It’s been 22 years since the final episode of Seinfeld, aptly titled “The Finale,” first aired on May 14, 1998. It was one of the most highly anticipated hours of television ever broadcast, attracting a record-breaking 76 million viewers. But when all was said and done, the finale drew the ire of fans and critics alike. There was no happy ending here — and television audiences just weren’t having it.
In the 20-plus years since “The Finale” aired, the sitcom has evolved in complexity and ambition, and the show’s co-creator, Larry David, has pioneered the cringe-comedy genre with Curb Your Enthusiasm. Comedy fans credit Seinfeld as the start of much of that growth – even as they lament the disappointing way the series wrapped up. Now, to celebrate the 22th anniversary of the show’s end, we’re here to say the finale wasn’t all that bad. In fact, hear us out, here: the Seinfeld series finale was actually pretty darn great.
In “The Finale,” Jerry and George (Jason Alexander) receive some fantastic news when their sitcom Jerry — which was shelved five years prior — is given the green light by NBC. To celebrate, the duo, along with Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards), take the network’s private plane on a trip to Paris; of course, they never make it to France.
After a Kramer-led mishap, the aircraft is forced to make an emergency landing in the fictional town of Latham, Massachusetts. While waiting for the plane issue to be fixed, the gang goes into town and ends up witnessing a carjacking. Instead of intervening to help the overweight victim (played by late comedian John Pinette), they stand on the sidelines, take a video of the crime on Kramer’s camera, and make fat-shaming jokes about the victim, to boot. Minutes later, the group is hauled away to jail for violating the town’s new “Good Samaritan law,” which basically makes it illegal to do nothing when witnessing a fellow citizen in crisis.
What follows is a highly-publicized court case that puts Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer (aka “The New York Four”) on trial for their crime. And to fully drive home how guilty the gang is, the prosecuting attorney brings in a load of cameo witnesses from the show’s nine-season run, among them: the Soup Nazi (Larry Thomas), Leslie “The Low Talker” (Wendel Meldrum), Elaine’s ex David Puddy (Patrick Warburton), Jerry’s ex Sidra Holland (Teri Hatcher), and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David). The cavalcade of witnesses gives audiences one last satisfying plot point in each of these characters’ story arcs, and acts as a hard-to-swallow reminder that the “heroes” they spent the last nine years with were actually anything but.
After years of self-centered behavior, of not caring at all how their actions impacted any, and every, one they came in contact with — from Jerry assaulting and stealing a loaf of rye bread from an elderly woman named Mabel (Frances Bay) to George’s deflating Trivial Pursuit mishap with the Bubble Boy — the group is found guilty for violating the “Good Samaritan law” and are put in jail for a year’s time. The final moments find them behind bars, without any show of remorse, continuing their signature meaningless banter, as the camera pans away and eventually fades to black.
People were not happy with this choice. Entertainment Weekly called it “off-key and bloated,” USA Today referred to the episode as “dismal,” giving it one-and-a-half stars, and Newsday asserted that “The Finale” was a “major comedic disaster.” The ninth and final season is Seinfeld‘s only Rotten season according to the Tomatometer, and the Critics Consensus – which reflects the sentiments of the critics – speaks to fans’ disappointment in its final flourish: “…the cynical show about nothing goes out defiantly on its own terms – even if means alienating fans who may have wanted things to end differently.”
Those assessments may have been somewhat correct at the time, but hindsight has proven the episode had way more going for it than Larry David walking away into the sunset with his middle finger held high. And it has a lot to do with going out “defiantly on its own terms.”
“I think the thing about finales is everybody writes their own finale in their head, whereas if they just tune in during the week to a normal show, they’re surprised by what’s going on,” David explained to Grantland about the seemingly-impossible mission of satisfying expectations. “They haven’t written it beforehand, they don’t know what the show is. But for a finale, they go, ‘Oh, well this should happen to George, and Jerry and Elaine should get together,’ and all that. They’ve already written it, and often they’re disappointed, because it’s not what they wrote.”
Seinfeld changed the sitcom game when it arrived on the TV scene. But the program, which was marketed as “the show about nothing,” revealed itself over time as something more. It was a show filled with dark humor and bleak topics immersed in the everyday minutiae of city life; it was a program where a self-centered comedian and his privileged friends were unaffected and unchanged by the world around them. Seinfeld wasn’t a program about nothing; the series explored the lives of a group of borderline nihilist New Yorkers who learned absolutely nothing and never ever changed, as those around them grew.
As part of the plan that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld put into place, their show, which prompted NBC to build its “Must-See TV lineup,” was never about teaching life lessons or handing out moral epiphanies. There was absolutely no character growth here. This all makes sense when you remember the two important rules the show’s writers had to follow: no hugging and no learning.
While the central crew may not have evolved into better people throughout the series’ nine-year run, the show taught television viewers that comedy could exist in a multitude of lanes. Sitcoms may still operate on the formula of dishing out morals and supplying growth to their lead characters, but there was something a bit too relatable about the way Seinfeld handled its final bow. We see it in the way “The Finale” depicts the highly-publicized trial as a televised spectacle not that different from the O.J. Simpson court proceedings that kicked off the Court TV trend just five years prior. The inclusion of the Johnnie Cochran–esque lawyer, Jackie Chiles (Phil Morris), and Geraldo Rivera as himself, commentating on the event, really helped bring to life the ridiculousness of the media circus.
Did Seinfeld stay true to its formula through its nine-season duration? Maybe. When you view the series as the completely character-driven story that it was, then that changes things. Without each and every quirky role introduced on the series — and the endless supply of quotable lines the show birthed into the pop-culture vernacular — Seinfeld wouldn’t have been such a success. And given that this was a show inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s life as a comedian, where his stand-up routines so famously picked apart the mundane details of everyday life, the lack of interest in digging under the surface and figuring out how any of these people tick makes even more sense. Remember: No hugging and no learning.
According to Grantland, David “was not interested in an emotional ride, and neither was Jerry.” The show maintained protocol from episode one. Yearning for some sort of epiphany that would’ve wrapped things up in a happily-ever-after bow is understandable, but that was never part of the plan.
Jerry’s postal-worker nemesis and neighbor Newman (Wayne Knight), who gets some oddball justice in the finale after his request to join the gang on their trip to Paris is turned down, ends up foreshadowing the events that transpire. In typical Newman fashion, he passionately delivers a vengeful, Pulp Fiction–style tirade: “Hear me and hear me well. The day will come. Oh yes, mark my words, Seinfeld — your day of reckoning is coming. When an evil wind will blow through your little play world, and wipe that smug smile off your face. And I’ll be there, in all my glory, watching – watching as it all comes crumbling down.”
Jerry’s smile may not have been ultimately wiped from his face — we see him doing stand-up in prison as the credits roll — but he, along with George, Elaine, and Kramer, do end up actually learning that there’s a limit to bad behavior, even for these four.
And so do we.
As the guilty verdict is read, and the sentence is handed down, Judge Arthur Vandelay (Stanley Anderson) eloquently puts their crimes against humanity into perspective: “Your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundations upon which our society is built.”
In today’s fast-moving disconnected age of social media and fake news, the impact of these words have only grown in relevancy. Who knew at the end of the day, that this show about nothing would actually have something important to say? The writers may have honored the “no hugging” rule, but when all was said and done, there was a bit of a lesson to be had after all.