Thursday, June 29, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 4: Seinfeld

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

C'mon, as soon as I praised story density and pace in The Simpsons, you probably saw this one coming.

I came to Seinfeld at the top of its 4th season, which you might know as the one which kicks off with a trip to LA and eventually leads to a storyline about Jerry and George collaborating on a pilot. This was the year the show moved to the post-Cheers slot at midseason and EVERYONE discovered it. It had been a cult hit prior to that, but this was its breakout moment and it felt instantaneous. I'm not sure if that could even happen today with a network show.

Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Seinfeld had been a timeslot competitor with Home Improvement, and that seems like the perfect metaphor for the instant switch in my sitcom tastes at the age of 13. I'd grown bored with family sitcoms that followed the same predictable formula each week, set largely in the same living room/kitchen stages, with the same stale conflicts. Seinfeld was like none of that. Instead of plots like "Tim forgets date night with Jill and goes to a monster truck rally" there were stories like "George jeopardizes the future of their pilot by staring too long at an executive's daughter's cleavage." If you look at those loglines, you can at least see how Home Improvement's story can easily breakdown in an A to B to C story. If someone tells you the Seinfeld conflict, you go, "Is there a show there? Is it funny?"

They found humor in all the little moments that everyone else overlooked, and so much of the comedy was specifically tied to character. During that year, NBC reran an early episode called "The Pen" that was about Jerry and Elaine visiting Jerry's parents in Florida. My hand to God, the first five minutes of the show - before we really hit anything resembling the A-story of the episode - was my grandparents to a tee. It wasn't even the dialogue so much as the tone and the nuances of their attitudes. And in true Seinfeld fashion, the main story gets instigated by a minor conflict. (Jerry admires an astronaut pen that belongs to his father's friend. The friend offers it to Jerry. Jerry declines saying he couldn't possibly take it. The friend insists, Jerry accepts. Problem: the friend didn't want Jerry to accept and word spreads that Jerry took his pen, setting off tension in the retirement community.)

So my first lesson from Seinfeld: you can find a story anywhere.

Second lesson: When you're mining humor from characters, the more specific and unique the characters, the funnier they are. This maybe holds even truer with one-off guest characters. Think of how many one-episode Seinfeld characters are instantly memorable.

Let's talk about story density. If you watch the series in order, you see the structure get gradually more complex and ambitious. Early episodes sometimes have two major plots that don't interact much, but gradually, the stories would start to converge in unexpected ways. Eventually, it got to the point where each of the four regulars had their own story and those stories would cross and interconnect in Rube Goldbergian ways. It's hard to find that much ambition on TV today, let alone 25 years ago.

Again, this was the period where the pace of television really sped up. Scenes were shorter, dialogue came faster, the entire rhythm of the scenes was faster paced. You could blame short attention spans, but what you're really gaining is the ability to tell more complex stories. With a lot of television, the rule is "Get in, get out," keep things moving. (There are exceptions, of course. Better Call Saul really luxuriates in its measured pace. You don't find a lot of leasurely-paced comedies, though.)

This was also the first time I can remember a sitcom that was more or less telling a serialized story across the entire season. Though there are a number of episodes that don't deal with the pilot, it's a recurring thread through much of the season. (And that's not even counting branching threads like George's relationship with Susan.) It was a nice novelty to be watching a sitcom that didn't mostly pretend that last week's episode didn't happen. I know my reaction to the NBC pilot subplot was, "Wait, you can do that?"

Seinfeld blew up the sitcom formula in so many ways, many of which have been the topic of many books and thinkpieces, but these are the elements that mattered the most to me in learning about story. It's one of the few shows that I don't think I'll ever burn out from watching reruns. I'm sure there are some episodes that I've sat through 20 or 25 times and they never get old. It also is a clear forerunner of another favorite of mine, Curb Your Enthusiasm (which does not appear on this list.)

Other Seinfeld Posts:

"The Golf Ball" - building to a Seinfeld-like payoff
The Seinfeld finale and why putting your lead character on trial can backfire

Part 5: The John Larroquette Show


  1. Okay I found this one a bit hard to follow, but in the end You got your point across very well.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. What an awesome point! You CAN find story anywhere if your characters are dynamic enough and have unique voices. That's pretty inspiring and I'd never thought of "Seinfeld" in this light. Great post!