Waves of opinion that “Seinfeld” has forever lost its magic rise and fall like the kink in Kramer’s hair.
Most recently, the doomsaying flared up when America’s top-rated sitcom was given a thrashing in the New York Post, whose fax poll revealed a 52 percent dissatisfaction rate with the season so far. Jerry Seinfeld, in an uncharacteristically Roseanne-esque move, phoned the newspaper to whine, saying, “Most seasons go that way. It takes a few weeks to kind of get back on track.”
“Seinfeld” has always been a bit uneven, hasn’t it? Any show that pushes the envelope so brazenly and rises to a high level of originality and brilliance must fall on brief stretches of mediocrity and failure.
Not every “Seinfeld” episode can be a classic, one of those “master of their domain” or “Mulva” shows that introduce a phrase into the pop lexicon. Remember Season 6, when “The Gymnast” had Jerry hoping for sport in bed? Remember Season 7’s hourlong “The Cadillac,” when Jerry buys his parents a car? They were crummy scripts that didn’t compare to “The Rye” or “The Bubble Boy” or “The Invitations,” when George’s fiancee dies.
Even our No. 1 TV show, “ER,” whose quality is not currently the object of water-cooler (water-bottle-machine?) op-ed, produces prosaic episodes that can’t match the tension and emotion of its Emmy-winning “Love’s Labor Lost.” Ironically, a series like “Seinfeld” can hurt itself by creating such high expectations.
Yes, this season’s half-dozen episodes of the NBC series have been below par. Not that there haven’t been great bits - Kramerica was a humorous addition to Kramer’s ongoing mock-entrepreneurialism, and Putty, Elaine’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, has provided ruthless fun. Julia Louis-Dreyfus continues to make Elaine into one of the funniest sitcom characters ever.
But the fresh stuff has gotten lost among the obvious “Seinfeld” cliches, such as Jerry’s shame-filled friend of two weeks ago, or Kramer’s hatred of Pottery Barn catalogs. The show has become aware of its own formula, and you can feel the writers straining to write yet another classic episode.
And that’s getting harder to do, as the audience has also become hyperaware of the “Seinfeld” moves. What was once revelatory is now familiar - Jerry’s misanthropy, George’s stinginess and lying, Elaine’s aggression, Kramer’s scheming. It’s a familiarity that’s made worse by TV copycatting, which has spread the “Seinfeld” formula all over prime time.
Last week’s episode, called “The Merv Griffin Show,” was the first advance review tape to be sent to critics this season. The “Seinfeld” staff’s confidence in the episode was only partly justified, however. The concepts were fine: Kramer finds the set to the old Merv Griffin show in a Dumpster, sets it up in his apartment, and begins living as a talk-show host. “Elaine Benes!” he says when she visits. “This is quite a thrill!” Meanwhile, Jerry is drugging his girlfriend - with wine and turkey, which is high in tryptophan - so he can play with her toy collection. And George is paying for a squirrel operation, out of guilt for running over some pigeons. But the laughs became broad and strained by the end, and the plots converged very awkwardly.
Still, average “Seinfeld” is better than most sitcoms at their best. Some of the current backlash may be in reaction to the highly publicized contract negotiations, which now have Michael Richards, Jason Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus at $600,000 and Seinfeld at $1 million per episode. Also, “Seinfeld” is the pivot of NBC’s Must See TV programming, a campaign that has become so pushy and powerful it’s bound to stimulate resentment.
Meanwhile, viewership of the show, now in its ninth season, is bigger than ever, averaging 32.6 million per episode compared with 32.2 million last year at this time. That, and not the controversy about the show’s sparkle, may be what ultimately will coax Jerry and his friends back for a 10th season.