The Second Annual Brilliant Careers Essay Contest

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Seinfeld
9 p.m.
Thursdays
NBC
(final episode May 14)

To see a larger version of the Seinfeld portrait, click here.

 
A L S O_.T O D A Y

Blue Glow
PBS's "Alexander the Great"; "Ally" baby bombshell
 
Y E S T E R D A Y

He Got Game
Reviewed by Gary Kamiya
Spike Lee's soft-hearted but moving tribute to faith, love and basketball
(05/01/98)

Les Miserables
Reviewed by Charles Taylor
A high-minded film version of Victor Hugo's epic tale of crime and obsession
(05/01/98)

 
R E C E N T_.
T E L E V I S I O N

Tubbythumping
By Joyce Millman
Let the Teletubbies bashing begin
(04/03/98)

Let my people go --
to the movies

By Joyce Millman
A new cable documentary profiles the Jewish immigrants who founded Hollywood, but lost their cultural identity
(03/19/98)

Dawson's crock
By Joyce Millman
Funded by deep-pocket publicity, the puerile "Dawson's Creek" has tricked some TV critics into treating it like a hit
(03/16/98)

Are you a crystal vase?
By Joyce Millman
If you can answer these 20 questions, you've watched way too much of the Olympics
(02/18/98)

Voyage to the bottom of TV
By Joyce Millman
Salon's TV critic delves down in the drink with the lowest-rated shows on the air
(02/04/98)

 
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[ J O Y C E_.M I L L M A N__O N_.T E L E V I S I O N ]

Illustration by Jason Mecier
cheerio, seinfeld
Saying goodbye to the greatest sitcom of all time.

I didn't get "Seinfeld" at first. My review of the July 1989 pilot episode (which NBC was then calling "The Seinfeld Chronicles") was lukewarm: The shift from Seinfeld's comedy club scenes to the sitcom plot was shaky and too cute, George was just another whining Woody Allen knock-off, Kramer was vaguely unpleasant, yada, yada, yada. I half paid attention for a couple more weeks, then lost interest.

Everything changed, though, when I saw the one about the bad melon.

I don't remember what the main plot was, but there was this bit where Kramer and Elaine were in Jerry's apartment and he offered them some cantaloupe and they took a bite and did spit takes ("This melon stinks!"). Kramer heatedly urged Jerry to return the offending melon, but Jerry took a more nonchalant view: "Fruit's a gamble!" Now, you have to understand -- my parents are militant fruit returners (I myself side with Jerry on this one), but I had never seen this particular quirk portrayed on TV before. I was awed by Seinfeld and co-creator/writer Larry David's brilliant grasp of, A) working-class Jewish craziness, and, B) the absurd humor of the deeply mundane.

Over the next few weeks, "Seinfeld" spoke to me as no sitcom ever had -- an episode introducing Jerry's kvetching Uncle Leo; a knowing aside about the Three Stooges (my favorites!); an episode set entirely in a Chinese restaurant that captured the misanthropy and predatory instinct that arises in big city folk when they have to wait for a table. The more I watched "Seinfeld," the more I knew: These are my people!

Of course, the key to the show's popularity (30 million viewers weekly at its height) has been that a lot of other viewers believe that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are their people, too. But, when you come down to it, who among us has never felt persecuted or screwed over, has never worried that they were out of the loop, has never tried to get a "deal," has never obsessed over microscopic annoyances and imagined slights, has never been petty, selfish, vain, self-defeating or weak-willed? "Seinfeld" caught on because it expressed an undiluted pessimism rarely seen in sitcoms. It drew in people who had given up on TV comedies because of their by-the-numbers jokes and heavy-handed sentimentality. Faster, smarter, darker and more unpredictable than any other network sitcom around, "Seinfeld" was a gasp-for-breath funny portrayal of bad behavior.

Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were not particularly nice people. They were self-centered, irresponsible, commitment-phobic. For this, and for the dead-on way the show nailed the tribal codes of single, upper middle class (white) urbanites, some pundits called "Seinfeld" a glorification of '90s yuppiedom -- which completely misses the point. "Seinfeld" was an anti-yuppie sitcom. Jerry and company were wish-fulfillment figures for baby-boomer viewers weary from shouldering adult responsibilities, from being good. While we struggled with the demands of marriage, parenthood and work, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer -- who were probably in their mid-to-late 30s and early 40s (it was never made clear) -- behaved like eternal teenagers. Unencumbered by spouses or kids, either unemployed or working at an adolescent's fantasy job (entertainer, New York Yankees executive), they mooched off each other, played board games, ate handfuls of cereal out of the box, schemed about how to get what they wanted -- a date, a car, cable TV -- with no strings attached. Fixated on the minutiae of life, "Seinfeld" was pure escapism for grown-ups, a weekly release from having to think about the big stuff.

Ironically, though, Jerry and his maturity-challenged pals never really got away with anything. And that was fine with us. We like to imagine ourselves as the most heroically overworked and stressed-out generation in history; we don't want to see cheating and sloth rewarded (too much). In its twisted way, "Seinfeld" was a very moral show. The intricately plotted comeuppances that Seinfeld, David and their roster of uncommonly clever writers devised for this foursome were the comedic equivalent of biblical judgment.

Tangled webs of lies tightened around them. Temptation (like George's unforgettable pursuit of "the trifecta" -- enjoying sex, food and TV at the same time) inevitably led to abject humiliation. Schemes undertaken to get even or gain the upper hand repeatedly backfired. There was a definite higher power at work in the "Seinfeld" universe. Call it karma, call it the vengeful God of Sunday school and superstitious grandmothers -- either way, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer suffered the wrath of its punch lines. And anybody who has ever felt like the butt of some huge cosmic joke could identify.

As we await the end of the world as we know it (coming to NBC May 14), let's take a final look at the 10 reasons why "Seinfeld" was the greatest sitcom of all time.

N E X T_P A G E _| "Mulva" and other private jokes

 


ILLUSTRATION BY JASON MECIER






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