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''Seinfeld'' will return for a seventh season

”Seinfeld” will return for a seventh season — Questions are raised about how much longer Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George can survive

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Seinfeld knows contradiction. After all, where does TV’s weekly homage to New York neurotics hail from? — L.A. Well, get set for another paradox. Seinfeld is clearly master of the TV domain — it finished its sixth season as the top-rated show — but for the first time it’s also feeling some uncomfortable heat. Critics and fans alike seem to be turning up the scrutiny volume, and Burbank is abuzz with reports of a rift between series star Jerry Seinfeld and the show’s notoriously meticulous cocreator, Larry David.

Seinfeld boosters say any such grumblings are much ado about nothing. ”The important thing is that Jerry is back,” NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield says of the star’s recent decision to continue the show. ”As far as I’m concerned, I don’t want anything changed.”

Still, questions as irritating as Mrs. Costanza’s voice are starting to nag Jerry and company. Sources say David and Seinfeld have been at odds over how long the show should run: David wanted just one more season; Seinfeld wanted to go for two. Initial reports had David resigning rather than continue, but then he reversed himself, vowing to stay only one more season. But relations between the former peas in a pod remain tense, according to sources close to the show. ”With Larry,” says one, ”it’s one day at a time.”

Problems have also cropped up outside Burbank. After six years of masturbation jokes and dead-end romances, critics and fans wonder if Seinfeld is delivering weaker laughs. Did it lose some magic when Kramer revealed that his first name was Cosmo? Though most are glowing, more and more messages on the Internet are from disillusioned fans. ”They need new material,” says one posting on America Online. ”Nothing this season can compare to the ‘puffy shirt.”’ Says another, ”I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I feel it. The writing is lacking its luster.”

Even so, Seinfeld still far outpaces the average tube fare of precocious kids and wacky home videos. Problem is, the show has been hampered by its own success. Once unique, it has spawned a host of imitators, from Ellen to Friends. And the four cast members — including Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards — who are touting everything from pretzels to Pepsi, are approaching Kato Kaelin-style overexposure.

Seinfeld himself shrugs off the complaints. ”It’s very amusing to me — the critics who try to be the first one to say Seinfeld is not what it used to be,” he told Entertainment Weekly recently. ”That’s just funny because it’s the natural tendency. They’re trying to be the first to announce it. But it hasn’t happened yet. The show is still as good as it’s always been.”

It also continues to make a mint — and not a Junior one — for all involved. NBC gets about $390,000 for a 30-second commercial spot — making the show currently the most expensive on TV. And Seinfeld himself may earn upwards of $500,000 per episode this fall, according to one insider.