Who would bring a bread and take it back?
Mr. Ross: Those people, that's who. I think they're sick.
Upon finding out what happened, George immediately decides that he must sneak an identical loaf of bread back into the Rosses' house. This doesn't make a lot of sense — the Rosses aren't that stupid, and why even bother to suck up to such impossible-to-please people? But George can't tolerate the thought that anyone would associate him with his boorish parents, and replacing the rye is a measured response in comparison with impaling his father on a Festivus pole.
Jerry ends up with the task of procuring a new marble rye, but an old woman in front of him at Schnitzel's gets the last one. He unsuccessfully tries to buy it from her, in what may be Seinfeld's most impassioned moment of the entire series. Again, you have to understand big cities: Going out to buy a specific food item and not returning with it is about the most emasculating experience a New Yorker can have (far worse than handing your wallet to a mugger). It's like turning back after getting within a few feet of the top of Mount Everest. So Jerry has no choice but to wrestle the bread away from the woman (while yelling, "Shut up, you old bag!") and run off with it.
George's scheme depends on (and, of course, is imperiled by) Kramer's temporary job as a hansom cab driver. Meanwhile, Elaine is dating a jazz musician whose sexual repertoire isn't as expansive as she'd like — which has nothing to do with the marble rye story but is a nice little tale of neurotic behavior.
Because Seinfeld reruns still make money in syndication (stop watching it!), it's tough to find whole episodes in streaming video, but here are a couple of "Rye" highlights (the entire Jerry vs. old lady scene is here):