Friday, March 25, 2011


I can’t tell you how surprising it was.

I’m watching Seinfeld. It’s, I don’t know, the last or nearly the last episode of the season. Jerry’s searching for something in the couch in his apartment. He lifts up a pillow and discovers a man’s wallet.

I, the viewer, explode into hysterics. This is a rarity. I am laughing uncontrollably at something on television. Tears are literally rolling down my cheeks.

Why? Because of the thoroughly unexpected surprise of that moment. You see, earlier that season, Jerry’s Dad had lost his wallet. (He insisted it was stolen during a medical office visit.) And now, many episodes later,

The wallet is back!

It was gone. It remained unmentioned. And now, there it was. The “Missing Wallet” mystery had been solved!

Why is this moment so deliciously special? (By the way, I was asked why I like Seinfeld so much by a reader who doesn’t. It’s a tough one to fully and accurately explain. But maybe I’ll try sometime.)

The moment is special, because it’s incredibly rare for a situation comedy – unless it employs a “continuing story” format – to refer back to anything that happened on an earlier episode. It almost never happens.

TV series have amnesia about the past. (Like it’s possible to have amnesia about the future.) It’s like “Groundhog Day”, not in that the exact same thing happens over and over, but in that whatever happens in one episode is entirely forgotten in the next episode and, for that matter, forever. It’s like someone living entirely in the current moment. In real life, this is a diagnosable illness. In TV, it’s “business as usual.”

Please excuse me for using a thirty year-old example, but I’m not knowledgeable enough about new shows to pick a more recent one, though I’m pretty sure the “Amnesia” issue continues to apply.

In every episode of Three’s Company, the engine of the plot involved a hilarious misunderstanding. And yet, despite this seemingly endless series of accidental confusions, the “misunderstander” never stops to think,

“It occurs to me that I have a habit of misunderstanding things I accidentally overhear. Maybe I should take a moment to make sure that I didn’t misconstrue the context and meaning of what I accidentally overheard this time.”

Three’s Company enthusiasts will attest to the fact that thoughts of this nature never come to the character’s mind. Not only because if the misunderstanding is cleared up, Three’s Company’s “comedy engine” would be terminally disabled, but because, in order for the story to play out, the characters must have no memory that a similar – dare I say identical – situation has ever occurred in the past. When, in fact, it occurs




Well, you know, comedy’s fluff, and what are you gonna do? But this happens in dramas as well. Most egregiously in my favorite form of entertainment, the old western series, and most egregiously in the longest-running western series of them all, Gunsmoke.

Listen to this.

Gunsmoke ran for twenty seasons. Now let’s say that during the average Gunsmoke season, they filmed twenty-six episodes. I imagine they actually did more at the beginning of the show’s run, and, maybe, they did less of them later. But let’s say, twenty-six episodes, on average.

In the course of those twenty-six episodes – and I’m not exaggerating for comic effect here; I don’t have to, because it’s true – Gunsmoke’s hero, Marshal Matt Dillon, got shot at least four times per season. Nothing fatal, because, you know, he’s the star of the show. But the bullets went in, and, unless they just grazed his skull, they needed to be dug out.

Think about that. The man received four gunshot wounds per season. And, frequently, more. I recall once, Marshal Dillon was actually shot four times in a single episode. I mean, you know, it wasn’t like it was an hour show and the marshal got shot every fifteen minutes.

“Come on! I just barely got patched up from the last one!”

What happened was, there was an ambush, and the lawman caught four slugs in the ensuing melee. That one was “touch and go”, as I recall. A couple of bullets came out easy, but the other two were really in there. Fortunately, “Doc” knew his business, and he pulled the marshal through.

As I said, Matt Dillon getting shot was hardly an unusual occurrence. A couple of episodes later, the marshal’s doing his “rounds”, and before you can “Duck!”, he’s back on the operating table.

Let’s do the math here. Let’s say that, instead of twenty years of episodes times twenty-six episodes per year – that’s five hundred and twenty episodes – there were only four hundred episodes, and the marshal took a bullet every fifth episode. That means –are you ready for this – that during Gunsmoke’s entire run, Marshal Matt Dillon was shot

Eighty times.

The man took eighty bullets. That’s a boatload of punishment. I mean, you’d think there’d be very little of him left. And yet, every week, there he was, looking hale and hardy, especially for a man who’d endured over six dozen gunshot wounds.

That’s series television. Not only does your mind forget what happened before, your body does too. Despite the severe injury visited upon it, you come back the next week, and it’s like,

“Me, shot eighty times? That’s funny. I feel just fine.”

Maybe that’s why TV is so popular. In real life, if you’d been shot even...three times, you wouldn’t be feeling so good. You’d get twinges when it rained. On TV, on the other hand, it’s tabula rasa. The mutilations of the past are erased, and it’s on to the next bullet hole in the leg, shoulder, or abdominal area.

Or the next outrageous misunderstanding.

That’s why a discovered wallet is so utterly amazing.

A show with a memory.

It’s unforgettable.


Announcement: Next week we are going to this health spa that we go to in Mexico. I'm taking a laptop, and I hope to write stuff from there. But I may not be able to. I may mess up technologically , or forget a cord, or maybe Mexico may have different electricity, or Mexican drug gangs may invade the premises, seeking gluten free heroin. Anything is possible.

I've already posted one thing for Monday, so at least there's one thing. Hopefully, there's be more. Otherwise, it's Spring Break, and I will see you April the Fourth.

Hasta la vista.


Mac said...

The lost wallet is a gem - it's the balls of it -
"You won't get this if you're new to the show, but we don't care."
Have fun in Mexico.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

That is a point to ponder, the short memories of shows. A shame, because the loyal viewers appreciate the inside jokes that are carried over from another episode.

In the last episode of Cheers, there's a phone call between Diane and Sam. They're both lying about their lives as they catch up with each other.

When Sam said his hair was "thicker than ever," that line got a great laugh. Why? Was the line that funny? Nope, but the audience got the inside joke.

Three or four episodes before, Sam had revealed something to Carla which he had never told anybody else. He wore a hairpiece, and the audience remembered that during the last episode. Of course, the audience for the last show was filled with insiders.

Sam's remark about thicker-than-ever hair is the longest memory I can recall for a tv show.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I always think of that show with Balky and his cousin. They did not only make the same mistake of acting before thinking every week... they also learned their lesson almost every week and vowed in an emotional scene to never do it again. Until the next week.

Brian H said...

My Seinfeld callback moment was George, in the hand modeling episode, spilling that he has won The Contest.

That's gold.

Johnny Walker said...

I always felt frustrated by The X-Files for this exact reason. Scully had witnessed more paranormal activity than the most fervent believer, but still she remained a sceptic. (I think they finally gave her a little leeway in later seasons, but I'd long stopped watching.)

I kept thinking, "Well there you go, proof! You can't ignore that!". And then next episode she'd be like, "I don't know how you can believe in this sort of nonsense, Mulder."

When I found Buffy it was a revelation because it actually bothered to tell a story across the season. Characters changed over the years, actually grew up and went through things that altered them. It was incredible.

Anyways, great blogpost!

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