Review of Seinfeld (1989)

Moving picture, 66 hours

Seen in 2023.

This review refers to the first six seasons, hence no rating.

The fictionalized everyday life of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and friends.

This is a sitcom made in reaction to the previous generation’s sitcoms, much like Married... with Children (1987). As in many adult-facing sitcoms, including Married..., a lot of the humour in Seinfeld is sexual, testing the limits of what could be said and implied on US broadcast TV in the era before cable TV, the Internet and general acceptance of homosexuality in the country. The prime example of this is a season 4 episode, “The Contest”, which is about masturbation but does not name its subject. Other TV writers at the time loved how coy this was, but it hasn’t aged well into a more honest time.

Seinfeld also drags around other typical sitcom flaws: The action pauses for studio-audience cheers as popular charcters enter, starting in season 4, episode 4, though to its credit, this was curtailed some time later. Catchphrases are not prominent, but they do exist, as in Jerry’s habitual greeting of Newman. Continuity is spotty, as when Jerry considers a new apartment in season 1, regrets not taking it, and never looks for a new apartment again over the next eight years, for the extradiegetic reason that the production had already paid for the set of Jerry’s apartment. Coincidentally, the geometry of the hallway outside contradicts the geometry of that apartment, a problem that could have been left behind in a realistic move.

Another flaw typical of TV from this era is a latent sexism. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, easily the most competent actor on the regular cast, plays the only woman among Jerry’s group of friends, and therefore has sex with Jerry in at least three phases: Before the show opens, as Jerry’s girlfriend; again in season 2, episode 10, when they go FWB; and again in season 5, episode 1, despite a retcon that Elaine faked all of her orgasms up to that point. Elaine gets sexually objectified in too much of the early writing. Around the same time this gets fixed, Jerry becomes the butt of more jokes. There are also visible initiatives against sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice, but they feel superficial and again typical of the era.

In its time, Seinfeld was middlebrow and progressive, compared to its competition. There are efforts to steer away from the zaniest sitcom tropes, with occasional exceptions like “The Heart Attack”. There are cold opens—indeed cool—and an iconic musical theme. The metafiction is excessive (Dick the alcoholic heckling Jerry at an interstitial standup routine; Kramer in Hollywood; the TV show “Jerry”; various parodies including Schindler’s List). There is also a much analyzed undercurrent of frustration that runs deeper than Married... without being excessive, depressive or depressing, because it is offset by the obvious triviality of the show’s First-World problems. Some episodes are really very good, such as “The Movie” where the gang ends up seeing Rochelle Rochelle (“Minsk!"), but parasociality seems like it was a bigger selling point.

References here: Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (1995), “Bar Association” (1996), Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000), Azumanga Daioh (2002), Nästan inget (2021).

moving picture fiction series