Elaine Benes (or at least the concept of a female lead) was the one firm note NBC had for Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld when they moved from a pilot to a series, and in this one instance, the network was right. As played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elaine was indispensable to Seinfeld. Speaking for the DVD release in the early 2000s, Jerry described her as “the pearl that smoothed over all this…rough, kind of low-minded behavior of the other three characters,” and quoted David as saying, “She gives the show luster.” But it wasn’t a luster that would survive David’s departure.
In the earliest days of Seinfeld, Elaine’s role wasn’t much more than “the girl.” She wasn’t completely devoid of comic material, but as Jerry’s ex-turned-pal, it wasn’t rare in the first few shows for her to end up as the tag-along to her platonic boyfriend’s meaningless outings. The character was a while in developing (to Dreyfus’s frustration), but soon enough, she had her own firm identity. Elaine Benes was the only non-native New Yorker of the foursome. Born in Maryland, the product of finishing school and Tufts University, she held down an editing career at Pendant Publishing while her friends loafed, mooched, or failed. Her personal style ranged from jeans or floral dresses with big white socks in casual settings to business and formal wear that looked back to the 1940s, always with a slight bouffant.
With this classy look came a pretense of good citizenship. In early seasons, Elaine was very outspoken about her opposition to real fur, tuna that wasn’t dolphin safe, and a failure to recycle. A potential relationship with Keith Hernandez fell apart over his smoking. Elaine’s the one who first volunteered with senior citizens in “The Old Man” (and wouldn’t shut up about how good it made her feel about herself). She was proud to be the “best man” in a lesbian wedding, held a seat on the Goodwill benefit committee, and enlisted Jerry, and later Kramer (Michael Richards) for a charity bachelor auction in “The Barber.” Put against a hipster doofus, a perpetual loser, and a comedian dead to sentimentality, Elaine gave every appearance of being an elegant and responsible woman ticking every box on the “good progressive New Yorker” checklist.
It was an appearance that was inevitably tarnished once the events of any given episode got underway. Without fail, Elaine proved herself every bit as neurotic and self-absorbed as the three boys. Her charitable efforts fell apart, sometimes through the same well-meaning faux pas that would trip up George (Jason Alexander), but also through her superficiality. That volunteer work in “The Old Man?” Fine in theory, but how could they expect Elaine to put up with a woman with a giant goiter on the side of her neck? This concern for appearances poisoned her love life as well, with Elaine admitting to Jerry once that she couldn’t date anyone unattractive. For all the times she turned her nose up at Jerry and George’s shallow and pathetic excuses to end relationships, she had no shortage of pet peeves and attitude problems that screwed up her dates even without issues over looks. Elaine was also impulsive and hot-tempered, a combination that led to such comic hits as stealing all the toilet paper out of the ladies’ room for revenge and ripping the toupée off George’s head to toss it out the window.
While treated in matter-of-fact fashion, this characterization of Elaine provided a solid and appealing dynamic among the main cast: while three of them wore what they were on their sleeves (or at least couldn’t pretend otherwise), she maintained a superficial veneer of proper society that held up just long enough to make for hilarity when it washed away. The contrast was accentuated by Dreyfus’s acting choices; in earlier seasons, Elaine was often perky, bubbly, even playful and cute with her friends, and pleasant in public…until her neuroses got in the way. This wasn’t someone putting on airs; she really believed she was a good person, and could therefore plausibly fail to realize she wasn’t any better than Jerry, George, and Kramer week after week.
Almost all of this was gone by the end of the series. In later seasons, 8 and 9 especially, Elaine was a changed woman, so changed that in my earliest memories of watching the show (which, admittedly, was when my mother had it on after I got home from grade school) I wondered if it was the same actress playing her. In these years, Elaine shed the vintage suits, the big white socks, and the half-up hairdo. Retro was out, curls worn down and then-modern business suits were in. But what she gained in ‘90s chic, she lost in any pretense of civic responsibility. There was no more concern for recycling, no more stabs at charitable efforts, and no more perky, cutesy demeanor. Instead, there was an openly cynical and bitter human being. Despite winning an editing position with the J. Peterman Company – even running it for a brief time – Elaine was unhappy in her work and her personal life. She finally managed a long-term relationship with David Puddy (Patrick Warburton), but she didn’t like him very much, and she was outspoken in her disdain for her circle of friends.
To some extent, this was a natural evolution; except, arguably, for Kramer, all the cast became more selfish and unhappy as the series went on. But it was partly a consequence of Larry David leaving the show after Season 7. Speaking about “The Bizarro Jerry” episode of Season 8 for the DVD, writer David Mandel acknowledged that “if you look a little bit at how I think we wrote Elaine after Larry left, there was a real sense of her always trying to look beyond.” This notion of her seeking a way out of the foursome created a new contrast between her and the boys; for all their misery, they were more or less content to be where they were, and she wasn’t. And with Seinfeld taking a turn toward more surreal physical comedy in the last two seasons, Elaine’s cynicism injected some acerbic bite into a sillier period of the show.
But the cost of this shift was the contrast within the character. Elaine no longer had a self-image to be punctured; she knew she was miserable in the eighth and ninth seasons, and she seemed to know she wasn’t a good person; her storyline in “The Chicken Roaster” saw her treating the Peterman expense account as her own private line of credit without thought. Pulling her in this direction also created some redundancy among the main cast. There was already a miserable white-collar worker who felt screwed over by life; that was George. There was already a detached, deadpan observer ready to cut down anyone; that was Jerry. Elaine escaped having to double up on any of Kramer’s traits, but in becoming so much more like the other two, nearly every quality that distinguished her except her gender was shed. A desire for escape wasn’t a strong enough replacement to make up for that, and the degree of disenchantment with her life made it hard to believe Elaine wouldn’t just leave. Life on her own might be full of neurotic and self-defeating episodes, but why should she keep coming by Jerry’s apartment to get involved with three schmucks she wanted to get away from? Seinfeld wasn’t the first or the last sitcom to take shots at its group dynamic in later seasons, and I’ve yet to see the show where that instinct didn’t weaken or critically damage the premise behind the main cast being together. With how far Elaine was pushed, it’s a credit to the writers’ talent that the recharacterization didn’t wreak full-blown havoc.
I can’t say these changes didn’t have their rewards. “The Bizarro Jerry” is one of the best episodes in Seinfeld’s run, and Elaine’s seizing an opportunity for another circle of friends made for a great one-time storyline. While everyone remembers late-series Elaine for “The Little Kicks,” funnier to me in that episode was her misreading George’s effect on her staff, the constant insults she cooks up while trying to keep him away, and the physical altercation she gets into with George’s father Frank (Jerry Stiller) at the police station. The unstable but persistent romance with Puddy was a fresh area for Dreyfus to play to (and gave Warburton plenty of space to bring the house down). But Puddy was the exception; the rest of the changes to Elaine worked for this or that individual episode, but they didn’t allow for the same sort of sustainable character and superficially lustrous distinction that the earlier conception of Elaine gave the series. It wasn’t a fatal blow to her or to Seinfeld, but in revisiting the show now, that luster is missed in the final innings.