The Writer’s Guild of America recently released their list of the “101 Best Written TV Series,” and when these lists come out, superfans are bound to take up arms. “Friends at #24? It won too many Emmys to be that low!” “The Simpsons at #10? Animation gets no respect!” “The Daily Show higher than Saturday Night Live? Which show launched more careers?!?!” These questions can be debated ad nauseum at parties, and that’s the point.
There is no way you can rate them objectively when the only available metric, the “fun factor,” is so subjective. You could make a case that HBO’s The Wire is better than The Sopranos, just as you could scratch your head as to why five out of the top 10 shows are all comedies. However, the only inarguable show and position on this list is Seinfeld at #2. And with the retail value of a Festivus Pole at stake, allow me to make the case.
Seinfeld is listed as a sitcom, but if you really analyze it, it’s listed as a sitcom only out of convenience to critics since it doesn’t follow the genre’s conventions. Sitcoms have always relied on characters being tested in relatable situations, then doing the right thing or making the right choice, no matter how tough it may be. But Seinfeld’s characters never seemed to learn from their mistakes, nor were they interested in doing so. In one season’s premier episode, Jerry and George are having lunch at, fittingly, the same restaurant they eat at in nearly every other episode. Questioning their own purpose in life, they decide that they’re going to stop their immature approach to women and finally settle down. But a few episodes later, when Jerry angers the Soup Nazi and is forced to choose between soup and the girl, he looks at the girl and says: “Do I know you?” Traditional sitcoms would elect to show growth and maturity in their characters, and as such, Jerry would have chosen the girl after a pensive close-up. But on Seinfeld, you can always get a new girlfriend, yet having access to high-end soup is paramount.
Another way in which Seinfeld was rightly voted the best sitcom of all time is through the cultural influence of its catch-phrases and descriptors of people that, nearly 15 years after the show went off the air, are still part of the lexicon. In the 90s, when gays were becoming more pervasive in everyday life, it was common to use the phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that” when talking about them to avoid seeming homophobic. This was the real-life catchphrase of city-dwelling liberal intellectuals, the show’s bread-and-butter audience demographic. So when the show’s characters used the phrase at every opportunity to avoid having people thinking they were gay, there was satire both in the obsessive usage of the word AND the how it was used: defense against people thinking you’re gay, instead of just merely homophobic. Also, toss around the phrases “puffy shirt,” “The Jerk Store,” “close-talker,” “man hands,” Kramer’s ubiquitous “yeaaaaah!” and any other of the show’s countless other signature lines, and see how many people know exactly what you’re talking about.
Other shows had catch phrases, but they were tied to the traits of outlandish characters, not used as a satire of real life. M*A*S*H* and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the next two sitcoms on the list, didn’t have any signature lines in them. Sure, they had running gags, but they could never match what Seinfeld did. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Lastly, the show was an absolute career-launcher for everyone involved. Jerry Seinfeld was a working comic with a number of appearances on The Tonight Show, but until making it big on the show, he was still just another comic. Michael Richards had some low-grade film and TV bit parts to his name, but he was no different than any other aspiring actor. Julia Louis-Dreyfus had been a cast member Saturday Night Live, but during one of the show’s worst seasons ever. Jason Alexander was one of the more well-rounded talents on the show, but he wasn’t exactly a household name. Once the show hit its stride, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the cast’s faces. This is to say nothing of the careers of the show’s bit players – Wayne Knight (Newman), John O’Hurley (J. Peterman), and Patrick Warburton (David Puddy), all of whom are stars or regulars on traditional sitcoms. I could go on further, but the Internet is running out of space for this blog.
But before I join Kramer who is striking on behalf of the bagel unions, take any Seinfeld episode from seasons 3-8, and put it up against any other sitcom’s best five seasons. I’ll guarantee you those characters go through much more development than anyone from Seinfeld. I guarantee you there are much fewer catch phrases or signature lines that reflect of society, instead of merely being bits from the writer’s room. And I guarantee you that they didn’t launch as many careers.Seinfeld’s main cast, with the exception a career-killing YouTube video of Michael Richards, are all working on their second or third primetime series. Seinfeld rightly deserves to be the second most well-written show of all time.
If for no other reason than while other shows were concerned with being the best sitcom of all time, Seinfeld aimed to be the master of its domain!
Full list of the “101 Best Written TV Shows”
Want more 101? Check out the WGA’s “101 Greatest Screenplays”