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Seinfeld is an American television sitcom that originally aired on NBC from July 5, 1989, to May 14, 1998. It lasted nine seasons, and is now in syndication. It was created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the latter starring as a fictionalized version of himself. Set predominantly in an apartment block in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City, the show features a host of Jerry’s friends and acquaintances, in particular best friend George Costanza (Jason Alexander), former girlfriend Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and neighbor across the hall Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards).
Seinfeld was produced by Castle Rock Entertainment. In syndication the series was distributed by Columbia Pictures Television and Columbia TriStar Television, but Sony Pictures Television has distributed the series since 2002. It was largely co-written by David and Seinfeld with input from numerous script writers, including Larry Charles, Peter Mehlman, Gregg Kavet, Andy Robin, Carol Leifer, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer, Steve Koren, Jennifer Crittenden, Tom Gammill, Max Pross, Charlie Rubin, Marjorie Gross, Alec Berg, Elaine Pope, and Spike Feresten.
A critical favorite, commercial blockbuster and cultural phenomenon, the show led the Nielsen ratings in its sixth and ninth seasons and finished among the top two (along with the NBC’s ER) every year from 1994 to 1998. In 2002, TV Guide named Seinfeld the greatest television program of all time. In 1997, the episodes “The Boyfriend” and “The Parking Garage” were respectively ranked #4 and #33 on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.
Seinfeld stood out from the many family and group sitcoms of its time. None of its principal characters is related by family or work connections but remain distinctively close friends throughout the series. Unlike many other sitcoms, Seinfeld focuses more on character than story; instead of resolving the story back to normal, the characters turn their storylines upside down with their own unique interpretation. It was often called “a show about nothing” by critics and its own creative personnel.
Many of the characters were based primarily on Seinfeld’s and David’s real-life acquaintances. Two of the most prominent recurring characters were based on well-known people: Jacopo Peterman of the J. Peterman catalog (based on John Peterman), and George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees. Many other characters were introduced as more writers got involved with Seinfeld. Other characters based on real-life individuals include the Soup Nazi and Jackie Chiles based on Johnnie Cochran.
Seinfeld follows its own structure: a story thread is presented at the beginning of each episode, which involves the characters in separate and seemingly unrelated situations. Rapid scene-shifts between plot lines bring the stories together. Even though it does not follow a pattern as other sitcoms, the character’s story variously intertwines in each episode. Despite the separate plot strands, the narratives reveal the creators’ “consistent efforts to maintain the intimacy” amongst the small cast of characters.
The show keeps a strong sense of continuity—characters and plots from past episodes are frequently referenced or expanded upon. Occasionally, story arcs span multiple episodes and even entire seasons. For example, Jerry’s girlfriend Vanessa appears in “The Stake Out” and he ends the relationship when things do not work out in “The Stock Tip”. Other examples are Kramer getting his jacket back and Elaine heading the “Peterman catalog”. Larry David, the show’s head writer and executive producer for the first seven seasons, was praised for keeping a close eye on minor details and making sure the main characters’ lives remained consistent and believable. Curb Your Enthusiasm—David’s later comedy series—further expanded on this idea by following a specific theme for all but one season in the series.
A major difference between Seinfeld and sitcoms which preceded it is that the principal characters never learn from their mistakes. In effect, they are indifferent to the outside world and can be callous towards others, indeed sometimes towards each other; a mantra of the show’s producers was: “No hugging, no learning.” Entertainment Weekly’s television critic Ken Tucker has described theirs as “a group dynamic rooted in jealousy, rage, insecurity, despair, hopelessness, and a touching lack of faith in one’s fellow human beings.” This leads to very few happy endings, except when they come at someone else’s expense. More often in every episode, situations resolve with characters getting a justly deserved comeuppance.
Seinfeld broke several conventions of mainstream television. The show, often described as being about “nothing”, became the first television series since Monty Python’s Flying Circus to be widely described as postmodern. Several elements of Seinfeld fit in with a postmodern interpretation. The show is typically driven by humor interspersed with superficial conflict and characters with strange dispositions. Many episodes revolved around the characters becoming involved in the lives of others to typically disastrous results. On the set, the notion that the characters should not develop or improve throughout the series was expressed as the “no hugging, no learning” rule. Unlike most sitcoms, there are no moments of pathos; the audience is never made to feel sorry for any of the characters. Even Susan’s death in the series elicits no genuine emotions from anyone in the show.
The characters are “thirty-something singles with no roots, vague identities, and conscious indifference to morals.” Usual conventions, such as isolating the characters from the actors playing them and separating the characters’ world from that of the actors and audience, were broken. One such example is the story arc in which the characters promote a television sitcom series named Jerry. The show within a show, Jerry, was much like Seinfeld in that it was “about nothing” and Seinfeld played himself. The fictional Jerry was launched in the season four finale, but unlike Seinfeld, it was not picked up as a series.