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Seinfeld Seasons 1 - 3 (1989-93) Review

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Brilliant, yada yada yada...

★★★★★

After 15 years, The Simpsons remain the first family of comedy, chiefly because hormones do not blight cartoon characters. Many live-action sitcoms open with promising dynamics, only for the once-cute pre-teens to morph creepily into adolescent irritants. Worse, with the passage of time so clearly documented by crayon markings on the wall, writers have little choice but to open the door to those elements that are comedy cancer: character development, plot arcs, soap opera…

Seinfeld, then, is the best ‘friends’ sitcom ever made, because the characters simply refuse to grow up (although they do frequently give in to their hormones). The Seinfeld mantra was “no hugs, no morals, no lessons”, and that narrow ambition was enough to sustain it for nine years. Of course, that didn’t stop network wonks feeling that if the guy — Jerry Seinfeld playing himself as the shallow end of the gene pool — got the girl — Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ spunky tomboy Elaine — then the audience might ‘buy’ the relationship, might care a bit more. Choleric co-creator Larry David responded by penning Season 2’s The Deal, in which best friends Elaine and Jerry unsuccessfully negotiate the impossible dream: no-strings sex. By the next episode, all was forgotten. Seinfeld does not quite run on Groundhog Day time but it does come armed with a goldfish memory. In more than 180 shows about dating, mating and, in one famous episode, masturbating, the only thing that ever really changes is Elaine’s hair.

Seinfeld, which began tentatively in 1989, is an anomaly, one of those rare step-changes in entertainment that owes absolutely nothing to anything that came before it. In complete contrast to the predictable rhythms of earlier and later US sitcoms, it shunned set-up gags and cosy jokes. Instead, odd character tics mix with elements of high farce for a meticulously plotted ensemble comedy that has the confidence to keep the audience waiting until the (usually bitter) end for the punchline. As the pint-sized early seasons (four and 12 episodes respectively) testify, NBC’s confidence in the novelty was not high. And they had every reason to be cautious. Jerry Seinfeld was a popular stand-up whose only sitcom experience was a short-lived supporting stint on Benson. His co-creator wasn’t even popular as a stand-up. They knew nothing about television and hired writers who also knew nothing about television. They would go on to ignore every studio note and break every sitcom convention laid down since Jackie Gleason was knocking ’em dead in The Honeymooners.

But somehow, as the excellent DVD documentary How It All Began recalls, the show scraped over every hurdle. After a pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles tested disastrously, a lone NBC executive in charge of hour-long specials broke into his own budget to commission four episodes. Again failing to make the ‘fall line-up’, Seinfeld officially arrived as a mid-season replacement (US TV is a cruel and unforgiving habitat, with more than half of all new shows cancelled by Christmas) in 1991, and this time only an act of war could stop it. The US duly bombed Baghdad in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, pushing Seinfeld Season 2 back by a week, but the revolution was now rolling, and although the audience would take a little longer to arrive, by the end of this season David and Seinfeld, writing as a team, had found their voice.

Episode 11, The Chinese Restaurant, is a clear demonstration of the show’s ‘fuck you’ attitude. No plot, no punchline, just four friends talking as they wait for a restaurant table that never becomes free. It was this network-baiting episode that gave birth to the popular idea that the show was about ‘nothing’, but in fact, Seinfeld is often the most densely plotted of all TV comedies, a happy accident of David’s naive desire to give all four principals a plotline every episode as he had noticed “this made them happier on set”. Season closer The Busboy represents another radical breakthrough, with David contriving to bring two unconnected story-strands together for a wholly unlikely yet somehow inevitable finish. By rights, two amateurs busking it were bound to trip up at some point, but by the start of the first full season, Seinfeld was just hitting full stride.

Almost all of the 22 shows are classics, with The Library, guest-starring Philip Baker Hall as a ‘book cop’ chasing down overdue paperbacks, up there with Basil Fawlty and The Germans as the best single sitcom episode ever made. New writers arrived, but the accomplishment was still built around the odd-couple pairing of Jerry and Larry, replicated on screen in Jerry’s relationship with school friend and lifelong loser George Costanza (Jason Alexander). Jerry was the smugly successful stand-up, coasting by on easy charm. Larry was the tag-along underachiever, angry at everyone, frustrated with himself and with a rare talent for always making the wrong decision. Dilute Larry’s sourness and Seinfeld would lack the righteous anger that gives it purpose. Take away Jerry’s sweetness and David would doubtless create something so dark that no network would possibly accept it (four years after finally quitting Seinfeld in 1996, he did just that; it’s called Curb Your Enthusiasm, and could only air on cable pioneer HBO).

Jerry is Jerry, more or less, but it’s David who’s most often found in confessional mode, replaying the worst episodes of his life through George, a fact that dawned on Alexander only after he complained to the writer that “nobody would ever act like this”, and David patiently explained that the incident in question had indeed happened to him, and yes, he had “acted exactly like this”. David’s bizarre behaviour had been to resign in a fury from Saturday Night Live, repent at leisure over the weekend, and casually report for work on Monday morning hoping to pass the incident off as a joke. George tries, and fails, to do the same thing in Season 2’s The Revenge.

In real life, David had been talked out of his hasty SNL exit by his colourful neighbour Kenny Kramer, and it was Kramer (Michael Richards) who would complete the fab four. Richards’ astonishing gifts for physical comedy ensured that all comedic elements were now in place: clowning (Kramer), wit (Jerry), cheek (Elaine) and bile (George).

Six more years followed Season 3, and slowly, almost inexplicably, the biggest audience in modern American TV history gathered. Seinfeld remained free to reflect and respond to popular culture as no other show had attempted before, and in the knowing ’90s, nothing was more important than wry self-awareness. Where most sitcoms are a closed, self-contained universe, Seinfeld was always open; part of our world, rather than an escape from it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only show to attempt something similar is that other child of 1989, The Simpsons, and arguably not even Homer can boast as many entries into the popular lexicon as Jerry and company.

As if to prove that Seinfeld is the quintessential ’90s show, none of the principal cast has enjoyed much success in the seven years since, while semi-retired Jerry hasn’t even tried. As for the networks, they were baffled, perhaps even frightened, by Seinfeld’s popularity, and immediately went back to cookie-cutter sitcoms about ‘relationships’, before abandoning even that minimum effort and throwing their lot in with Bachelor Bob and Simon Cowell. As Jerry would say, only Superman can save us now...

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