The Backhanded Brilliance of the Seinfeld Finale.
May 14th, 1998, an estimated 76.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the finale of Seinfeld. The show began as a moderately successful NBC comedy until it quickly snowballed into one of, if not the, biggest sensation on television. The misadventures of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer had the 90’s in a vice grip. The show about nothing had essentially become the biggest thing, and expectations were astronomical for the ending. So, when 76.3 million people were ready to see where their favorite characters would end up, the show had a lot on its back. And 56 minutes later the consensus was, meh. While not quite a dumpster fire that destroyed the legacy of the series (Looking at you Game of Thrones), it was a far cry from many of the best TV finales in recent memory. The show survived and is still regarded as one of the best, but the finale is one of the most reviled in TV history. So, what happened?
To understand why the finale bombed so hard, you must first understand what Seinfeld was. Created by comedy legends Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Seinfeld was, famously, a show about nothing. Each episode was totally self-contained, only addressing previous episodes with a handful of recurring characters and plotlines. It lacked the drama that other shows would string along for multiple seasons. You don’t tune in to Seinfeld to see a will-they-won’t-they relationship, or a pregnant character, or a prominent character hanging in between life or death, you tune in to laugh. Each episode wouldn’t advance a greater narrative or arc, they were selfish jerks who would continue to be so. A writing rule that Seinfeld stuck to throughout was “never let the characters learn anything”. This rule made Seinfeld so funny. No moral quandaries, no evolution, just a comfortable rhythm of pure comedic brilliance. This approach was able to sustain the show for 172 self-contained episodes, but come finale time, audiences wanted more than just low-stakes comedy.
Audiences expect a finale to do 3 main things: conclude the narrative that’s been cooking for the entire series, complete series long character arcs, and provide a meaningful conclusion that condenses the essence of the entire show into one ultimate expression of love for the series. An example of a great sitcom finale is the 90's mega-hit: Friends. The Friends finale is everything a sitcom finale needed to be. Nostalgic and heartwarming, but undeniably the comedic powerhouse it always was. It balances heart with humor all while paying off dozens of plotlines and running gags built up through 10 seasons of airtime. It has gone down in history as one of the best finales ever and deservedly so, it checked off all the boxes. Seinfeld, however, took a different route...
Two of three of the things I mentioned don’t apply to Seinfeld. There was no narrative to conclude, no arcs to complete, all the Seinfeld finale could do was celebrate itself and its characters. Here is where the cynical writing of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld comes in. See, where Friends uses the finale to celebrate the characters and how far they’ve come, Seinfeld uses its final episode to finally condemn the main cast to the fate they deserve. David and co. decided that all the smugness and arrogance these characters exhibited throughout the series would finally come back to bite them in the ass, and it does, in spectacular fashion. While other sitcoms end with an emotional group hug, Seinfeld ends with our favorite characters sitting in a prison cell. The entire episode consisted of characters throughout the series testifying in court how awful the main cast is, and ending with Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer being sentenced to prison.
This ending was a shock to be sure, and not a welcome one for many. People were upset that the series decided to conclude nearly a decade of television with something like this. Many would argue that Seinfeld is among one of the worst tv finales ever aired, but I beg to differ. While it’s a far cry from the razor-sharp writing the show was known for, the Seinfeld finale worked as a great ending. Something audiences weren’t willing to accept was the nature of these characters. They were not good people. The things they do throughout the series are selfish and destructive and they never show any remorse. Luckily, that’s funny to watch, and the show never paints them as unlikable villains. Nevertheless, these characters don’t deserve the happy ending that other sitcom ensembles had been blessed with. Obviously, that’s upsetting to audiences who had grown to love them, but it’s a bitterly comedic reality.
It also works as an amalgamation of what the show was up to that point. The “no lesson learned” mentality is never better presented than the slow zoom out from the main cast in the prison cell. Characters who had never received true consequences had now been given a prison sentence, and that’s quintessential Seinfeld humor. The wry and almost cruel humor that defined the series had now been turned towards the main characters. Its irony of the highest degree, and while it may be shocking at first, further thought reveals the brilliance behind it.
The finale was the ending Seinfeld deserved, while not exactly being the one people wanted. It’s one of my favorite shows and I’d argue that the finale doesn’t even touch majority of the episodes in terms of quality, but I believe that it’s a severely misinterpreted finale. Although I’m not head over heels for it, I find it to still be outrageously funny, unexpected, and the only possible way these characters could’ve gone off the air.