Why Seinfeld finale still sucks, 20 years on
TWENTY years ago today, the Seinfeld finale did something that I don't think any TV episode had done to me up until that point: It made me angry.
I remember it all clearly, as my reaction was burned into my memory by the white-hot fire of my 8th grade rage. I remember still seething with emotion upon entering school the following morning. (I definitely did not wear my Kramer T-shirt to school on May 15th, 1998.)
Through three seasons (yes, I started watching Seinfeld when I was in the 5th grade) and daily re-runs of the years I missed, I grew to look up to those four miscreants. I saw my most misanthropic qualities reflected back in hilarious half-hour chunks.
The show asked us to relate to these curmudgeons, these loveable jerks with a refusal to learn. I loved Seinfeld, and it had betrayed me by shoving my four comedy heroes into jail - jail! - to serve out a year-long sentence for "criminal indifference." It was like this show, a show where no lessons were taught, actually taught millions of people a lesson that night: if you act like these comedy characters in real life, there's a price to pay. What a world-wrecking note to end on, Seinfeld.
It took me a while before I could return to Seinfeld, before I could pop one of the dozen VHS tapes I'd lovingly recorded re-runs onto (in order, with labels) into the VCR. It might have taken the show's much heralded release on DVD in 2004 to get me to interested again. Seinfeld once gave me so much pleasure, but I was master of my domain for a good six-ish years.
Rewatching the finale today, now that I'm 20 years older and basically the same age as Jerry Seinfeld when he started the show, I no longer feel the same level of rage I did back then. But then again, do any of us feel things as intensely as we did in school?
The thing that annoys me now is just how … average … of an episode"The Finale" is. The hour-long closer was half of a night of all-Seinfeld programming. The first hour was a clip show, and the second hour was … well, kind of a clip show too.
In the finale, a new president of NBC decides to revive Jerry and George's (Jason Alexander) failed sitcom pilot Jerry from the Season 4 finale, which aired five years earlier. As a gesture of good faith, NBC gives Jerry and George access to a private jet that will fly them anywhere. Along with Kramer (Michael Richards) and Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the quartet decide to fly to Paris - but the jet makes an emergency landing in a tiny Massachusetts town after some shenanigans from Kramer.
There, the gang watches (and heckles) a guy getting mugged, and are then arrested for violating a newly established Good Samaritan Law. The next 30 minutes is essentially another clip show as 18 characters (or, maybe more accurately, "victims") take the stand as character witnesses to the protagonist's antagonistic natures. The disgusted jury finds them guilty, and the horrified judge sentences them to a year in prison. The end.
A few decades removed from the shock of seeing these characters in orange jumpsuits (Jerry's prison stand-up routine is … it's still a lot to take in), I get what writer Larry David was doing. Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer were selfish people who mugged old ladies for bread, got people fired on a regular basis, burned down a house, burst one "Bubble Boy's" bubble, and showed no empathy to the people they deported or - in one case - indirectly killed through choosing the cheapest envelopes possible. It makes sense now. They do deserve to be in jail.
But as an episode of television, the Seinfeld finale just doesn't hang together. Seinfeld was never really a show about nothing; it was a show about the extreme something people pull out of nothing. Like, a lot happened in the Chinese restaurant and parking garage and movie theatre and airport while these jerks were hanging out in them.
But the finale does the reverse and pulls a whole lot of nothing out of a whole lot of something. This episode is basically a legal drama, complete with a showboating lawyer (the return of Jackie Chiles) and coverage from Geraldo Rivera.
Half of the finale is just, "Here's Jane Leeves and Teri Hatcher and the Soup Nazi, for fun." The leads, who are extremely grouchy and snippy even before their near-death experience and trial, just fade into the background. It's a bummer.
And that's what I feel when I watch the Seinfeld finale now - my anger has been replaced with boredom. It's fun seeing dozens of Seinfeld supporting players in montage after montage, interacting like this is Avengers: Infinity War with a laugh track. But as an episode of Seinfeld, "The Finale" is too big, with a network meeting and a private plane and a long courtroom scene, and it's nothing like the mundane farce the show was during its best seasons. Maybe that's what I was really reacting to 20 years ago, when a night of must-see TV burst my bubble?
Nah, I was really just mad about them ending up in jail. But I learned my lesson - pick better heroes.