Why ‘Seinfeld’ still works in the streaming era

by | Jan 13, 2022 | All, Opinions

Thanks to the influx of streaming services, television classics are now available to us more readily and easier than they ever have been, and with it comes the news usually that those very services are willing to pay an arm and a leg to buy those streaming rights. So it was that in 2019 Netflix paid an astronomical $500 million to Sony to procure the exclusive rights to Seinfeld, one of the modern uber classics of American sitcoms.

The series itself has had interesting history on British shores. Airing in the 90s on the BBC, the series never quite caught on in the UK as it did in its homeland where it was arguably the biggest comedy series of the decade, perhaps even bigger and even more important than the juggernauts of Friends and Frasier. Where both those shows found a large audience in Britain thanks to their prime time scheduling on Channel 4 who knew how to make US sitcoms fly commercially in the UK thanks to their famous Friday night scheduling block of comedy (the days before they became more synonymous with things like Big Brother and Come Dine with Me repeats), Seinfeld was the show that many of its fans would have to wait until the end of Newsnight before seeing the latest episodes.

Following the (mis)adventures of its titular character and his three best friends, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s iconic series zeroed in on a lead character that took inspiration from Seinfeld’s real-life career as a stand-up comedian and placed him into an increasingly adventurous sitcom that was famously marketed as the ‘show about nothing’.
If the series wasn’t cutting back to Jerry’s stand-up routine which found inspiration from the episode’s meanderingly creative storylines, then it was following the antics of himself and his best friend George (Jason Alexander) who is frequently found pursuing women more than finding stable employment, ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who flits between likeable and angry in increasingly hilarious ways and has to contend with her own increasingly messy personal life, and neighbour Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), iconic for his grand sliding entrances to Jerry’s apartment and madcap schemes to make money which frequently work…until they don’t.

Watching Seinfeld in 2022 makes for an interesting experience given its iconic stature. It is both a series that justifies the hype and which one is left disappointed at not having viewed during its initial premiere when it was one of the biggest series on the air. It would be so easy to write a piece about how the series has not aged well or how George is awful and the worst character ever, but then that’s completely missing the point. While some of the humour can leave one wincing at how poorly it might have aged, one of the most satisfying things about the series is how it has simultaneously aged brilliantly and maybe not so well at the same time.

Unlike Friends where at one point we were supposed to be charmed by someone like Ross Geller, Seinfeld is a series that never settles into a comforting narrative about its characters learning lessons and who we’re supposed to cheer on. They are, frequently at times, the worst of the worst and so much of the writing revels in that subversive nature that you can’t help but humorously question how the series managed to get away with such a blase attitude to an amoral outlook on life on a mainstream American television network.

It leaves you wondering if NBC ended up commissioning Friends because it gave them a safer New York-apartment dwelling, coffee drinking ensemble equivalent to the more antagonistic portrayal of Seinfeld’s lead characters, where life lessons and hugging were a larger part of the narrative for Central Perk’s most frequent customers.

Where Friends can sometimes come under fire for a multitude of reasons (lack of diversity being the biggest culprit), it occasionally finds itself being criticised for the toxic behaviours of its likeable characters. That’s something you can never level at Seinfeld because that’s part of the joke, and very much came to define the theme of the final episode where karma caught up to them in a conclusion that proved divisive at the time.

The series gets away with Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) Kramer (Michael Richards) and George (Jason Alexander) being terrible, but it can still draw winces at the occasional display of homophobia or George’s moments of gay panic (similar to Chandler Bing) in season three premiere The Note.

The series’ edgier aspects mean that its brand of comedy, as a lot of comedy is prone to, has gone through a strange metamorphosis in how an audience can react to it with the changing of societal norms, but it can also allow episodes with dicey plotting to age in intriguing ways.

Season three’s The Limo sees George and Jerry being mistaken for Nazis when they pretend to be someone else in order to procure a limousine. They spend the episode being driven to what is essentially a white supremacist rally where George is expected to give a keynote speech. Airing in 1992, the idea of a modern form of Nazism being sufficient enough to draw a large appreciative crowd might have seemed preposterous and the episode plays it that way, yet watching the episode today it almost feels like a work of satire making comment on the last few years of American politics which might have seemed an unthinkable prospect when it was first produced in the early 90s.

The series is wickedly enjoyable, but its dark-hearted centre (as dark-hearted as one can get with NBC in the 90s) means that the series doesn’t have the inherent comforting charms of something like Friends or later comedy classics such as Parks and Recreation or The Good Place.

It gives Seinfeld a mighty edge in a way and it makes you love the series even if the viewer isn’t quite falling in love with it, but then Jerry Seinfeld himself and co-creator Larry David perhaps wouldn’t want it any other way.

Like so many American sitcoms that have found their way into iconic status and never-ending popularity with an ability to become social media memes, Seinfeld had a spotty record when it began. Its first season runs for a mere five episodes and feels like a trial run for the ingenuity to follow. In fact, one could argue that for its shortened first season and for a large chunk of its second year, it plays like a more conventional sitcom before finally bursting to life with The Chinese Restaurant towards the end of season two which opens the floodgates for the ingenuity and creative qualities that it would become famous for from season three onwards.

A prime example of the ‘bottle episode’ (when television series set an episode in very few locations with small casts to save money on the production budget), The Chinese Restaurant sees Jerry, Elaine and George wait in line at a Chinese Restaurant for a table and the resulting witty wordplay that follows. It’s the best example of a piece of television where you can see the lightbulb going off for its writers as they realise how to approach their creation going forward.

ESSENTIAL EPISODES:

1. The Chinese Restaurant
Season 2, Episode 11
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
Directed by Tom Cherones
Air Date: May 23rd, 1991

The moment when Seinfeld went from promising to an essential piece of American television comedy. Remarkably, it was an episode that NBC did not want to be produced, and yet sticking to their guns, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld went ahead with the episode and it perhaps dictated the future direction of the series, allowing it to become the prime example of a ‘show about nothing’ and also gave the series a chance to turn the ‘bottle episode’ into its own personal artform.

2. The Parking Garage
Season 3, Episode 6
Written by Larry David
Directed by Tom Cherones
Air Date: October 30th, 1991

Returning to the ‘bottle episode’ format, this time with an even more expansive setting, The Parking Garage is an even stronger episode than The Chinese Restaurant. The third season of the series is the one where Seinfeld clicked into gear beautifully, finding its voice and showing itself to be unafraid to never take risks. Better yet, this is a brilliant example of the show’s meandering qualities, where lessons are never learned, and characters are scarcely developed beyond finding themselves in a scenario and just letting events play in a near-random, and surreally life-like way.

3. The Limo
Season 3, Episode 19
Story by Marc Jaffe
Teleplay by Larry Charles
Directed by Tom Cherones
Original Air Date: February 26th, 1992

The idea of a large-scale Nazi rally on American soil might have seemed preposterous when The Limo first aired but watching it in an era that has endured the Trump administration and so much hate-filled politics in recent years, The Limo plays differently, but no less hilariously. You can see how it might prove problematic viewing nowadays, but it also plays out as a frighteningly funny nightmarish comedy, where Jerry and George attempt to lie their way to luxury, but find themselves (George especially) being mistaken for propagators of hate speech as a result.

4. The Contest
Season 4, Episode 11
Written by Larry David
Directed by Tom Cherones
Original Air Date: November 25th, 1992

How do you devote an episode to a taboo subject without ever mentioning the very thing that Network Standards and Practices will not allow you to say? With ingenuity as is the case with The Contest. Brilliantly crafted and filled with great wordplay (‘master of my domain’ anyone?), this is one of those episodes that frequently appears on lists of the best episodes and deservedly so. Simultaneously filthy in terms of humour and yet managing to remain innocent because it must dance around the issue in question, it’s twenty minutes of television that indicates why the show is as highly regarded as it is.

5. The Finale
Season 9, Episodes 23/24
Written by Larry David
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Original Air Date: May 14th, 1998

Where many sitcom finales are joyous affairs that manage to bring in critical acclaim, high ratings (not to mention prominent advertising revenue if you’re a network sitcom), the finale of Seinfeld proved to be a more contentious affair. Sure enough, it brought in massive ratings for NBC, ranking as the fourth most-watched series finale of a television series after M*A*S*H, Cheers and The Fugitive, but where M*A*S*H and Cheers, not to mention Friends, featured finales that became episodes that were looked back with fondness, Larry David’s return as a writer, having exited the series around season seven, saw it deliver one of the most divisive endings to a television series that wasn’t LOST

Karmic justice makes an appearance as the episode opts to have Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer get comeuppance of sorts after nine seasons of terrible behaviour, a decision that many thought sold the series out. Even when David’s post-Seinfeld series Curb Your Enthusiasm devoted itself to a plotline involving a Seinfeld revival, the divisive nature of the episode made its way into the dialogue indicating that its love-it-or-hate-it (mostly hate it) nature was still a factor in conversations regarding it. Even that divisive nature makes it a none more appropriate Seinfeld finale in a strange way.

Its ‘show about nothing’ approach gives Seinfeld a meandering quality that is a big reason why it still works today. As wonderful as Friends was, not to mention Frasier and later classics such as The Office and Parks and Recreation, Seinfeld never falls into the realm of sentimentality or imparting some sort of wisdom. It’s the very thing that makes it a colder entity, but it also has allowed it to remain a dark-hearted work of genius too, even if one would rather spend time with Leslie Knope or Chandler and Monica than be inadvertently mistreated by the quartet that makes up Seinfeld and his friends.

A precursor to the even more extreme Larry David creation Curb Your Enthusiasm, which would find a less restrictive home on cable giant HBO, Seinfeld still stands out as a perfectly formed slice of acerbic wit. The unlikeable stance of its characters sometimes might feel like a restrictive wall that stops you from completely falling in love with it, but the level of ingenuity to the writing and plotting means that at the same time it’s very easy to have fun with the series.

As television devotes itself even more to serialised narratives and the stand-alone episode becomes more and more a thing of the past, Seinfeld remains a prime example of how to utilise the self-contained format for ingenious purposes; The Parking Garage, The Chinese Restaurant, The Contest are all regarded as classic pieces of television for the right reasons.

 

Eamon Hennedy

Eamon Hennedy

13/01/2022

Eamon has spent too much time of his life watching TV and wouldn't have it any other way. If there's anything you need to know about The X-Files, he's the person to turn to. From Northern Ireland, his eyes are amongst the most square in the land, and his "continue watching" on Netflix gets longer by the week.

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