I missed Seinfeld. Timing was partly to blame. I was 10 when it debuted in the UK in 1993, busy playing with Ninja Turtles (OK, OK, Hero Turtles) and begging my parents to get Sky so we could watch The Simpsons. The rest is sheer fecklessness.
For years I did my best shrug emoji in the direction of American and Australian friends who insisted Seinfeld was the greatest sitcom of all time. They’d say something like “you don’t know what you’re missing,” and I’d say something like “it’s just a less funny Friends,” partly because it wound them up, partly because I’m a bit of a prick.
Besides, I’m British. The greatest sitcom of all time has twelve episodes and is either set in Torquay or Slough, depending on who you ask.
It wasn’t until Amazon announced early in 2017 that it was bringing all nine seasons of Seinfeld to its Prime Video streaming service that’d I’d even considered watching it. But watch I did.
In the following two months, I watched all nine seasons. 180 episodes in 60 days. Like the guy who turns up late to the party in fancy dress when the invite said smart casual, I can tell you with a frankly surprising lack of shame and a superhuman inability to admit my mistake that it’s time you watched Seinfeld.
I know it’s not just me. Most of us never saw it, and for good reason: From the moment it began airing in the UK, the show was set up to fail; shunted around the sweaty nethers of the BBC 2 schedule, from Wednesday to Tuesday to Saturday to Friday, often airing close to midnight.
By 1999, the year the Seinfeld finale was watched by 75 million people in the US (the third highest audience of all time), BBC 2 was airing up to four episodes a week in a midnight slot, as if trying to dump their remaining commitment as quickly as possible. While Channel 4 were riding US sitcom fever with Friends and Frasier, the BBC were burying the best comedy import of all.
The final episode was shown on BBC 2 on Wednesday 24 October, 2001 at 11:20pm. I had to look that up. No one watched it. Those who did (students, shift workers, the uncannily prescient), will already have skipped straight to the comments to be smug about it.
Seinfeld is easily as good as the hyperbole suggests. But it’s not immediate. It takes a few episodes. It’s clear that co-creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were still finding their feet in the first season. But by season two the characters are established, the vision, or lack of, is cemented, and once your eyes adjust to the early ‘90s in all it’s sartorially terrible glory, you’ll find yourself immersed in one of best observed chronicles of human narcissism, self-hatred, and schadenfreude ever created.
At it’s core, Seinfeld is a show for people who don’t like people. Which, let’s face it, is all of us. In the age of “it me” relatability, Jerry and co’s unwavering, petty distaste for anyone who isn’t them feels more relevant than ever. They never learn anything, always fault others for all their constant troubles, and gleefully sabotage any chance another member of the group has at happiness.
This probably isn’t a plea to anyone who thinks How I Met Your Mother is the pinnacle of situational comedy. Structurally, Seinfeld shuns the stuff that other sitcoms live by; the will-they-won’t-they plot lines and romantic entanglements, the season arcs and character developments. Aside from recurring jokes, the situations here rarely last longer than a single episode.
The world simply resets – various romantic partners dumped, criminal damage left unpunished, cars discarded or destroyed, cliffhangers unresolved and never mentioned again.
Individual episodes (season two’s “The Chinese Restaurant, season three’s “The Parking Garage”) are often set entirely in what would be a transition scene in another sitcom. These episodes are perfect examples of what Seinfeld does so well: dissecting the minutiae of human existence and interaction. The group pick fights with strangers, pick at each other, and take extended side-bars on topics completely unrelated to the plot.
And they cover *everything*. Think of a human characteristic – big hands, low talkers, annoying laughs – or a situation: traffic jams, sauna rooms, the cinema – Seinfeld has it covered. After a season or two you’ll constantly find yourself thinking “there’s a Seinfeld for this”.
My favourite novels are ones where nothing happens, but nothing happens well. After watching Seinfeld, I’d extend the same sentiment to TV shows. In Seinfeld, nothing happens, but nothing happens so well it might just be the best sitcom of all time (with all respect to residents of Slough and Torquay). It’s time you got around to watching it.