Monday, May 31, 2010

 

It's Real and It's Spectacular

By Jonathan Pacheco
"The greatest show ever" or "overrated"? "Cynical" or "postmodern"? Whatever you choose to label Seinfeld, there's no denying its well-documented impact on television and popular culture, and 20 years after its inaugural season, the brainchild of comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David remains relevant thanks to its unconventionally simple approach to the sitcom genre, its cleverness and catchiness, and its memorable fleet of characters, from the core to the fringe. Seinfeld is instantly recognizable, incessantly memorable, and downright iconic; not bad for "a show about nothing."


The project actually dates back to 1989 when its pilot, The Seinfeld Chronicles, debuted on NBC in a slightly different incarnation, with the three male leads (Jerry as himself, Jason Alexander as George, and Michael Richards as Kramer), but missing its token female, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Feared to be "too New York," "too Jewish," and "too male," the show was passed on, but in a gutsy show of faith, network exec Rick Ludwin used part of his late-night and special events budget to fund four more episodes of the show, and almost a year after its pilot premiered, Seinfeld had its brief first season.


It began as a meek, leisurely, conversational show, feeling its way through the darkness with Seinfeld and David leading the way on all fronts (they're often referred to as "Lennon and McCartney"). Dead-set on showcasing things once thought too mundane to put on TV, scenes took their time as we watched Jerry in his apartment alone, untucking his shirt, grabbing a bowl of cereal, sitting down to watch a baseball game.... Because the show was in its infancy, it hadn't quite found its identity, so it borrowed heavily from the observational tone of Seinfeld's standup and the dialogue-heavy strategy of fellow Jewish New Yorker Woody Allen. Characters spoke "natural" dialogue in thick New York accents and Jerry always stood on deck, ready with pre-planned sarcastic one-liners. These early episodes are almost adorable in their earnestness to literally be "a show about nothing" and to stand out as quirky and unique. What thin plots they did have were simple and low-key: did Jerry misinterpret "signals" from a woman? Should Jerry move into a new apartment? How does Jerry tell Elaine he doesn't want her to move into his building? How does Jerry "break up" with a male friend? These episodes often ended with very cute punch-lines to tie things together, sometimes more cringe-worthy than endearing.

By the 3rd season, episodes began to speed up as Larry and Jerry started to get the hang of this television thing, leading to Seinfeld's watershed 4th season when the show, characters, and writers really found their voices. They discovered the perfect level of self-hatred and neurosis for George, learned Kramer could be much more than simply the clichéd hipster doofus next door, realized Elaine offered more than just her history as Jerry's ex-girlfriend, and found that Jerry's jokes worked best as clever, rapidly conjured zingers as opposed to slow, quaint observations. Possibly most importantly, Jerry, Larry, and all involved realized that a show about nothing doesn't need to be a show where characters do nothing. Celebrated episodes from this time period like "The Contest" (a bold turning point for the show, launching it into the stratosphere, and responsible for the euphemism "master of your domain"), "The Outing" (you know, the "not that there's anything wrong with it" show), "The Switch" (one of the strongest episodes of the show's entire run, paying homage to classic noir and heist films), and "The Soup Nazi" (possibly Seinfeld's most recognizable and memorable episode) gave these characters more to do at a quicker pace, developing them through their reactions to the ridiculous problems surrounding them. It's also no coincidence that Seinfeld's two strongest seasons — the 4th and the 7th — were the two seasons that featured prominent season-long plots (with the 4th season revolving around Jerry and George pitching, writing, and filming their TV show pilot, and the 7th centering on George's proposal and engagement to Susan).


When Larry David left Seinfeld as co-showrunner after Season 7 (the equivalent of Carlton Cuse or Damon Lindelof stepping down from Lost after its 4th season), Seinfeld shifted into its 3rd distinct era. While seasons 4 through 7 featured exceptionally notable writing and a fun but jaded view of the world typical of Larry David, the final two seasons truly felt more like Jerry: exceedingly silly and absurd, but meticulously planned out. Interestingly, the earlier seasons always felt like Jerry and Larry's babies, but seasons 8 and 9 felt more like Seinfeld's babies, with the show bringing on board many talented writers from other TV shows — people who knew and loved Seinfeld — and let them do their own thing, essentially creating episodes out of their collective fan fiction. (Seinfeld featured other writers for many years, but the final scripts would always make a stop at Larry and Jerry's office for final revisions. Not so in the final seasons with Larry stepping down and Jerry overloading with other responsibilities.) The show shifted from belonging to the two creators to belonging to the world of the show, a world created over seven or eight years, accumulating its own set of rules and traits. Anyone who'd been a fan of the show could tell you what a sort of Seinfeld Bible might look like: this is who the characters are, this is how they react, this is how we tie stories together, and this is what we never, ever, do. Anything else, you can pretty much get away with — and the writers did. The show became more self-aware as the new writers brought fresh perspectives to the team, and that's we ended up with episodes such as "The Betrayal" (the backward episode), "The Bizarro Jerry" (perhaps the most meta episode out of all nine seasons), and "The Chicken Roaster" (for years my favorite Seinfeld episode, full of goofiness, great lines, and fun plot connections and resolutions).

Moving along the same line of the show's style, the core characters evolved from quirky and quaint to lovable and relatable to iconic, and they grew as a group. Scene-stealing supporting characters like Newman, the Soup Nazi, and J. Peterman are remembered for their individual performances, and Kramer truly transcends the show entirely (more on that later), but it's very difficult to look at Jerry, Elaine, George, and Cosmo without identifying them as one entity. Dating back to the pilot episode, several of the weaker episodes suffered from missing a character or two, the lone exception being "The Chinese Restaurant", a classic despite not having Kramer in it at all. But generally speaking, remove any leg from this table, and it comes crashing down.

As a tangent to that, one of the reasons Jerry's apartment and Monk's, the coffee shop, became so iconic was because they were places of convergence and came to represent the show's nucleus. These were settings where all four would meet, complain, scheme, banter, bicker, muse, reflect, and bond. The masturbation contest was conceived at Monk's, and in that same booth we got George's classic marine biologist monologue to the group, while Jerry's apartment was a hub for pontificating social guidelines like breakup etiquette. ("To the victor belong the spoils.") These locations were the group.

But admittedly, Kramer lives on as the most recognized, beloved, and memorable character of the bunch, typical of the "buffoon" in comedies. (Who was more memorable in Shakespeare's As You Like It: Orlando, the romantic lead, or the court fool Touchstone?) With his trademark hair and vintage clothing, the jobless cigar-smoking ladies' man elicits a strong and immediate reaction on-sight because of his countless legendary moments, from his patented entrance to his butter shaving to his scenes as a supposed pimp. The layperson may not know much about Seinfeld but he definitely knows Cosmo Kramer, who's become a sort of archetype for the modern clown. (In a production of You Can't Take It With You, I was instructed to incorporate many elements of the K-Man into my role of Mr. DePinna. Years later, a friend of mine was directed to play Verges as Kramer in Much Ado About Nothing. I've yet to hear a director say, "Play him more like Joey Tribbiani.")

The success of the character comes from so many different factors, but one musn't underplay the impact of the professionalism of Michael Richards. Despite his silly role, he was the one on set taking his job most seriously, sometimes to a fault, and his dedication elevated his performance. He drew inspiration for his physical antics from classic and silent comedies, with so much of that style hinging on harnessing and communicating true weight — bouncing off objects that strike you, using your weight to create harder falls, conveying the heaviness of everything you carry. Richards was fearless in this respect, sacrificing himself like a workhorse running back, punishing his body just to get that extra yard. To watch him tumble across a couch, lug a real air conditioner around a parking garage, or slide down a baggage chute is to marvel at his commitment to bringing as much weight to Kramer as possible.

Larry and Jerry have said that they always had a rule of "no hugging, no learning," and I think that was a big part of Seinfeld's appeal during and after its run, ensuring that viewers would avoid the vomit-inducing "serious moments" that other sitcoms feel obligated to provide. Think of an episode of Friends; do any of us really have such blatant and sweet lesson-learning moments like they do every week on that show? Seinfeld works for the audience that cringes during these moments, recognizing that maybe some people don't want to be "learning lessons" from their sitcoms. Maybe they just want to laugh. It's not that Costanza, Seinfeld, Benes, and Kramer don't love each other, because their affection is beautifully obvious; it's that real people don't conveniently and explicitly express their feelings at the 19-minute mark. Sometimes it's enough to let your loyalty, rapport, and insults do the loving.


Keeping the "no hugging, no learning" credo in mind also helps make the show's finale highly appropriate. We can quibble about how the last episode was acted and executed, but it's hard to deny that having all four characters end up in jail, still not hugging, still no lessons learned, but still together, is nothing if not a logical and somewhat poetic ending to what we saw for nine years. (Not convinced? Go back and watch Season 4's "The Handicap Spot.") Nevertheless, many people take issue with it because the episode had that blatant finale feel, but not the patented TV series happy ending. Moreover, many elements such as the "final group vacation" and throwback to ancient jokes just felt out of place; it was almost as if every character was aware that he was in a finale. The episode was written by Larry David, who hadn't done a Seinfeld script since the Season 7 finale, and consequently this one proved to be a bit out of place with the flow and comedic groove of the ninth season. Instead of feeling like a true Seinfeld episode, it felt like someone trying to write a Seinfeld episode.

The finale did feature a few final masterstrokes, namely its ending mirroring the show's beginning, all the way back to the beginning of The Seinfeld Chronicles. As the four characters sit in a jail cell, Jerry and George repeat the first conversation we ever hear them have, bringing the show full circle (you're not the only one who can do that, Lost), and as a nice little coda, we get to see Jerry do stand-up for the show one last time, this time with an audience of prison-mates.

But in what could be the most brilliant move of all, Larry David made up for the shortcomings of the Seinfeld finale by writing a season-long plot for Curb Your Enthusiasm last year revolving around the Seinfeld cast getting back together for one more episode. David managed to make a reunion show without actually making a reunion show, instead letting it exist as merely a fictional storyline. Slyly winking at itself and even poking fun at the much-maligned finale (a running joke has characters claiming the reunion episode would make up for "screwing up" the Seinfeld ending while Larry vehemently defends it), this move ultimately gave audiences what they wanted without the awkwardness and lameness of a typical reunion show.


Seinfeld continues to live on via DVD and TBS reruns, and has aged remarkably well since it ended its run in 1998. Though the latter seasons, with lots of newer, younger writers, featured a few pop culture references that seem a little dated today (jabs at Titanic, the impending new millennium, and tentative talk of the Internet), many of the show's jokes, especially in the middle seasons, have a timeless quality because they don't focus so much on up-to-date references, but rather on lasting historical allusions, such as the most unattractive world leaders of all time, favorite explorers, the Kennedy family, and Bud Abbott. In retrospect, Seinfeld feels like it gave more to modern pop culture than it took from it. I mean, do I have to get into how many catchphrases the show has contributed or popularized? (Answer: Yes, I do. "Yadda yadda yadda," "spongeworthy," "double-dip," "shrinkage," "these pretzels are making me thirsty," "no soup for you," "the [blank] Nazi," "man-hands," "mimbo," the aforementioned "master of your domain" and "not that there's anything wrong with it" — just to name a few.)

Seinfeld's legacy with me personally, as I've written before, is about much more than its entertainment value. The show is a litmus test, something to bond over, and a way for me to relate to people. (You'll know that you and I have gotten close when I stop prefacing my jokes and references with, "There's this one Seinfeld episode".) The show helped me socialize in high school, and taped reruns and DVDs have helped put me to sleep every night for nearly 10 years. My brother and I even express moments of pride when our significant others deliver flawless Seinfeld references all on their own. Yes, I know, "no hugging, no learning," but I'm making an exception; the show is a dear, dear friend to me.


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Comments:
The Contest will always be my favorite, but I love The Betrayal as well. I tell you, I've yet to find anything that doesn't work when told backward and I love that they named a character Pinter in homage to the author of the great play Betrayal that used the same technique.
 
Thanks, Jonathan, for offering an interesting defense of the last two seasons, including the finale. I still value them less than Seasons 1-7—the increasing off-the-wall quality of the characters and situations in those seasons made the characters feel more sad than funny, imo—but as a whole, I still love this series (I have it all on DVD), and I have no problem with the way it ended.
 
I think the main reason people reacted negatively to the finale was that they never accepted that in addition to being a show about nothing, it was a show about four self-obsessed assholes. I also think the finale would have worked a lot better without the retrospective that preceded it because it made it end up feeling as if they had a clip show followed by a finale that was another clip show.
 
I think that the "high concept" of the Seinfeld ending is a lot like the Sopranos ending -- both were brilliant, original, cynical, not received fondly, but true to the spirit of the show. But you're right that there are some big execution problems with the Seinfeld finale.

I'll admit, I was charmed by Jerry for many years until a friend of mine pointed out what a terrible person he was. His "I hate Jerry" lens changed the way I viewed the show and actually made it more interesting.
 
It's an interesting situation that we're put in. Most of us like the characters, and don't see them as villains in any way, therefore they must be good people, right? However, as you guys have pointed out, we're ignoring the fact that, besides their loyalty to each other, they have very few redeeming qualities -- which I would argue is a big reason many people ARE charmed by the characters, for their shameless audacity to be selfish, cheap liars, but people struggle to make the logic work in their brains.
 
I read this piece on Bohemian Cinema and I thought it was wonderful.

I agree with what you have to say about the first two seasons and the last two seasons, though I do prefer the latter.

I actually think the first 20 minutes of the finale is brilliant (the episode was just on last night) but I can't care less for the trial. But I do love how they end up in jail, together.

I loved seeing the actors/characters interact on Curb, but I don't care for the actual episode-within-the-episode itself. How are we supposed to care for George's ex-wife, who we aren't familiar with and isn't very interesting at all? Why would Jerry and Elaine ever become parents?

Glad to hear that this show helped your socialize in high school. I recently graduated from high school and no one from my school liked Seinfeld. But they did love Friends (ugh).
 
I love you man... The last paragraphe totally implies to me.but with a skight difference. I cant do this , "there is a Seinfeld espisode that say:" because i simply lim an Egyptian who lives in Egypt. So its noy often that i could do so like you. I really wish I could meet you tho.
 
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