Early warning, Sein

In the course of its series run, Seinfeld‘s fearsome foursome has encountered a Soup Nazi, NBC network executives, and George Steinbrenner. But this season the show’s misanthropes have run into a truly intimidating phenomenon: critical backlash.

Four episodes into its ninth season, the centerpiece of NBC’s Must See programming is facing an unfamiliar chorus of dissatisfaction. Last week, Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg voiced a growing fan sentiment when he bemoaned the ”four consecutive bummers” offered up by the show this fall, complaining that ”the cheap one-liners are more frequent, the comedy broader.” Three days earlier, under a feature entitled ”Is Seinfeld Still Great?” the New York Post pointed out that even ”loyal followers are expressing disappointment in this season.” A fax poll conducted by the paper found that 52 percent of respondents think the show is slipping. Even Jerry Seinfeld admitted the rocky start. ”It takes a few weeks to kind of get back on track,” the comedian told the Post.

But show boosters say that death knells are premature. Indeed, a separate poll* conducted for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY found that 64 percent of Seinfeld watchers felt it was as funny as in previous seasons and that even of those who felt the show was less humorous, 51 percent would continue watching. Ratings-wise, Seinfeld remains TV’s most popular comedy; it’s averaging 32.6 million viewers, compared with 32.2 million at the same time last year. ”We listen to the audience, not to what critics have written,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. ”The show goes where no one else dares. If they continued exactly as in year five, we wouldn’t be in year nine.”

Nevertheless, the backlash can’t be sending happy signals to the show’s producers. Observers point out that the show has lost a number of important behind-the-scenes talents. Consulting producers Tom Gammill and Max Pross — whose writing credits include the ”Cigar Store Indian” episode — left after last season to develop shows at Twentieth Century Fox. Similarly, coexecutive producer Peter Mehlman, who cowrote the ”Yada Yada” episode, departed in the off-season to pursue a development deal with DreamWorks. And many wonder if Seinfeld isn’t still feeling the aftereffects of cocreator Larry David‘s departure after the ’95-96 season. ”Larry David was the only person,” says Mehlman, ”who was basically irreplaceable.”

Still, everyone associated with the show insists that any creative lull is temporary. ”We’ve always had clunkers,” says Glenn Padnick, a partner at Castle Rock Entertainment, which produces Seinfeld. ”But look at the batting average; it’s the highest going.” Mehlman agrees: ”I don’t see any other shows held to the [same] kind of standard.” Seinfeld himself is resolute. In a statement to EW, the comedian says: ”I am extremely proud of every episode we have done this season. That we are still able to provoke such strong reactions from the press and our audience is amazing.”

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