Airing between 1989 and 1998, Seinfeld is an odd entry in the pantheon of Great American Sitcoms. Most American sitcoms had and still have elements of heart-warming effusiveness, friendship and emotion. Characters may screw up or cause mayhem, but at the end of the day their problems would be resolved with the help of their friends or family. Some shows had started experimenting and playing around with this formula (M*A*S*H* with its wartime storytelling, Cheers with its serialised, soap-like character arcs) but Seinfeld was the first one to come along and, if not outright reject, then downplay those elements. One of the show's unofficial mottoes was "no hugging, no learning." Characters would frequently cause untold mayhem through their actions, words or inaction and go on to do exactly the same thing. Seinfeld acknowledged that a lot of lives don't really have an arc of growth and change but instead people finding a way of spinning their experiences into self-validation, even in the face of obvious truth that they've hurt others or themselves.
In this sense the "show about nothing" was really the "show about everything." No anecdote, story or idea was too small or too trivial not to be considered for a storyline. NBC famously blew a fuse early on when an entire episode was spent waiting in the line for a Chinese restaurant and writer-producers Seinfeld and Larry David had to stare them down to get the episode made. Entire episodes revolved around parking spaces, soup and the annoyances of just traversing the subway. Continuing storylines revolved around relationships, family and jobs, in particular George and Elaine's struggles to find interesting jobs that would reward their laziness and dislike of other people.
Unlike many sitcoms, the show did not take too long to find its feet. After a somewhat indifferent pilot, the short-run second season almost immediately established the familiar character dynamics and tone. An "imperial period" of top-quality would extend from at least the third season to the end of the seventh, with the fourth year being particularly impressive for its introduction of a season-spanning arc. An early example of metahumour, the season is about George (Larry David's obvious author-insert character) and Jerry being hired by NBC to make a sitcom Jerry's life. The development of the sitcom-within-a-sitcom allowed the writers to make jokes about the show's own catchphrases, cliches and some of its real off-air drama (such as Larry David's real next-door neighbour who'd become incensed when he based Kramer on him without letting him audition for the role). Arguably no other sitcom would tackle the actual issues of making a sitcom until Episodes in 2011-17, and that was a patchier show.
Likewise, the seventh season opens with George realising he's doomed to a life of loneliness and he quickly tries to rekindle a relationship with his ex, Susan, which then goes overboard and he ends up getting engaged...just before remembering why they split up in the first place, leading to a season of increasingly desperate moves as George tries to escape his fate (the highly-memorable conclusion being the departing Larry David's last-minute hail Mary when he couldn't think of another ending).
David's departure at the end of Season 7 created a creative void in the show which it initially struggled to fill; the first half of Season 8 is the nadir of the show, with bizarre premises and a lack of the detailed, slice-of-life stories that made the show such a success. The show undergoes a creative resurgence in the latter part of the eighth season and into the ninth, however, as the new writing team get to grips with the situation. Infamously, David's return for the finale would prove to be highly controversial, with the episode seemingly determined to make the four friends out to be rather more selfish, amoral and reprehensible than they were usually depicted as being.
Seinfeld's strengths remain its writing, which is still sharp and funny. Guest characters are usually well-drawn and intriguing, with many becoming recurring players as the writers found additional ways of mining them for more stories. In this sense the unusually small regular cast became a bonus, allowing them to thread in other characters as needed without having to balloon the weekly cast out to a huge size (a problem faced by Cheers towards the end of its run). If the writers had material for George's monstrous parents, Elaine's unhinged boss or Jerry's arch-nemesis Newman, they could bring them in and if not, leave them out. The actors mostly do a good job, with Seinfeld himself being the weakest link (by his own cheerful admission) and a key reason why Seinfeld is usually more reacting to the craziness that his three friends have gotten into than driving storylines himself. This kind of generosity in ostensibly the leading man of a successful TV show is quite unusual.
Like any show which runs for nine years and 180 episodes the series does have repetitive tropes which occasionally become wearying: Jerry and George's problems often revolve around their latest girlfriend or relationship issue, with a seemingly never-ending revolving door of attractive actresses passing through the show. It's notable that these relationship stories become better when the partners actually stick around for a bit longer and get better-defined characters. There's also a few episodes where Kramer's latest "whacky hijinks" feel stretched past of the point of lunacy. The continuous character clashes between George and Elaine also make it hard to swallow that these people would be friends and hang out, at least without Jerry being around. These issues do become more marked in the final two seasons, when the show's creative juices are starting to run dry. Some may also find subsequent events - such as Michael Richards' racist-filled tirade against audience members during a standup performance many years later, or Seinfeld dating a teenager at the height of his fame - colour their appreciation of the show in retrospect.
Seinfeld (****½) is an often hilarious, smart and well-played comedy series, arguably the greatest of its time, and one that paved the way for many shows that have come since. Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO takes the Seinfeld formula and propels it into the stratosphere. Similarly, FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia seems to ask what would happen if you made the actual show that Seinfeld is often accused of being, a dystopian nightmare of several hateful characters forced to live and work together and getting into at-times nihilistic misadventures. Some patchy later seasons and over-used tics are minor weaknesses for a show that's aged well. The show is available on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK and USA. Netflix will begin streaming the show in its entirety later in 2021.