Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Seinfeld finale and why putting your lead character on trial can backfire

Last week I pontificated a bit about the Best and Worst Series Finales, and there were a few who definately felt that the Seinfeld finale really should have been on the Worst List, if not leading it. I gave a brief explanation of my reasons in the earlier post, but I figured that it was worth discussing the Seinfeld finale on its own, as there are some lessons to be learned from it.

For those who don't know, the basic plot is that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are charged with violating a "Good Samaritan" law and are put on trial. Their defense attorney, predictably, is Jackie Chiles, the Johnnie Cochran-style attorney who reacts with bemusement to the gang's nicknames for all the witnesses against them. In an effort to make an example of the foursome, the prosecutor calls as many witnesses who have been wronged by the gang as he can find. These included Jerry's virgin girlfriend who was repulsed to learn about "the contest," The Soup Nazi," whose business was ruined by Elaine, and the large-breasted woman Jerry dated who was inadvertently groped by Elaine.

Basically, it was an excuse for Larry David to bring back every memorable character the show created, and give them a few seconds of airtime. Occasionally there were a few clips of their first appearance tossed in, but not nearly enough for me to tar this with the "clip show" brush.

Why this fails as an episode of Seinfeld - with only a few notable exceptions like "The Chinese Restaurant," most of the classic episodes of Seinfeld featured multiple plotlines that would then somehow intertwine and collide by the end. This Rube Goldberg style of domino-plotting took a while to evolve, but it's pretty much the standard from the third or fourth season onward. The problem with "The Finale" is that it's all A-plot. There's no B, C, or D story. Thus the most recognizable traits of a Seinfeld episode are completely absent from this story.

It might have worked if just one of the characters - let's say George - was on trial for his life and that was where subplots for Jerry, Elaine and Kramer ended up intersecting in the end. It would give the main characters something to do instead of spend at least half the show sitting next to each other at the trial. Which brings me to...

Why this episode fails as a piece of writing - So you've got a script where your main character is accused of some dastardly crime and faces stiff penalty for it. Most of the story is a trial, and you probably figure you'll have the audience captivated. After all, the stakes are pretty high if they're found guilty. The wrong verdict could completely change that character's life so this can't miss as compelling drama, right?

Guess again.

The defendant spends most of the trial sitting there, listening passively as everyone else gets their say against him. He doesn't question his accusers, he usually doesn't take the lead in his strategy, and he generally doesn't have much to do.

Who gets to "kill the bull" in these stories? The attorneys, either the prosecution or the defense, whichever one wins. They confront the witnesses, they get to pull all the courtroom theatrics and they're the ones doing the heavy lifting of figuring out how they're going to either lock up this evil bastard, or turn him loose on the streets.

See the problem with the Seinfeld finale? Jackie Chiles is pretty much the main character.

Look at all of the great courtroom films and note the protagonist:

A Few Good Men - Lt. Caffy, the defense lawyer.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Atticus Finch, the defense lawyer.

Philadelphia - Duel protagonists in Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington's characters, but notably Hanks' character is the one bringing suit in this story. He's not charged with anything, he's the one trying to sink his former employers.

A Time To Kill - Jake Brigance, the defense attorney.

There are probably a couple instances where a crafty screenwriter found a way to clear this hurdle and make the trial story work with the defendant as the protagonist, but most of the time those are the exceptions that prove the rule. If you're ever working on a legal drama, don't make the mistake of trying to center it on the guy who has to just sit there and remain silent the whole time until he finally takes the stand. Passive lead characters can drag a whole script down with them.

And that's why the Seinfeld finale doesn't work as a piece of writing. It's not really about the main characters - it's about everybody but them!


  1. It also doesn't work because it sucks.

  2. The only movie I can think of with a defendant protagonist is Presumed Innocent, but that flick's 20 years old and my memory aint what it was. Anyway, I do remember he works pretty hard behind the scenes to prove his innocence, so it's not like he's really passive anyway.

  3. I don't agree with your analysis at all. We love these characters and we wanted to see them wander off happily into the sunset.

    We would have been able to think of them and wonder what mischief the gang was getting into now.

    The reason the script was a bad ending for the finale was that it was not a happy ending. Our favorite characters were jailed. We were left with a sad feeling.

  4. The idea behind the finale was to put the audience on trial. For years we watched as the four main characters used and abused people and we the audience laughed. In the finale they were put on trial for laughing at someone elses pain. The finale asks the question why did we the audience laugh all those years as the four of them made trouble for others.