52. "The Hamptons," Seinfeld (1994)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 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.
Field trip episodes, in which sitcom characters get a vacation from their usual soundstage sets, tend not to be very good, as Alan Sepinwall pointed out in his review of the "Dude Ranch" episode of Modern Family. ("You got the sense that everyone was so excited to go to such a beautiful location that not as much effort was put into making this as strong an outing as possible.") But Seinfeld has some great off-site episodes, and I think one reason is that the characters are stuck in spaces just as cramped as they are in New York.
There are the episodes set in the Florida retirement village, where Jerry's parents live — topped by "The Pen," in which Elaine is tortured by a sofa bed and Jerry gets two black eyes from going scuba diving. "The Bubble Boy" isn't any more relaxing: A trip to the great outdoors has Jerry and Elaine stuck in a crummy diner and George playing Trivial Pursuit with the title character, an obnoxious, hyper-allergic teen who can't go outside his house. Somehow, the walls seem to close in on the characters whenever they leave crowded Manhattan, even in the series finale. (By contrast, the California episodes at the beginning of season four have more exterior scenes and aren't quite as funny.)
"The Hamptons" takes place at a beach house with a lot of rooms and no privacy. Once again, the Seinfeld characters leave the big city only to spend much of their time gawking at each other. Sometimes it's enjoyable, as when George's girlfriend walks around topless. Sometimes it's horrifying, as with the thankfully off-camera baby of the friends who own the house. ("I promise you, you have never seen anything so objectionable in your life," Jerry warns his girlfriend.)
Jerry: (about topless Jane) George hasn't even seen her yet.
Elaine: Why do you think we're getting a sneak preview?
Kramer: Maybe she's trying to create a buzz.
Kramer: You know, get some good word-of-mouth going.
But "The Hamptons" is best known for Jerry's girlfriend getting a peek of naked George after he's just come back from a swim and is suffering from "shrinkage." George's horror at Rachel's nervous giggling is funny, but the episode peaks (as is often the case) with Elaine's reaction to the incident.
Jerry: Elaine, do women know about shrinkage?
Elaine: What do you mean? Like laundry?
Jerry: No, like when a man goes swimming afterwards.
Elaine: (realizing) It shrinks?
Jerry: Like a frightened turtle!
Elaine: Why does it shrink?
George: It just does.
Elaine: I don't know how you guys walk around with those things.
What makes this episode stand out is the contrast between the characters' usual certainty about social convention (George insists that he deserves to see Jerry's girlfriend topless out of reciprocity) and the confusion over about something as fundamental as the workings of the human body. Jerry and company are never able to relate to other people as anything more than threats to their self-image — George sees a violation of Rachel's religious principles as insignificant compared to her crime of thinking he has a small dick — and it's kind of reassuring to see that a change of scenery does them no good whatsoever.
•George's takes revenge against Jerry’s shellfish-avoiding Jewish girlfriend by tricking her into eating lobster. This foreshadows the many religiously irreverent plots on Larry David's follow-up series Curb Your Enthusiasm. (See "The Ski Lift.")
•Kramer's storyline has him poaching from lobstermen's traps to get the delicious crustaceans that later become important to the main plot. The Economics of Seinfeld blog says that the episode "highlights the wedge between individual incentives and optimal social outcomes." I'm not sure I need a philosophical explanation for Kramer acting like a 4-year-old.
•The A.V. Club's David Sims feels for George: "One imagines that no matter what the size of his penis, as long as it’s around average, he’s automatically proud of it, given his shortcomings in so many other areas.... I completely forgive him for putting lobsters in the scrambled eggs."
•The "shrinkage" scene is here.