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Why ‘Seinfeld’ Still Holds Up

The seminal sitcom isn’t only still relevant, it’s needed more than ever.
Binge Header Seinfeld
By  · Published on March 27th, 2020

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Binge Stats Seinfeld“I think I can sum up the show for you with one word: Nothing.”

At its core, that’s Seinfeld. It’s nothing. It’s about the regular and hilarious frustrations of being a person in the world. And it’s best watched in rapid succession, especially when repeated as necessary.

There are untold numbers of qualifiers for what can make something binge-able, but a requirement should be a degree of comfort. Comfort can manifest in various ways, but in the case of Seinfeld, it’s found in the way the show strikes a balance between familiarity and innovation.

Let’s address the first of those traits: familiarity. What made Seinfeld a beloved classic, what makes it prime for endless rewatches, and what makes us crave more of it is that we know the world of the show as our own. Seinfeld was created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld and stars the latter as a fictional version of himself. The cast is rounded out by Jason Alexander as Jerry’s best friend, George, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine, Jerry’s former girlfriend, and Michael Richards as Jerry’s hipster doofus neighbor, Kramer.

The characters are all idiosyncratic in their own way, but their peculiarities are born from human experiences and frustrations that are all too relatable. By bringing seemingly minor occurrences — waiting in line, getting lost in a parking garage, having difficulty deciding where to eat — to the forefront of TV, episode after episode, the show validated these experiences as not being merely inconsequential daily chores in life. Watching the characters on Seinfeld contend with “nothing” storylines supports our own desire to believe that there is something interesting and comical to be found in what is mundane. Though originally aired between 1989 and 1998, when a show being “binge-able” was unheard of, the show is ideal for this method of consumption because its stories are all about finding comedy in the ordinary routine of life.

The characters easily succumb to hedonistic impulses and they are all beyond selfish and lazy, often operating with no regard for anyone else. And, sure, I suppose shows with “good” people are fun to root for, but doesn’t that become tiring and stale? Isn’t it all a bit exhausting watching people be nice to each other over and over again? Doesn’t it start to feel cloying after a while? Is it not much more addictive to watch hilariously self-serving characters get their comeuppance, or — sometimes better yet! — get away with it all? These characters represent and validate the taboos we often wish we could break.

While all of them are prone to this, George Costanza must be singled out here. He is the character that I believe we all see ourselves in as much as we don’t want to. He has public outbursts and calls out conventions, while still being bound to exist in a world with bizarre social rules that we all abide for some reason. When he cheats on book clubs, tries to make money off plane ticket loopholes, and laments the hullabaloo that goes into getting wine for a party, he is us, at our most base and at our most human.

The relatability of the show made it iconic, and this is the reason Seinfeld still holds a piece of cultural domination. Whether you know a re-gifter or a low-talker, you celebrate Festivus, or you find yourself yadda-yadda-ing insignificant details, you’re living a life formed by Seinfeld. There are multiple Twitter accounts that offer takes on what the show would look like in the modern world, from imagining Jerry getting an iPad to wondering how the gang would adapt to social distancing. More than 20 years removed from the finale, Seinfeld still proliferates and we can look to the wisdom of its world to navigate our own.

But, of course, familiarity isn’t enough on its own. A show, to be truly great, must fill a gap in the landscape of TV. Seinfeld did then and it still does now, for many reasons, but one above all: Elaine Benes. With credit to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ magnificent whirlwind of a performance, Elaine was and remains a singular force in regards to female characters. While many female sitcom protagonists tend to be love interests, Elaine is never reduced to the role she fills in the other characters’ lives.

She also defies the “one of the boys” trope. As much as she is egotistical and abrasive, she doesn’t tend to look down on femininity. There are episodes that address her lack of close female friends, but this boils down to Elaine’s disdain for almost everyone outside of her group of equally selfish compatriots. Elaine is also refreshingly frank about her sex life, she discusses intimate details without shame, openly judges the sponge-worthiness of men, and knows how to hold her own in The Contest. She is consistently shown to stick to her beliefs regarding a woman’s right to choose and is not afraid to start fights in public or break up with boyfriends over disagreements about abortion. She frequently tackles sensitive subjects and often does so in indelicate ways.

But Elaine isn’t only her willingness to be brash, she’s also an intelligent, committed career woman who knows her worth. She can be charming and hilarious; the life of the party (albeit sometimes unintentionally — hello, little kicks!). Elaine is revolutionary and beloved because she is fully realized as both flawed and admirable. Like the other three, she is relatable and familiar, but as the sole woman, she filled a role that was missing from the most popular shows in the ’90s. As much as she certainly paved the way for other women on TV, from 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s eponymous Fleabag, it’s hard to imagine anyone could ever truly match up to the original.

Seinfeld boasts a nine-season run, and in its 180 total episodes, there are untold numbers of hilarious gems to be discovered. Kramer’s bizarre outbursts, George’s cheap schemes, Jerry’s ridiculous relationship standards, and Elaine’s impassioned (read: self-righteous) crusades are all pieces of the puzzle that make Seinfeld a landmark sitcom. It is a show where we can see ourselves and see multifaceted characters missing from far too many corners of TV. With a wide world of binge options available, it’s clear that while all the other shows are doing something, the best is still the one that did nothing.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.