'Seinfeld' turns 25 still master of its domain

Seinfeld cast members with James Hong in the second season's Chinese restaurant episode. Sony photo

"Seinfield" premiered on NBC 25 years ago this week, as a summer replacement show called "The Seinfeld Chronicles." As a piece at The Week puts it, "though it hasn't produced a new episode since 1998, the series has earned $3.1 billion from reruns alone and still lords over the writers' rooms of dozens of sitcoms looking to replicate its success."

Seinfeld's genius, of course, was turning "nothing" into comedy gold. Significant time was spent on magnifying everything, from waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant to the importance of shirt button placement to the best kind of babka. The comedy wasn't in the situation — it was in the characters' reaction to it. That made it unique among all sitcoms of its era....

Pre-Seinfeld, the sitcom was a genre renowned for mollycoddling its audiences. Contemporaries like "Married… with Children," "The Cosby Show," and even "Cheers" all followed a familiar format, with their (relatively) likeable characters doing (relatively) wholesome things. Seinfeld gave us a different group: the hypercritical titular comedian, the eternally shallow Elaine, the slacker supreme Kramer, and George Costanza, who was such a loser that it practically defied superlatives.

These are characters who reveled in each others' misfortunes, or the misfortunes of any innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to get caught in their orbit. Over the course of the series, they demonstrated their fundamental flaws: dumping lovers for failing to put exclamation marks at the end of phone messages, getting a hapless restaurateur deported, and even breathing a sigh of relief when a bride-to-be died of a rare case of glue poisoning. As the judge said in the series-ending trial of the show's finale: "I don't know how, or under what circumstances the four of you found each other, but your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built."

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