It’s not that Seinfeld was “about nothing,” as it was so often described; it wasn’t any less thematic than the members of the sitcom pantheon it joined. It just presented the sitcom form pared down to its absolute essentials — which, given the form’s history, might look suspiciously similar to nothing.
Most other hit TV comedies before Seinfeld felt obligated to emphasize (at least at first) the situation of situation comedy: the family, the workplace, or the more elaborate gimmick (cruise gone awry, anyone?) that forms the show’s reason for being. Seinfeld reduced the situation to four friends, with nothing in particular binding them together. Throughout the show, those four stayed in the foreground, even as the backgrounds become richer with details (supporting characters faded in and out on particular episodes, but never became regulars). The show tore down the sitcom so that it could be rebuilt; it’s hard to imagine Arrested Development‘s take on the family or The Office‘s take on the workplace existing without Seinfeld‘s take on everyday life, its mixture of observation, farce, and weirdness.
When the eighth season, now on DVD, first aired, it was easy to see it as the beginning of the end. Co-creator Larry David had finally made good on his long-standing promise to leave the show, and it was up to star Jerry Seinfeld to sheer the ship onward. This process is explored in the DVD’s 30-minute behind-the-scenes documentary “Jerry Seinfeld: Submarine Captain”.
After a somewhat overlong preface extolling Seinfeld’s professionalism and generosity, the doc finally gets to David’s departure (which sounds amicable; both Seinfeld and David are featured in retrospective interviews). We learn that the former constant of Seinfeld / David rewrites and script polishes morphed into a “delta force squadron” (Seinfeld’s words) of the star and rotating groups of two or three writers at a time.
The writers in the doc acknowledge that they took David’s departure to get sillier — to “goof off a little bit.” This explains some of the more surreal plots and gags of the eighth season: the Kenny Rogers sign that drives Jerry insane in “The Chicken Roaster”; Elaine’s Apocalypse Now-style retrieval of catalog magnate J. Peterman in the same episode; Kramer’s experiments with dog medicine in “The Andrea Doria”; and George’s retrofitted napping desk in “The Nap”.
Rewatching the eighth season, what seemed a bit cartoonier than usual at the time now plays more like a natural progression into not only the show’s endpoint a year later, but the future absurdism of shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock, that dared to not only pick up Seinfeld‘s lack of traditionally lovable characters, but to drop the studio audience and / or laugh track. Indeed, it’s only that studio laughter that truly dates the show (well, maybe some of Jerry’s fashion choices — but that might just be a comedian thing). While moments occasionally veer off into caricature (like Jerry’s werewolf-ish reaction to a shaved chest in “The Muffin Tops”), the episodes on the whole have aged well.
The creators seem to agree. There are several audio commentaries, which sometimes consist primarily of silences punctuated by laughing along with the studio audience. It might seem self-congratulatory if not for the infectious way that perpetual straight man Jerry Seinfeld can still crack up watching reruns of his former costars. The commentaries are not always informative, but they are weirdly enjoyable.
A scene from the “Little Kicks” episode
Perhaps sensing a void of actual information on those audio tracks, the set also includes some episode-specific “inside looks” at particular classics, like “The Little Kicks”, which introduced us to Elaine’s spectacularly awful dancing. These five-minute assemblages of new interview footage with the actors, writers, and directors are more focused and concise than most commentaries.
Another alternative is an ongoing subtitle track, available on every episode, of pop-up trivia, pointing out plenty of what Elaine refers to in one episode as the “excruciating minutiae” of the show — references, continuity, and trademarks that made the show so specific and original. You may not have asked that anyone keep track of Kramer’s entrances into Jerry’s apartment (well past 300 by the end of the season) or George’s girlfriends (only in the double digits, but still impressive for a self-described “stocky, slow-witted bald man”), but there’s a cozy completeness in knowing that someone did, anyway.
There’s more minutiae, like deleted scenes (short and punchy, as you’d expect from such a tight show) and a rather pointless process called “Sein-imation” that recreates and expands famous show moments in cartoon form. Even hardcore fans may be content to mostly just watch the episodes — Kramer’s story about a runaway bus is funnier as dialogue than as a moving comic strip. But the reverence and attention to detail is appreciated. A quick look at the comedies that followed shows that plenty of others were paying attention, too.