The Popularity Of Seinfeld Is Unprecedented
As a person who tends to look at pop culture with a more critical eye, one thing that I have found is that quality television shows usually not popular. I’ve just come to accept that as a near-universal truth. If a show is good, or challenging, or ground-breaking, people don’t watch it. There are numerous examples of amazingly bad, mundane shows that generate huge viewerships and stay on the air for years. Everybody Loves Raymond is a good example. There are 210 episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. 210! That’s somewhere in the ballpark of 80 hours of Debra becoming exasperated by Ray’s lackadaisical attitude, Marie babying Ray, some Robert-inspired hijinks, and sappy conclusions where everyone learns a lesson about themselves…until the next episode. Want to know how many hours we got of Freaks and Geeks, a terrifically honest high school show featuring a cast and crew (Appatow, Rogen, Franco et al) that would go on to dominate Hollywood? 18 freaking hours. One season of hour long episodes, a few of which never aired on TV, before the show was cancelled.
I could hem and haw all day about great television shows that have failed to find an audience. Look at Friday Night Lights, for instance. This is a show that has been hailed by critics as being one of the best of its generation. The acting, particularly by Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tammy (Connie Britton) is so far above anything else on television right now. And the story is (kinda) about football! Yet the show has been on the verge of being cancelled since it started. The storyline is hard to follow, is the common complaint.
We are living in times where a show like 2 and a Half Men flourishes while Arrested Development gets the axe, despite the fact that you could make a strong argument for 2 and a Half Men being one of the worst things, not just shows, ever produced by humans, and you could make a decent case for Arrested Development being one of the funniest three seasons of any show, ever. I digress though. Here’s the point of this blog: jaded pop-culture observers have accepted the fact that in a fist fight that is ratings, stupid beats quality nine times out of ten. It’s to the point where, if an “intelligent” show does well, articles are written saying things like “Look at us now, world, we’re not that stupid!” A good example was the box office success of Inception (review coming soon!) this weekend. Everyone was talking about how complex this movie was and about how its popularity may pave the way for bigger budget directors to take more chances. We’ll see how that goes.
ANYWAY, here’s the point of the blog: the popularity of Seinfeld is freaking unprecedented. For the life of me I can’t figure out how this show is so huge. I’ll give you an example of its popularity: way back in April, I wrote a blog post about Seinfeld. There wasn’t a whole lot to this post, to be honest. I embedded a video some clown on YouTube had made cutting up scenes from the show into a dramatic movie starring George and talked a little bit about where I thought that show started to go downhill and called it a day. Not my most eloquent work, certainly. But other than the “11 Things That (Inexplicably) Continue To Exist” post, this is by far my most popular blog post. Today I’ve already gotten 15 views on it. Yesterday I had 35. And these are primarily from search engines where people are simply typing in the word “Seinfeld.” And I don’t have to tell you that my little blog is hardly the first page that comes up when you type “Seinfeld” into Google. A person would have to do some serious sifting to get here, but that’s just my point. Some 12 years after the show ended, and there’s still a lot of people interested enough to be doing some deep internet exploration of the show.
Let me get back to my original conceit: Seinfeld bucks the trend of quality shows getting no viewership in a ridiculous way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this, if not the most popular, at least in the conversation for most most popular show of all time. It makes more money in syndication than most shows earn regularly (probably because it’s on 6 times a day), DVD sales are through the roof, yada yada yada (get it?). And it does all this despite a number of obstacles that have usually proven to be a deterrent to tv shows. The first is that the setting and storylines are as mundane and ordinary as any show in the history of television. It’s been widely hailed as a show “about nothing.” While I disagree with that somewhat, there is certainly not a whole heck of a lot going on. If you were to describe this show to a friend, you’d probably say something like “Well, it’s about four friends living in New York, who get into a lot of weird situations.” What else can you say? There’s no central plot: the characters on Seinfeld aren’t looking for anything, they’re just living their lives.
The second strike against the show is that there are no stars in the cast. I guess Jerry himself is the closest thing the show has to a “star” but he’s far from a celebrity. The primary cast: Jason Alexander (George), Julia Louise Dreyfus (Elaine) and the volatile Michael Richards (Kramer) haven’t exactly lit it up since Seinfeld ended. Jerry’s done Bee Movie and The Marriage Ref. I think everyone remembers hearing about Kramer’s racist comedy club tirade a few years back. George has been reduced to doing Jenny Craig commercials. Elaine has done fairly well, but she’s hardly a prolific actor.
So how does a show like this manage to have such a lasting cultural impact? Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone can say for sure what it is about Seinfeld that’s led it to enjoy such a lasting popularity. I can offer a few suggestions. First of all, the show holds up very well. There are certainly moments where you can tell this thing was filmed in the early to mid-90’s, but for the most part the show is surprisingly timeless. The characters are also a big part of the show’s appeal. When you’re watching a show like Friends, for instance, it’s pretty apparent that the guy playing Joey is not like that in real life, or that Jennifer Aniston is acting. In Seinfeld though, it actually seems conceivable that Jason Alexander is that neurotic, or Michael Richards is that wirey and kooky. Even the minor character on the show blend seamlessly into the Seinfeld world: Newman, Uncle Leo, The Jimmy, Poppy, etc. etc.
The final, and most important aspect is the strong writing combined with the format of the show. Despite its unusual creativity, the set up of Seinfeld couldn’t be more conventional. Everything from the goofy music (second worst part of the show) to the laugh track (worst part of the show) screams convention. So what’s you end up with is a show that’s following a conventional format yet is so far above everything else out there in terms of writing. It’d be like if Hemingway decided to write a paint-by-numbers Western.
So there you have it. I gotta go now, Seinfeld is on in five minutes…