When it was originally on: 1989-1998
Original network: NBC
Where you can stream it now: Hulu
Had I seen it before: Yes, but Seinfeld is definitely a show that I’m primarily acquainted with through syndication. I’ve never made a good faith attempt to watch Seinfeld all the way through. I’ve probably seen the pilot before, but I don’t remember it.
What IMDb says: The continuing misadventures of neurotic New York City stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his equally neurotic New York City friends.
Why I picked it: Seinfeld has an indisputable legacy within television, but that’s not the primary reason it made The List. There is perhaps no other show in television history that better defines a “slow start.” I picked this one largely because I knew the pilot was not an accurate indicator of what this show would eventually become. It’s the same show, but the training wheels are still on. And that makes it particularly fascinating to study.
What I liked: The George/Jerry relationship works pretty well for me in this, and George actually has some of the funniest jokes in the whole pilot. In this storyline, George exists almost entirely to cast doubt and poke holes in Jerry’s plans, and I can see how this dynamic will be able to fuel endless other stories. The smartest thing this pilot does is give both men contrary, but reasonable interpretations of the same events, and let them argue about it. It left me not knowing how the episode would end, and curious about what little plot this episode did have.
What I didn’t like: It hit me for the first time on this viewing, but I think I cracked the case. The reason this pilot isn’t as funny as later Seinfeld episodes is because it relies too heavily on Jerry “being funny” rather than actually telling a funny story. There are frequent cut aways to Jerry doing standup. When he’s not doing standup, he’s still making so-called witty observations about things like laundry. Later episodes accomplish comedy by actually having funny things happen to the characters. It’s things like a dude refusing to serve you soup or being forced to wear weird pirate shirt. It’s not about Jerry “being funny,” it’s about Jerry and company being thrown into ridiculous circumstances and the fact he is a comedian is oftentimes a moot point.
Another issue I have is how Jerry’s lack of funniness in breaks my willful suspension of disbelief. I touched on this a bit in my review for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel but not finding a protagonist funny becomes a real problem when I’m supposed to simultaneously believe that this protagonist is a successful comedian. This isn’t as big an issue in later episodes because the show eventually backs away from the whole “but don’t forget he’s a comedian!” energy we get here. But the pilot keeps going out of its way to remind me of Jerry’s profession without actually giving him funny jokes.
I also don’t get near enough contrast between the central three characters here (fun fact, Elaine isn’t in the pilot!) Kramer, George, and Jerry are all pretty flat, generic personalities. Kramer seems a little off, but hasn’t developed his later eccentricities yet. George and Jerry have different readings of Jerry’s interactions with a woman, but other than that they seem like pretty similar characters. There’s no contrast, and so no character is really popping yet.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: If I didn’t have any prior knowledge of where this show goes, I would probably say no. But as a writer who does have that knowledge, I think it actually could be fascinating to watch every episode in order and try to pinpoint how and when the series started figuring itself out. It’s a great case study in how a show can have a bad pilot and course correct with future episodes.