Friday, February 1, 2013

SEINFELD - Season 9, Episode 22 - The Finale



“The Finale”

First Script Read: April 1, 1998
Filmed: April 8, 1998
Aired: May 14, 1998
Nielsen rating: 41.3
Audience share: 58 (76 million viewers)
Directed: Andy Ackerman
Writer: Larry David


When first watched "The Finale" on May 14, 1998, along with 75,999,999 of my friends, I enjoyed it. In the days and weeks after it aired, as it became clear that most people thought the episode was a letdown, I kept defending it. Now, I'll admit that my love for the show was so great that I wanted to enjoy it. I also argued that expectations and anticipation for the episode had been SO high that it couldn't possibly live up to all the hype. Most of all, I argued that the ultimate fate of the four characters was justified. These were bad people, and a jury of their peers (both an actual jury and a courtroom filled with their acquaintances) ruled them to be bad people. I thought the judge, the delightfully-named Art Vandelay, got it exactly right after the guilty verdict was announced:


VANDELAY: Order! Order in this court! I will clear this room! ... I do not know how, or under what circumstances the four of you found each other, but your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built. I can think of nothing more fitting than for the four of you to spend a year removed from society so that you can contemplate the manner in which you have conducted yourselves. I know I will. This court is adjourned.

The New York Four didn't deserve a happy ending. They deserved exactly what the judge gave them - an extended time away from the social dynamics they were obsessed with fitting into, and the relationships that gave them more pain than joy. Time to contemplate their lives and ponder their decisions. The ending worked.

Over time I've come to grips with a different problem with "The Finale." It wasn't that funny. That is, it didn't live up to the high bar of funny that Seinfeld had set and reached for so many years. 

To be sure, there are plenty of laughs throughout the episode. I love the scene with Jerry and George at NBC, for example, echoing past visits with NBC executives. I especially like the exchange between George and NBC exec Kimbrough as the two discuss the direction of the show, Jerry:

KIMBROUGH: And Elaine... I wouldn't mind seeing something happening between you two.
JERRY: Definitely.
GEORGE: I tell you, I really don't think so-called relationship humor is what this show is all about.
KIMBROUGH: Or we could not do the show altogether. How about that?
GEORGE: Or we could get them together! Woooo!!!

Peter Riegart as Kimbrough nails the deadpan retort to George, and Jason Alexander's animated response merits a big laugh.

"The Finale" is also fun. Besides numerous references to past episodes, the story manages to bring back a long list of delightful old characters, from Babu to the Marble Rye Lady to Mr. Pitt to the pharmacist who sold Elaine his entire stock of birth control sponges. Just about everyone they had wronged over the years reappears for a chance at revenge.

Still, there's the funniness problem. With Larry David himself responsible for the script, why didn't the final episode nail the comedic landing? On the DVD Inside Look featurette, Jerry Seinfeld suggests, in retrospect, that the flaw in the finale was that they tried to go too big with the story and the audience wasn't prepared. For its entire run Seinfeld had found comedy in the minutiae of everyday life, the same observational humor Seinfeld himself had built his stand-up career upon. In "The Finale," on the other hand, the character go through a near-death experience in a plane, followed by nationally infamous trial that results in the drastic fate of imprisonment. Those are high stakes. It's also a big story in the sense that it is painted with broad brushstrokes, broad enough to bring all those characters back into one episode. Consider those broad strokes and those big stakes in contrast with Jerry fretting about his girlfriend's "man hands," Elaine discovering she isn't a good dancer, or George loathing his parents. "The Finale" told a story on an entirely different level, and that might have thrown the audience out of its comfort zone a little.

To be sure, big, crazy stuff happened in Seinfeld episodes. But whether it was George pulling a golf ball out of a whale's blowhole or Kramer rolling a giant ball of oil out a window onto the head of a Jerry's girlfriend, those big moments were the culmination - and often the intersection - of little ideas. Kramer hitting golf balls into the ocean + George trying to impress a woman by claiming he's someone he isn't. Kramer trying out another in a long series of inventions + George working at a playground equipment company + Jerry's girlfriend being annoyed at a stupid voice Jerry and his friends had come up with. Those stories found silliness in little things. "The Finale" sought silliness in bigger things.

Interestingly, Larry David kept returning to big concept storylines. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, he honed his skill for finding comedy even when the show went big. While the average episode (which include, arguably, the funniest episodes) focuses on the web of little, Seinfeld-like problems the character of Larry David gets into as a result of his personality flaws, most of the season-long arcs are launched and concluded with bigger-themed stories. Season four of Curb begins with an incredible offer from Mel Brooks to star in The Producers and ends with Larry's unexpected triumph at the premiere. Season five begins and ends with near-death experiences and shocking revelations about Larry's family. And season seven's arc (launching in episode three that year) begins with Larry's decision to do a Seinfeld reunion show and ends with the reunion show itself, the closest thing Seinfeld fans will probably ever get to an epilogue for the series (and a MUST watch for any Seinfeld fans, considering the old cast and crew are all involved in the update on the Seinfeld characters' lives.)

Even those episodes fit a little bit uneasily within the Curb Your Enthusiasm sensibility. But in setting a routine of big shows serving as brackets for each season, David taught his audience to expect them. So it's not jarring when something truly big happens to Larry in a season premiere or finale.

Of course, David had guided Seinfeld through a couple big season-long arcs, such as the Jerry/NBC story in season four or George's engagement in season seven. Still, those seasons ended with a return to stasis. Curb seasons often end like "The Finale" - with a surprising, irreversible development: Larry discovering he isn't Jewish, Larry becoming a broadway star, etc.

Larry David's brilliance sets Curb Your Enthusiasm apart from all the other sitcoms that draw from Seinfeld's style. The long-term change that Larry's character lives through in Curb also differentiates the series and is one reason why the show is considered a masterpiece of television's new millennium. David's other masterpiece, Seinfeld, will never return, but it launched a sub-genre of sitcoms that tread in Seinfeld's wake, occasionally expanding on its brilliance. 

Television is filled with shows depicting a group of friends behaving badly to each other and to the people around them. Some of the most popular sitcoms have a dash of Seinfeld-like snarkiness in them. Two and a Half Men springs to mind, for example. Many of the shows that fit most neatly into the "friends acting nasty and snarky" sub-genre have cropped up on cable. There, free from FCC regulation, the nastiness can be much nastier. FX has built a weekly block around two sitcoms that fall in this category, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League. Philadelphia Inquirer TV reviewer Jonathan Storm even called Sunny "Seinfeld on crack," a review the show embraced and used as promotion. It's apt. Here's a quick list of how Sunny takes Seinfeld's framework one step further into darkness:
-Three guys and a girl mistreat each other and those around them.
-Instead of hanging out in a coffee shop, they hang out in a bar.
-Their get rich quick inventions or endeavors are supplemented by get rich quick criminal behavior.
-Their parents are frequently involved, but in much more grotesque ways than Seinfeld. Most prominently, Danny DeVito's brilliant, appallingly base Frank Reynolds makes George's father (also a Frank!) look like a saint.
-They are much stupider.

Still, Sunny, when it is at its most brilliant, occasionally dares to dabble in political and social satire, something that Seinfeld tended to avoid. Seinfeld never tried to parody the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Sunny did in season two's "The Gang Goes Jihad." Most of the other shows in the "friends acting nasty and snarky" sub-genre just aim for mean-spirited laughs without saying anything interesting.

We'll see how Sunny handles its finale, whenever it comes. I can imagine it going in one of two ways. The show might deal its characters a final punishment, well-deserved for their misdeeds over the years. Or it might make a potentially more profound statement, embracing the show's amorality and nihilism, and allow its characters to depart from our television screens unpunished and intact, despite everything they've done.

And perhaps that hints at the ultimate flaw in Seinfeld's finale. Personally, I believe in morals and ethics. I believe we live in a universe where our decisions and our actions mean something, that they have consequences beyond our own narrow, self-absorbed perspective. In punishing Seinfeld's characters for their misbehavior, "The Finale" resonated with that belief. That's one of the reasons I approved of it. But nothing that had happened in Seinfeld up to that point suggested that the universe of the show was guided by any code of justice. The characters behaved poorly throughout the show, but they never seemed to lose ground in their lives. To be fair, they rarely gained anything by their efforts either, and they often experienced setbacks to their career and their relationships because of their behavior. In the end, though, their lives remained pretty much the same. And one code "The Finale" did remain true to was the characters never learned any lessons. Even as they begin their sentence, Jerry and George literally end up right back where they started in the series pilot, obsessing over the minutiae of George's shirt button position.

"The Finale" tantalizes the characters with the possibility of a great victory and step forward. The NBC deal is a huge career victory for Jerry and George. But its also an affirmation of all four lives since Jerry is based on the quartet. The NBC of Seinfeld's universe is basically saying, "Your lives are special. People would be interested in you." At the end of the 20th century, there are few higher complements. But a higher power than NBC intervenes. The law, and perhaps fate or God or karma or something, confirms George's fears. God wouldn't let them be successful. They must be punished, not rewarded. And I thought the punishment was fitting. On reflection though, I'm applying my own sense of justice to the show, not the system of justice, or rather the lack of substantial punishment, the show had established. Many viewers complained about the unhappy ending, but the conclusion that these four miserable souls should be punished for their behavior might be the most optimistic ending possible. But that faith in a higher moral code was perhaps the most jarring element of "The Finale," and perhaps its most significant betrayal of the hilarious, provocative universe the show had created. For once, the consequences of their actions was not nothing, but something.

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