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TV History: The Seinfeld Finale Is Much Ado About Nothing

This week marked the 20th anniversary of the final episode of one of the most beloved shows in TV history – the show about nothing.

Few shows have been able to connect with such a disparate collection of age groups, demographics and tastes as successfully as Seinfeld. Perhaps it was that simple premise that made it so accessible to adults, who watched it during its monumental time on the air, all the way to the kids discovering it on their streaming services.

Created by comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his writing partner Larry David, the show followed the sometimes mundane, sometimes outrageous goings-on of four selfish New Yorker friends. Jerry, naturally played by Seinfeld, was the titular star of the show but it would have been nothing without the rest of the quartet. There was George (Jason Alexander), Jerry’s neurotic, vain and cheap best friend. Elaine (Julia Louise Dreyfus), the short-tempered and blunt ex. And, of course, Kramer (Michael Richards), the eccentric, barely human next-door neighbour.

While the show struggled in its early years, it eventually became a ratings juggernaut like no other sitcom around. It spawned dozens of catchphrases and cultural touchstones that are still widely used today – “yada, yada, yada”, the puff shirt, “No soup for you!” – and left behind a collection of episodes that rank among the best in TV history.

However, even today, one episode remains a subject of conversation for all the wrong reason – the final episode.

Seinfeld was calling it quits at the end of their 9th season, still at the top of their game. No one could guess how the whole thing would wrap up. There was great anticipation as one of the series’ masterminds, Larry David returned to write the final episode after leaving the show two seasons earlier.

The hour-long finale followed the four friends on their way to Hollywood after Jerry and George’s failed sitcom is given a second life. After getting stranded in a small town, the four witness a man being mugged right in front of them. Instead of intervening, they watch like it’s a movie and mock the poor victim. They are quickly arrested thanks to the new “Good Samaritan Law” and put on trial. As a way of establishing a pattern of indifferent and uncaring behaviour towards society, witness after witness of past characters from the show testify to how horrible these four individuals are. In the end, they are sentenced to a year in prison for which they seem, appropriately, indifferent.

The episode was, again, ground-breaking as one of the most watched events on television with people standing in Time Square to watch it come to an end. And the reception of the final show…was mixed.

There were a variety of qualms people had with the ending. For one, to end with the four characters we’ve loved over the years being sent to prison sat wrong with many loyal fans, feeling as though the show was mocking them for having cared. Others felt the “Good Samaritan Law” was just too silly a concept to base the whole ending of the show off of and that the subsequent circus of a trial felt like something out of a much more outlandish show. And others still found the parade of guest stars amounting to more of a greatest hits compilation rather than a proper finale.

Now, years later, with the benefit of hindsight – and maybe free from those unreasonable expectations – the reception to the finale has perhaps started to warm, and it is certainly not without its merits. While seeing four beloved characters getting hauled off to jail might not feel like a satisfying way to end it all, it certainly is keeping in line with what separated the show from all other sitcoms. It’s said the creators had a mantra, “no hugging, no lessons”. They were uninterested in the emotional moments or satisfying resolutions from the start. Seeing so many shows end with the characters living happily ever after, this was a refreshing change. As for presenting the Seinfeld Four as bad people, well, they were. Few episodes saw any of them do something kind for another person, and more often than not they were actively doing harm to others. The trial is admittedly ridiculous, but it’s hard to argue that getting all these very significant characters together isn’t a fun way to wrap it all up.

So after 20 years, maybe it’s not a perfect finale but with for a show about nothing, it’s not half bad.

What did you think about the Seinfeld finale?

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