I love Seinfeld. I think it's possibly the greatest, most creative, and daring network show of all time. It's one of the very rare shows, especially sitcoms, that ran for nearly a decade and doesn't have an outright bad episode. But if you go back to the ninth episode of the fifth season, they hit a bit of a stumble. If you are to watch the episode titled "The Masseuse" now, you will no doubt cringe quite a bit. And not the good cringe that Larry David mastered throughout the series and then took to new heights with Curb Your Enthusiasm later on. No, this is a cringe that in the post-"Me Too" era really makes you feel pretty icky for watching and for it to be something you are intended to laugh at.
Now The Masseuse is not an overall bad episode. The three plots are all funny and very Seinfeld. Jerry dating a masseuse and, despite being fully sexually active with her, feels unfulfilled due to not getting a massage from her. George ignores the adoration of the woman he's dating because he's too obsessed with Jerry's girlfriend Jodi's dislike of him. And Elaine getting her boyfriend to change his name due to it being the same as infamous New York serial killer Joel Rifkin.
Okay, maybe there are two things in this episode that didn't age well as Elaine tries to convince him to change his name to OJ after OJ Simpson, who she says no one would think he's a murderer with that name, while Simpson would go on to be charged with double homicide six months after the episode aired.
Anyway, these situations are all on the money for the selfish, neurotic characters that Seinfeld is still beloved for.
The issue comes in the show's final moments, where Jerry tries to force Jodi into giving him a massage in his apartment and she refuses. Not only does he then physically force her to massage him, but the dialogue hammers home the clear point of view.
Jodi emphatically says "no means no" to Jerry, but he responds with, "look, who are you kidding? You come up to my apartment with your table and your little oils, and I'm not supposed to expect anything? You're a massage teaser!"
Even after Jodi says, "I don't submit to forceable massage!" Jerry grabs her and again tries to force her onto him. It's a pretty low point and a horribly bad move for such an otherwise smart show. Sexual assault is obviously never funny, not then and not now, but to put it in the actions of your main character, whom we're supposed to see things through the eyes of? Yeah, that's not a good feeling.
Seinfeld was and still is groundbreaking because here's a primetime sitcom that was directly taking on some of the most challenging and divisive issues of its (and still now ours) day. One of the best-ever examples is in the episode The Couch, where Kramer gets into a huge argument with a chef over his choice of pizza toppings and when it is a pizza. This is all dressing, and the argument is, of course, actually about abortion, tying it to the rest of the episode. But using an analogy of whether it's a pizza when you put the toppings on it or when it comes out of the oven was a brilliant and hilarious way to reframe the issue in another, admittedly silly, setting.
Again, The Masseuse is not a bad episode or unfunny. There are plenty of "HAHAs" to be found here. But that moment was an ill-advised attempt at humor that someone should've questioned at the time. The line between humor and tragedy can be a murky one, but I tend to think when someone is dehumanized in a way like that, then the humorous aspects are gone.
A lot of line-pushing comedies have these moments that are more clearly evaluated down the road. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have expressed some regret in interviews that a generation of young boys looked at Cartman as a role model instead of as the villain of the show and the worst of mankind. Numerous early episodes of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia have been met with a bit of cringe by its creators on The Always Sunny Podcast, where they go back and analyze their work. Comedy, like people, can and should evolve over time, and what is comedy but someone looking at the world around them and reflecting on it? Just like we know now (well, some of us) that the world is not flat, comedy can evolve in its reflection of the world around us.
The entire series of Seinfeld is available to stream on Netflix.