You watched every episode, quoted characters from Kramer to Frank Costanza on a regular basis, and delighted at the many squirmy situations George found himself in. And when, after nine seasons, the "Seinfeld" crew decided to call it quits, you busted out a buffet of Drake's Coffee Cakes, Junior Mints, and Yoo-hoo and prepared to bid Jerry and his pals farewell.
And then they aired that series finale.
It's been 15 years -- May 14, 1998 -- since "Seinfeld" rode off into the primetime sunset in a finale that was one of the more polarizing series enders ever. Our own Yahoo! TV editor Dave Nemetz called the episode "shockingly unfunny," and pointed out that Jerry Seinfeld himself, while guest starring on "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," joked that they "screwed up" the finale.
"The Sopranos" creator David Chase -- whose own series finale, with that infamous diner scene, stirred up controversy in 2007 -- joked to the New York Times last year, "'Seinfeld,' they ended it with them all going to jail. Now that's the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner."
But was it really that bad? Or did viewers have expectations that the greatest TV comedy of all time would also have the best series finale of all time? "Seinfeld," by pretty much anyone's review, definitely did not deliver on that front, but here's why it also was not one of the worst finales ever, and, in fact, was a very fitting ending to the NBC classic:
The finale was too cynical, you say? This was a group of friends who not only weren't always nice, or charitable, to other people, but who weren't even kind, or sometimes tolerable, to each other. That they would, in the end, be punished for not helping, and even making fun of, someone in trouble was really just one giant karmic bowl of soup (mulligatawny, from the Soup Nazi stand, of course) for the many times and ways they'd been hilariously rotten to their fellow humans throughout the seasons.
That overweight guy (comedian John Pirette) they mocked and neglected to assist when he was being robbed was the grand finale stand-in for Mrs. Choate, the old lady who was robbed of her marble rye; Sid Fields, the old man who lost his record collection and his teeth while in Jerry's care; the children and elderly pushed aside when George wanted to escape a fire; Lola, the woman who was given a cheap and faulty wheelchair; Babu, who was deported because of Jerry and Elaine's inaction; and Susan, who, thanks to her association with the quartet, was puked on, saw her family cabin burned down, witnessed her father being outed in front of his family, lost her job, and died. Though the series' comedy had gotten a little kookier, a little more broad, a little less edgy after Larry David left at the end of Season 7, this is who these characters were. This behavior was not out of character for them.
As for David, who was the sole writer credited on the series finale, his last episode before returning for the series ender was "The Invitations," the Season 7 finale in which Susan was killed off when she licked some toxic wedding invitations. It doesn't get much more cynical than that, baby! (Yes, we stole George's "baby.")
Hoisted by Their Own Petard
If Larry David ever writes a memoir, "Hoisted by His Own Petard" should be its title, because on "Seinfeld" and then his follow-up series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm," it seems to be his philosophy. It should have come as no surprise that, in the end, Jerry and friends finally faced some comeuppance for what they did (and didn't do) concerning the overweight guy in Latham, Massachusetts, but also, again, for the many misdeeds and offenses they'd perpetrated throughout nine seasons. On "Curb," Larry loves (and we purposely use the present tense, in the hopeful thinking that the show will return on HBO at some point) to gobsmack no one more than he loves to gobsmack himself, and that had been true on "Seinfeld" as well (particularly with George, the character famously based on the real-life David).
Was a year of jail time over the top as punishment for Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine's flouting of the Good Samaritan law? On the one hand, yes, it's a broader comedy device than Larry David usually employs, but then again, it is the ultimate in really making this sometimes hapless foursome suffer the consequences.
Besides, it was a series finale, the series finale of this great TV show, and as such, it needed to go out on a grand scale. Would anyone have been satisfied if the series ended with Jerry paying a small fine or Elaine donning an orange jumpsuit to pick up trash along the highway as part of some community service sentence? It was a great TV show, but still a TV show, and it was leaving the air forever (yeah, syndication, but you know what we mean)… that demanded a bold story, and this qualified as such.
It Was a Glorified Clip Show
Some critics have argued the "Seinfeld" series finale took the lazy way out, relying on a parade of recurring supporting characters and memorable guest stars to see Jerry and company off. But would you have wanted it any other way? Characters like The Soup Nazi, Mr. Bookman the library cop, and Mickey Abbott were as much a part of the fun, the great writing, and the show's most quotable moments as the main four much of the time. That David found a plausible, if high concept, way to bring so many of them back was, cynicism of the storyline aside, a gift to viewers.
Watch the very end of the "Seinfeld" series finale right here:
Gimmicky? Yeah, okay. But let's look back at the series ending of "Newhart," which pretty much everyone agrees is one of the greatest finales ever, because of the ending that reveals the entire series to have been a dream by Bob Newhart's character from his earlier series, "The Bob Newhart Show." Incredibly clever, but wasn't that a huge gimmick? Part of the reason it worked so well and is so beloved is because it was a surprise. It also relied heavily on the idea that people still remembered and loved the characters from "The Bob Newhart Show."
Was the "Seinfeld" finale so different in that regard? Didn't it also serve to surprise us (though again, while staying true to who the main four really were), while also taking advantage of and paying homage to viewers' fondness for the deep bench of supporting characters who'd gone in and out of Jerry's life, most of them not unscathed?
That's not lazy writing; it may have been overly ambitious, it most certainly was not a happy ending, nor was it a graceful one. But it was fun, true to the characters, harkened back to the people we had loved throughout nine seasons, and, most importantly, it left open the possibility to revisit the characters, which David and the cast have already done, quite cleverly, on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
But tell us: Do you still watch the "Seinfeld" series finale with a glass of Haterade in your hand, or has time made you look back more fondly at how Little Jerry, George Cantstandya, and their friends left the airwaves?
Kimberly Potts is the author of the upcoming "Seinfeld FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Show About Nothing" from Applause Books.