We celebrate Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and Michael Richards for their roles on the hit sit-com

Eight years into the show, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine Benes articulated the essence of Seinfeld quite nicely. She was exasperated with her good buddy Jerry Seinfeld — nothing new there; the glue that holds their relationship together is exasperation, alternately amused and angry. But this time, Elaine felt a summing-up was called for; she needed to make a grand expostulation, and so she did, by proclaiming ”I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every 10 minutes to pore over the excruciating minutiae of every single daily event!”

But of course, excruciating minutiae are what this show exists to examine, to fuss over, to spin comedic gold from. And Elaine will keep coming into that stinking apartment (which, by the way, probably smells more like still-misty Lysol, given Jerry’s pathological cleanliness) for as long as Seinfeld exists. She can’t help it; she loves Jerry, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), and Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) every bit as much as she sometimes loathes them. And besides, after a first-rate season like the one just concluded, who can deny that the comedic aroma of apartment 5A is still powerfully piquant?

Before you cut into the meat of this special Seinfeld package — a complete episode guide to the series’ run so far and interviews with the characters behind the scenes — it behooves us to think for a minute about the nature of friendship as it is reflected, fractured, and ground into the dirt by Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. The bond between these niggling, nudging four musketeers (their battle cry might be ”All for one and one for me!”) is a group dynamic rooted in jealousy, rage, insecurity, despair, hopelessness, and a touching lack of faith in one’s fellow human beings.

For a show whose plots often turn on the surreal (this season’s the-gang-goes-to-a-cockfight episode; the one where George has a little place built underneath his desk to escape the world; Elaine meeting the Bizarro Jerry, George, and Kramer), it has been the distinctive achievement of cocreators Seinfeld and Larry David to offer us a portrait of late-20th-century urban friendship that is actually more realistic than any ever created on a television series, sitcom, or drama. (It should also be noted here that the ’96-97 season just past was Seinfeld‘s first without the writing of David. If the post-David Seinfeld now lacks that subtle degree of manic angst that distinguished his best work, the show has made up for it with an increase in belly laughs as solid as any the series has produced.)

Like lots of good pals, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are acutely, quiveringly attuned to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They understand in their very different bones that someone you know well is also someone you can fight with, argue over, and sell out far more effectively than a mere acquaintance, or even an enemy. (That’s why Wayne Knight’s Newman is such a slippery recurring foe for our gang; he’s not in their loop — he’s the malicious, blubbery Other.) These chums are united by common quests — for money, for romance, for the perfect apartment. There’s a whiff of desperation about the foursome’s need for one another (maybe that’s what’s stinking up Jerry’s apartment), which is more than a little pathetic. But that it is made hilariously pathetic gives the show its unique sitcom tension.

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