An obsessive-compulsive viewer's guide to every episode

I would compare writing Seinfeld to writing the Talmud — a dark Talmud. You have a lot of brilliant minds examining a thought or ethical question from every possible angle.”

Thus spake onetime Seinfeld writer Larry Charles. And upon reaching the end of our exhausting, exhilarating quest — to view, synopsize, and critique all eight seasons of the most successful, irreverent, and giddily unpredictable sitcom of its time — we find more than a little resonance in Charles’ Talmudic analogy. In documenting the travails of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, we have, in fact, delineated the history of a long-suffering people. Far from being about nothing, it’s a tale rich with small triumphs, eternal truths, and dogged struggles in the face of an indifferent world.

It’s a story that was almost never told. NBC originally passed on Seinfeld after test audiences deemed the 1989 pilot episode ”weak.” It only lives thanks to Rick Ludwin, NBC senior VP of specials and late night, whose faith was so strong he gave of his own budget to create four more episodes, which aired in the summer of ’90. By January 1991, Seinfeld was a mid-season replacement, inaugurating an uninterrupted six-year run that culminated in its current Must See Thursday slot.

And now, as the cast — well paid though stingily honored (only nine Emmys, including one for Best Comedy, two for Richards, one for Louis-Dreyfus, and two for writing) — prepares for its ninth season, Seinfeld has, indeed, evolved into something as close to a religion as pop culture allows. The 30 million or so who watch fresh episodes on Thursday nights have made it a top five Nielsen show for four consecutive years — and enabled NBC to retain its No. 1 standing. The millions who catch reruns have propelled it to No. 5 in national syndication. Such numbers bespeak a fervent following, bent on studying, dissecting, and interpreting Seinfeld‘s bizarro dogma. To wit:

INERTIA SHALL PREVAIL. Despite the foursome’s many trials, no lessons are learned, no maturing allowed. ”That’s part of the key to the show,” says Seinfeld. Adds Charles: ”The characters gleefully do not grow.”

NOTHING IS SACRED. Not the hearing impaired, the mentally and physically challenged, priests, rabbis, any number of ethnic groups, constipation, oral sex, or onanism.

NO GOOD EVER COMES FROM HELPING ONE’S FELLOW MAN. Witness the results of Jerry’s efforts on behalf of restaurateur Babu Bhatt, Kramer’s support of a local shoe-repair shop, and George’s helping hand to a haberdashery’s security guard.

LOOK TO THE PAST FOR INSPIRATION (HEY, ABBOTT!). Though praised for boundary-breaking modernity, Seinfeld readily admits that his show’s sensibility was forged some 40 years ago: ”It [wasn’t] conscious,” he says, ”but when we got into the swing of the show, we realized, This is like The Abbott and Costello Show from ’51 to ’52.” Bud and Lou’s spirit is evident in everything from Seinfeld‘s dizzyingly deadpan comic rhythm to its wacky array of maligned bureaucrats and wrathful fruit vendors and barbers.

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