How Seinfeld Invented a New Kind of Sitcom

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Seinfeld is one of the most accomplished, iconic and viewed sitcoms of all-time. It ran for 180 episodes over nine seasons. It has been a staple of syndication for two decades now. It won a bunch of awards. It was watched by audiences that modern shows can only envision in their most absurd dreams (although that’s true even when considering “low rated” network sitcoms from the days of yore). Its contributions to our lexicon are myriad, it’s considered by many to be the greatest sitcom of all-time, yada yada yada. See what we were saying about its contributions to the lexicon?

There are a lot of notable things about Seinfeld, and not just how good it is. It’s an example of a bygone era when a sitcom could be given a chance to find the audience. For how much the show is beloved these days, and for how great the ratings were in the later seasons, early on nobody watched Seinfeld. Even in its fourth season it wasn’t a top 20 ranked show. That didn’t happen until season five, and the ratings before season four were even worse. Also, on a critical note, those early couple of seasons of Seinfeld aren’t great. It was a show finding its voice, which is the case for most young sitcoms.

These days, though, you better find your voice right quick if you are a sitcom. Take, for example, Mulaney, if only because it drew more Seinfeld comparisons than it did viewers. It wasn’t a great show, but it starred talented people and had potential. Not only did it get cancelled after one season, it had its order cut down, and it was shuttled off to the hinterland that is the 7:00 slot on Sunday night. This is not an exception for the modern network sitcom. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that a show will get the leash that Seinfeld did. That doesn’t mean we will lose out on a classic sitcom, but we just may.

However, the real legacy of Seinfeld is not something tangential that it was passively involved with. There is a lot of admirable stuff about the show (and some less admirable stuff like its weird relationship to homosexuality), and a lot of aspects about the show that influenced the sitcoms that came after it. Its “no hugging, no learning” ethos is well-established at this point, a bit of iconography that some shows worship at the altar of. All this being said, the most important trait of Seinfeld in terms of impact on pop culture and television is its willingness to have contempt for its main characters.

Seinfeld has nothing but disdain for its core four, not to mention most of the characters floating around the edges of the universe as well. Nowhere was this made clearer than in the polarizing series finale, which spent an hour rubbing how awful Jerry and friends were in the faces of both the characters and the viewers. Some people were put off by this, because apparently it had never occurred to them that these characters were awful people that should have your contempt, presumably because they were the main characters of a sitcom. Also, some just don’t think it’s all that funny, which, you know, fair enough.

This was a show about awful, unlikeable people being awful and unlikeable, and being called out for this very fact. George Costanza is one of the most delightfully odious folks you will find in a sitcom, at least a network sitcom, but he’s also a man repeatedly beaten down for his transgressions. Not to learn any lessons, though. The characters on Seinfeld are vain and selfish, and more importantly they know it, accept it and don’t care. That’s no way for a human being to be, but the show agrees with that assessment.

Sitcoms before Seinfeld, and also its contemporaries, did not adhere to this, even though they often featured unlikeable characters in their own right. You were still supposed to like them and care about them, though, and the shows make that clear. Sam and Diane would do all sorts of obnoxious things, but in the end they were still “Sam and Diane,” the love story of our time. Friends was a cornucopia of douchebags and loathsome, annoying folks, but they were also, you know, your TV friends. If Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine are your TV friends, you need to reconsider who your friends are. Even The Simpsons is not immune to this. Seinfeld was pathologically immune to it, though, which was refreshing in its cynicism.

Since Seinfeld, though, more shows have been willing to eschew hugging, learning or the siren song of standing up for your characters. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the most obvious example of this, and, yes, the aforementioned Mulaney followed this route as well. Surviving FOX shows, such as New Girl, would be wise to take this to heart, although they won’t. The crux of the situational comedy is the comedy, and comedy doesn’t need heart. Seinfeld helped plant that seed in the modern sitcom.

It seems strange to shower a show in praise for unrelenting contempt for everyone and everything, but Seinfeld handled it so wonderfully. They had the audacity to say, “Here are some awful people. They deserve your contempt and your derision, and nothing else.” There were those who didn’t feel this way, but they were operating in direct conflict with what Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David were going for. There is nothing wrong with hugging or learning, but there is something wrong with not considering the alternative. This is what Seinfeld acknowledged, and what they turned into a whole new strand of sitcom. It’s the most impactful part of the show’s legacy, a legacy now in full display on Hulu.

Chris Morgan is an Internet gadabout who writes on a variety of topics and in a variety of mediums. If he had to select one thing to promote, however, it would be his ’90s blog/podcast, Existential Parachute Pants. (You can also follow him on Twitter.)

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