‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.
“This was a complete waste of time.”
Seinfeld was always a show about nothing, and characters that loved tearing open the carcasses of nothing and bathing in nothing’s blood. But there were particular episodes, “The Parking Garage” being one of them, that highlighted all of this as they were built around literal slices of life rather than just certain conversations or set pieces.
“The Parking Garage” is truly an episode about nothing though, as the gang talks and walks in circles for the entire span of the episode (which impressively also passes over in real-time), epitomizing realism and monotony even better than the previous attempt at this sort of thing in season two’s “The Chinese Restaurant” (which, you might forget, does not include Kramer). The plot of this episode is absolutely the perfect context and use of a bottle episode, with the results even ditching Jerry’s famous apartment set for the episode (something that only happened in four episodes out of the 180 that were produced). Instead, things are set in the parking garage of a mall – the hub of nothing and meaninglessness – what’s more “nothing” than that?
The real brilliance here, just like in “The Chinese Restaurant,” is that this episode doesn’t appear to be anything special when it starts. We open on a number of low stakes, minutiae-embracing plots being introduced amongst the gang (George has to get to his parents in time, Kramer is lugging an air conditioner, Elaine bought fish, and Jerry has to go pee) as they try to get back to their car in the parking garage. This feels like Seinfeld as usual, and soon we’ll be at the comfort of Jerry’s apartment and get all of this moving. Until, it’s dawned on Jerry and the gang, as well as the audience, that these guys don’t remember where their car is (something we’ve all been through) and that – oh no, they’re not going anywhere – this entire episode is going to be them trying to figure out where they parked.
There’s in fact a lot of effort and craftsmanship going into what appears to be such a minimalistic non-story. All of the passive searching to retrieve their vehicle actually feels engaging and effortless, which is a real feat. It’s almost like their search is for a story. None of their plots can activate until they get back in that vehicle, but here the search is turned into a wonderful story in itself. Early on the comment is raised, “Why do I always get the feeling that someone is doing something better than me on Saturday afternoons?” The audience can’t help but feel that any other sort of plot might be more entertaining than this one, but it turns out to be one of the best episodes that Seinfeld ever produced.
A lot of this effort came in the form of the episode’s production aspects. This wasn’t a real parking garage that was being used (go figure), so entirely new sets had to be made, and along with the use of cleverly positioned mirrors, the garage gained its depth and scope. It works though, and there’s definitely a feeling of claustrophobia still happening in this big labyrinth of a space. Michael Richards insisted his box be weighted to the actual weight of an air conditioner for realism, Jerry and Julia had to have their makeup done as they had to lie on the ground of the garage set, as shooting became so lengthy and space became an issue. Or there’s even the well-documented happy fluke of the car not starting at the end of the episode. It was an old car, and it was supposed to start (you can still manage to see Jason Alexander laughing at the accident), but it was decided that this was a much more perfect ending; and it is. Conditions were more unusual than normal for this episode.
All of this became quite an arduous process, as the episode’s filming had to keep being stopped to reverse the set and reconstruct it so it appeared different. No one even knew what the completed episode was going to look like, due to the unusual setups they were working with, director Tom Cherones explained. The dismantling of Jerry’s apartment sets alone proved to be more expensive an operation than anticipated. This all seems like such a simple episode when in fact it was one of the most complex and production-heavy ones to date. (Again, kind of defeating the purpose of the assumedly “simple” bottle episodes.) This episode is all about hiding this effort and artifice, something Seinfeld was already constantly doing with its seemingly simplistic dialogue that actually spoke volumes on the plot and what was going on.
While a technical feat and triumph of writing, “The Parking Garage” actually has a lot to say at the same time on economic and “Peter Pan” issues too, which isn’t really the point, but is still there to be absorbed. The episode really opens the can of worms that everyone is just a monster, and so why should these people want to “grow up” and escape the parking garage? The idea is presented that it’s also not just our cast – these resident cynics – that are rejecting humanity, but everyone in the parking garage is doing this. With some even failing to help a defenseless, cute, floundering fish.
When Elaine plods someone for an answer as to why he doesn’t want to help her, his only response is, “I don’t know,” as he abandons her. People selfishly park haphazardly across three parking spaces as if the rules don’t apply to society. The lone act of kindness that the gang receives in the episode is almost immediately countered with that person freaking out and perhaps being the most irrational of all. David might think that humanity is the worst, and so there’s nothing quite like being trapped in a parking garage with the derelicts of society and those that willingly urinate within shadowed corners.
Partway through the episode, George moans, “What’s the difference? We’ll all be dead eventually…” and that feels pretty emblematic of this entry. Whether your bottle is a parking garage, Chinese restaurant, or car dealership, does it really make any difference where you’re trapped? These characters, and humanity in general, are so well defined and reductive that wherever these people were trapped, they’d end up turning to the same discussions and more or less falling upon equivalencies of their problems. It’s fate. It’s what we’re doomed to repeat (and Seinfeld has always been a show about being trapped in a purgatory of other people and emotions, whether you viewed it through that lens or not). George compares their situation to being trapped in some experiment. At other times he’s comparing it to a science-fiction film. The bottle is irrelevant, it’s the people inside it that matter, and in a show like Seinfeld where the human condition is so fundamental, the results are extremely satisfying and natural.
Y’know, kind of like the opposite of holding in your heavy bladder for twenty-two minutes.