Seinfeld

Guests: John O'Hurley, Rick Hall, Brent Hinkley, Julia Pennington, Arabella Field, Jim Fowler, Wayne Wilderson.

With:
Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander. With: Wayne Knight.

Guests: John O’Hurley, Rick Hall, Brent Hinkley, Julia Pennington, Arabella Field, Jim Fowler, Wayne Wilderson.

After stumbling through the first month of its ninth season, the Powers That Be at “Seinfeld” have suggested in interviews that the powerhouse comedy would be back on track with tonight’s “Merv Griffin Show.” While the characters of Kramer and Newman zoom into a pole position for spinoffs, the rest of this once-glorious comedy still has the schtick-shift stuck in second gear.

Having raised the bar to stratospheric heights — is there another show that has added new phrases to the American lexicon year after year after year? — it feels like a dog’s age since the last multiplot show clicked on every cylinder (specifically “The Pothole” episode in which George Costanza loses his Phil Rizzuto key chain).

The central premise here is brilliant: Kramer (Michael Richards) finds the set of “The Merv Griffin Show” in the trash, reassembles it in his apartment and runs his life as a talkshow.

Kramer’s “guests” — Seinfeld, Costanza (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and animal expert Jim Fowler — mix it up well, following Kramer’s lead and then fighting against the bizarre logic of the whole concept; when Kramer refashions the show for a younger demo, results are a little obvious , yet well executed.

In other plots, Seinfeld’s dilemma is how to get new girlfriend Celia (Julia Pennington) to let him play with her mint collection of toys from the 1950s and ’60s. It has its moments. Elaine is haunted by a “sidler,” new employee Walter (Wayne Wilderson) who wreaks havoc by quietly attaching himself to her dealings with the boss. It gets old quickly.

Meanwhile, George is doing battle with the agreement between wild animals and motor vehicles to always get out the way; when the critters don’t comply, George runs into female trouble with current date Miranda (Arabella Field). It’s all too obvious.

In its quest to be about nothing, “Seinfeld” writers have stretched the tangents too far. The conversations don’t have the logical randomness that defined the show in its earlier days when Kramer was the curious interruption to the neuroses of George and Jerry, two characters who have drifted into a meandering void. They lack purpose — George’s run-ins with current and potential employers have been among the show’s prime moments — and their dialogue is more comic one-upsmanship than a means to propel a storyline.

Ratings are stronger than ever, suggesting the American public likes what it knows rather than vice-versa. If “Seinfeld” ends this year, it might well be on a whimper, no longer fodder for the water cooler and described thus by its longtime fans: “It was a great show that poked fun at all things urban and yuppie and then yadda, yadda, yadda, it was off the air.”

Seinfeld

Thurs. (6), 9-9:30 p.m., NBC

Production: THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW (Thurs. (6), 9-9:30 p.m., NBC) Filmed in Los Angeles and New York by West/Shapiro in association with Castle Rock Entertainment. Executive producers, Alec Berg, Jeff Schaffer, Jerry Seinfeld, George Shapiro, Howard West; co-executive producers, Gregg Kavet, Andy Robin; co-producer, Jennifer Crittenden, Steve Koren, producers, Andy Ackerman, Tim Kaiser, Suzy Mamann Greenberg. Director, Ackerman; writer, Bruce Eric Kaplan; director of photography, Wayne Kennan; production designer, Tho. E. Azzari.

Crew: Editor, Skip Collector; music, Jonathan Wolff; casting, Lieberman/Hirschfeld.

Cast: Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander. With: Wayne Knight.With: Wayne Knight. Guests: John O'Hurley, Rick Hall, Brent Hinkley, Julia Pennington, Arabella Field, Jim Fowler, Wayne Wilderson. Director of photography, Wayne Kennan; production designer, Tho. E. Azzari; editor, Skip Collector; music, Jonathan Wolff; casting, Lieberman/Hirschfeld.

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