Television: Is 'Seinfeld' a Legend After 10 Years?

Are you ready to feel old? It was 10 years ago this month that "Seinfeld" went off the air. The decade may have flown by in less time than it took Jerry to find his next girlfriend, but a decade seems like the right distance from which to evaluate how successful the show really was. When it left prime time in 1998, "Seinfeld" was widely considered to be a classic, and many fans call it the best sitcom ever. Was it either?

Or neither. As someone who doesn't dip into its bottomless rerun pool much, I was surprised when I sat down with the show again by how poorly "Seinfeld" holds up. What once seemed smart—they just did a storyline on John Cheever's diaries!—feels like shtik. The pacing—no show had ever packed in so many scenes, some of them lasting a few seconds—now seems formulaic and forced. You can almost hear the guys sitting in the writers' room throwing out ideas: Wouldn't it be funny if (a) Jerry dated a deaf girl? (b) Elaine was an embarrassingly bad dancer? (c) George got a job with the Yankees? (d) Kramer invented a bra for men? Chances are, you can immediately remember the episode I'm talking about, and it's probably making you smile. But I bet you can't remember much beyond that tagline, because the show was one big conceit: four characters—whiny wackos with hair, really—who managed to turn life's most ordinary situations into something outrageous, and with a laugh track.

Seinfeld and cocreator Larry David (lately of "Curb Your Enthusiasm") might not disagree much with that assessment. They always said that "Seinfeld" didn't aspire to be anything great— after all, this was a show about "nothing." They went out of their way to create a sitcom that treated happy endings and character development like kryptonite. "Seinfeld" was about finding humor in ordinary situations: relationships, jobs, parents, a bite at the local coffee shop. If you could dig up laughs in a chocolate babka, you really were the funniest show around. And if you could do it in an entire episode about masturbation—and, even tougher, without ever saying the word "masturbation"—you were the master of the comedy domain.

But, like a cheap sweater, or a cheap puffy shirt, the "Seinfeld" humor wears thin fast. It's hard to concoct four storylines an episode that are simultaneously ordinary and over the top. After all these years, the show's meticulous architecture creaks so loudly, it drowns out the comedy. Which leaves you with something very silly. I don't mean juvenile. The truly naughty episodes—such as the one about being the "master of my domain" (see above) or the one about breast implants—are still must-see TV, because they cover ticklish territory no one went near before, and they did it with a verbal panache that could easily have become crass. But in between, there were an awful lot of clothes jokes. And food jokes. And car jokes. And was that George Steinbrenner stuff ever funny to anyone who's not a Yankees fan? Maybe it's not the writing that's to blame at all. We all know that Jerry was no Olivier, but could he be a worse actor? I found myself wondering if "Seinfeld" would work better if Seinfeld weren't in it.

Perhaps none of this will bother you as you watch the one about George buying Jon Voight's car for the 153rd time. Part of the reason we loved "Seinfeld" was that these guys were our buddies. For eight years we hung out with them, along with those kids just down the street on "Friends." "Seinfeld" became the '90s version of bowling night: the place you kicked back once a week and shared life's little triumphs and humiliations with folks who knew just what you were going through. They made you feel like part of the gang, right down to the inside jokes. The problem is, we've changed, and the "Seinfeld" gang hasn't. There's a reason that the great sitcoms—"The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "M*A*S*H" and "Taxi," to name a few—still work. They're not just about being funny; they're about people who grow enough in a week, and over time, to keep them interesting. They have depth. Jerry and George have issues. That can be amusing, even occasionally hilarious. But after a while, it all has started to sound like a whole lotta yadda yadda yadda.

Why is "Seinfeld," currently running on more than 200 stations across the country, still going strong 10 years after the last original episode aired? Why do I watch it nearly every weeknight at 7:30 and sometimes again at 11? Why are millions still watching and laughing along with me, including my 18-year-old son, who was born in April 1990, before the fragile, four-episode first season (the "glass table" season) had even begun? Why does "Seinfeld," like Elaine Benes, have such great legs? (Why does this article start with so many questions?) There are lots of reasons, actually. I could talk about the great writing, the intricate, interwoven storylines and how … yadda yadda yadda … it's really funny. I could discuss its bicipital nature, the underlying Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David yin/yang, good/evil, light/dark tension that gives the show its unique character. I could even explore the role that trivia plays in the enduring appeal of a sitcom with 180 episodes in the can. (During the first season, what kind of table did jerry have in his apartment?) I could do that, but I'm not going to. Instead, I'm going to examine some of the show's more subtle strengths, the often overlooked and underappreciated elements that are so critical to "Seinfeld's" ongoing success.

There is, for example, the casting. And when I say casting, I don't mean the four principals, who, in my view, rank right up there with the stars of "I Love Lucy," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "All in the Family" and "Cheers." (Yeah, I know, Jerry's not an actor, but the other three more than compensate for his limitations.) No, I'm talking about the rest of the ensemble. Let me say it plain—no sitcom in the history of television has featured a more talented or memorable bunch of second, third and fourth bananas than "Seinfeld." Period.

The truth is, even we loyal fans can get a little tired of the three yuppie leads and their hipster-doofus buddy nattering on about nothing. But when we do, there are plenty of other great characters to keep us watching, especially the deranged trio of Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller), Estelle Costanza (Estelle Harris) and Newman (Wayne Knight). How deeply disturbed these folks are, how extraordinary the actors who bring their pathologies to life. With perfect timing, inspired line readings (just try to predict when Stiller is going to start screaming; count the many ways Harris can say "George") and physical craft (see Newman narrow his beady eyes like a silent-movie villain), they add a deep and essential layer of psychosis to the show.

Less prominent but no less worthy of attention are Jerry's father, Morty (Barney Martin); his mother, Helen (Liz Sheridan); his shoplifting Uncle Leo (Len Lesser); Elaine's boss J. Peterman (John O'Hurley), and Kramer's attorney, Jackie Chiles (Phil Morris). It's incredible to see how totally these actors commit to their nutty roles. Even bit parts on the show, like Philip Baker Hall's Lt. Bookman, the library cop, become master classes in lunacy.

Another reason the show has held up as long as it has, I think, is the variety and quality of the sets. And again, I'm not talking about the two main sets—Jerry's bland apartment or that boring coffee shop they hang out in. I mean all the other places we go when we watch, like George's parents' house in Queens, a perfect little domestic hell, with its stuffed couch, polished coffee table and hideous knickknacks. Or Newman's cluttered apartment, the postman's lair, where he cavorts with Kramer's mother and soaks his feet after a long day delivering mail. (Yuck.) Also, thanks to the fanatical attention to detail, you get that perfect combination of ridiculous plots and realistic sets. When Jerry and Elaine go to the bakery to buy a chocolate babka or the gang spends the weekend in the Hamptons (think "shrinkage"), it looks like they're buying a babka and hanging out in the Hamptons.

Although it's about four friends in New York in the '90s, "Seinfeld's" best jokes have almost nothing to do with all that, another reason it endures. The contamination of Jerry's car by a parking valet's lethal BO, Kramer's finding the old Merv Griffin set and turning his apartment into a talk show, the invention of the Mansiere. These are timeless absurdities. And here's another one: it's 2008 and we're still watching.