Critic’s Notebook: 12 Must-See ‘Seinfeld’ Episodes

At a time when even the buzziest shows seem to come and go in the blink of an eye, there’s something to be said for shows that never seem to go away. Twenty-three years after its finale (and 32 years after its premiere), Seinfeld remains deeply embedded in pop culture — not just as an influence on the shows that followed, or as a fountain of iconic quotes, but also as a still-beloved staple of streaming and cable reruns.

Case in point: Its debut on Netflix arrives with more fanfare than most of Netflix’s new shows receive. But with nearly 200 episodes, it can be hard to know where to jump in first now that it’s all at your fingertips. (Surely not with that awkward, Elaine-less first episode, “The Seinfeld Chronicles”?) So here’s a chronological list of 12 episodes to watch now, whether you’re getting ready to mouth along with lines you’ve heard a million times before, or digging in for the very first time.

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“The Chinese Restaurant” (Season 2, Episode 11)

Seinfeld‘s wry sense of humor shines through from the start, and even the weakest of the early episodes are good for some laughs. But “The Chinese Restaurant” is when the series truly clicks into place as a show about nothing. The entire episode unfolds in real time as Jerry, George and Elaine do nothing more exciting, or more aggravating, than wait for a table that the host (James Hong) has reassured them will be ready in just “five, 10 minutes.” In the end, nothing is learned, nothing is solved, and nothing is accomplished — not even dinner, since the group leaves just seconds before they’re finally called to be seated. With its focus on everyday inconveniences and grumping about social niceties (“We are living in a society!” George barks after someone cuts ahead of him to use the pay phone), “The Chinese Restaurant” is a perfect early example of the quintessential Seinfeld formula.

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Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, Jerry Seinfeld in “The Subway” ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Subway” (Season 3, Episode 13)

Even by Seinfeld standards, “The Subway” is a particularly New York-y episode, plopping all four principals on the 5 train before sending them their separate ways at 42nd Street. From Elaine’s internal screaming as her crowded train gets stuck, to Kramer’s mad dash to try to secure a seat, to Jerry’s inability to stay awake, each of the minor misadventures that follow will have the ring of familiarity to anyone who’s spent much time on the subway — even if most of us haven’t literally had the shirts stolen off our backs, as George does here. Collectively, the episode feels like a multifaceted rumination on what might be the city’s ultimate social compact: Mind your own damn business on the train, or all bets are off.

“The Limo” (Season 3, Episode 19)

Admittedly, “The Limo” hits different in 2021; the idea of George and Jerry finding themselves en route to a rally of armed neo-Nazis doesn’t feel quite as absurd as it might have in 1992. But the episode remains one of Seinfeld‘s most surprising storylines, as Jerry and George’s glee over stealing a stranger’s limo ride transforms into desperation and mortal fear once they realize exactly whose car they’ve planted themselves in. Seinfeld may be most famous for its ability to mine comic gold out of mundane annoyances, but it also excels at building out stranger situations that no ordinary person should ever find themselves in, and “The Limo” is a prime example of the latter.

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Estelle Harris (left) and Jason Alexander in “The Contest” ©Columbia Tristar/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Contest” (Season 4, Episode 11)

Ask any Seinfeld fan to name the best episodes, and there’s a strong chance “The Contest” is up there. Watching it now, the biggest shock is how not all that shocking it is — it’s an entire episode about masturbation that never so much as whispers the word, instead relying on knowing looks and increasingly uproarious euphemisms (“master of my domain”) to move along Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer’s wager on who can abstain the longest. There are episodes that deliver more dramatic twists, more cutting commentary, or wackier premises, but this one is simply Seinfeld firing on all cylinders. From Kramer’s almost instant capitulation, to George’s visceral physical discomfort at his mother’s bedside, “The Contest” packs in more belly laughs per minute than perhaps any episode of Seinfeld — maybe any episode of TV, period — ever made.

“The Dinner Party” (Season 5, Episode 13)

“I just don’t like the idea that any time there’s a dinner invitation, there’s this annoying little chore that goes along with it,” George complains at the start of the episode. Unfortunately for him, Seinfeld is nothing if not a show about those annoying little chores. The actual dinner party barely figures into “The Dinner Party” at all — instead, the plot revolves around the group’s quest to pick up wine and cake on the way. Relatability is key to Seinfeld‘s appeal, and it doesn’t get much more relatable than a simple errand devolving into a low-key hell as each minor crisis begets another. The bakery runs out of one kind of babka, then another; a double-parking situation somehow results in George losing his brand-new Gore-Tex coat. By the end, the quartet are too exhausted to do more than turn around and go back home. Maybe they should’ve stuck with George’s Ring Dings and Pepsi suggestion after all.

“The Hamptons” (Season 5, Episode 21)

If the Seinfeld quartet are rarely very nice to their dates, rest assured that the universe tends to pay them back in kind. “The Hamptons” features a string of events that might amount to George’s greatest sexual humiliation yet, starting with all his friends getting to see his girlfriend topless before he does, and ending with said girlfriend fleeing in the middle of the night after hearing some unflattering information about his penis size. It’s devastating, and it’s also no less than George deserves. Meanwhile, Elaine’s subplot offers up prime physical comedy as each of the characters reacts in exaggerated horror to the sight of their friends’ “breathtaking” newborn baby — as well as some of the show’s finest we’re-all-thinking-it assholery in the group’s collective acknowledgment that, yup, this baby really is that ugly.

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Kathie Lee Gifford, Regis Philbin and Michael Richards in “The Opposite” ©Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Opposite” (Season 5, Episode 22)

“The Opposite” reveals exactly what happens when one of the Seinfeld characters dares upend the delicate balance of the universe. George’s theory that if every instinct he’s ever had has been wrong, the opposite of his instincts must be right, turns out to be exactly true, resulting in a new girlfriend and a new job. But karma demands a George, and so Elaine slips into the role, undone by her own love of Jujyfruits. (In a very funny touch, even this version of Elaine has the power to terrify George.) The world of Seinfeld can sometimes seem like a chaotic one, filled with petty injustices and such unpredictable forces as Kramer. But don’t mistake it for one without order.

“The Fusilli Jerry” (Season 6, Episode 21)

With the acknowledgment that no episode of Seinfeld could ever truly be described as sweet, there is something oddly enchanting about Kramer’s journey in “The Fusilli Jerry.” His mistaken possession of vanity license plates reading “ASSMAN” invites positive reactions from the people around him, reshapes his taste in women, and even rekindles the romance between George’s parents when Frank (Jerry Stiller) believes Kramer has put the moves on Estelle (Estelle Harris). Of course, Kramer also proves indirectly responsible for the horrifying million-to-one mishap that closes the episode, having created the tiny pasta sculpture of Jerry in the first place. (Why fusilli, Jerry asks? “Because you’re silly!”) This is still Seinfeld, after all.

“The Engagement” (Season 7, Episode 1)

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Heidi Swedberg and Jason Alexander in “The Engagement” ©Sony Pictures Television/Courtesy Everett Collection

Seinfeld has never made any bones about the fact that its central characters are awful people, particularly when it comes to dating. “The Engagement” feels like a fun bit of meta commentary on that idea, as George and Jerry themselves realize they’re man-children who regularly dump women for the stupidest of reasons. The pair agree to settle down, but it sticks for only one of them: Jerry is quickly talked out of the idea by Kramer, while George gets himself engaged to Susan (Heidi Swedberg). His elation at his big news lasts only until the realization sets in that Jerry has backed out of the pact, leaving George to navigate coupledom alone. What might pass for growth in real life (or on other shows) is, on Seinfeld, just another reminder that these people aren’t ever going to change — and that deep down, we wouldn’t want them to anyway.

“The Sponge” (Season 7, Episode 9)

Truth be told, the Kramer and Jerry subplots in “The Sponge” aren’t the strongest. But the episode is really Elaine’s time to shine, as she scours the city to stock up on her favorite just-discontinued contraceptive sponges, and then spends the rest of the episode trying to determine the best use of her scarce resources. This is another Seinfeld episode that gave rise to a popular phrase — “spongeworthy” — to describe a familiar dilemma on the modern dating scene, and her businesslike negotiation with her date Billy (Scott Patterson) is Elaine at her most ruthlessly, comically pragmatic.

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Heidi Swedberg, Jason Alexander and Sue Goodman in “The Invitations” ©Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Invitations” (Season 7, Episode 24)

Seinfeld remained committed to its “no hugging, no learning” mantra across all nine seasons, even through story arcs that on most shows would seem to warrant at least a little hugging and learning — like in “The Invitations,” which is about as dark as Seinfeld gets. After an entire season of George squirming through an engagement he never wanted, the relationship ends in the most outrageous way imaginable when Susan simply drops dead as a result of the toxic glue on the cheap wedding invitations George selected. The group’s response? They mutter some condolences, shrug off the tragedy and go get coffee. It’s Seinfeld‘s callousness pushed to its absolute limit, and it’s hard to say if it’s more hilarious or horrifying.

“The Strike” (Season 9, Episode 10)

“The Strike” is a wildly entertaining episode of Seinfeld on its own merits, what with Kramer’s failed attempts to get back to work after a 12-year strike and George’s scheme to get out of Christmas gift-giving by donating to a made-up organization called The Human Fund (“Money for people!”). But it’s also one of the most enduring examples of the show’s outsize impact on pop culture, as Festivus has taken on a life of its own in the years since this episode aired. Appropriately for Seinfeld, it’s a holiday built not around love and laughter, but around unpleasant traditions like the Airing of Grievances and the Feats of Strength. Which is touching, in its own way. As Jerry Stiller’s Frank says, it’s a holiday for the rest of us — those Seinfeld fans who love the show for its resolute unsentimentality and treasure the excuse to celebrate with the Costanzas once a year.

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