The 'Seinfeld' finale 20 years later: Does it get any better with age?

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Seinfeld‘s controversial final episode in 1998 found the cast behind bars. (Photo: NBC/Sony)

Twenty years ago today, the final episode of Seinfeld aired, the conclusion of nine seasons of Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards deconstructing the sitcom, coining catchphrases, and generally ridiculing not just TV culture, but American culture itself. We all loved what co-creators Seinfeld and Larry David did — right up until they ended it, that is. The finale — a 75-minute episode fittingly titled “The Finale” — pulled in massive ratings. In those pre-streaming, basic-cable days, the audience for the finale was huge: More than 76 million people tuned in. But “The Finale” immediately became one of the most controversial series finales ever. It remains so, right up there with the much-maligned exit of The Sopranos.

The final episode — which ended with the four main characters facing each other in a jail cell — met with widespread derision and negative reviews, my own among them. “The show’s swan song was off-key and bloated,” I wrote at the time in Entertainment Weekly. “Ultimately, this kiss-off was a hearty, ‘So long, suckers!’ to the fans.” Hmmm, I wonder if I’d say the same thing today. I thought it might be fun to look at the finale again, to see whether the passage of time has been kinder to the last episode — who knows, maybe it improved with age, right?

If you head over to Hulu — which streams the entire series — or drag out your dusty DVDs, you can squint at the final episode. I’ll refresh your memory on the plot. Jerry and Alexander’s George have finally been contacted by NBC: The pilot they wrote — you know, the “show about nothing” — is going to be turned into a series! NBC offers the elated duo use of the network’s corporate jet; they grab Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine and Richards’s Kramer and fly off to — well, there’s a midflight mishap and they land in Latham, Mass. There, they witness a crime (the mugging of a fat man, which occasions derisive jokes from the quartet that would seem very politically incorrect these days). Because they merely observe but never come to the aid of the victim, all four are arrested under Massachusetts’s supposedly new “Good Samaritan law” — for not being Good Samaritans.

A trial follows, at which a vast array of former Seinfeld guest stars appear as character witnesses. They include the old lady from whom Jerry once stole a marble rye; the parents of Susan, George’s dead fiancée; and the perpetually angry Soup Nazi. Our four antiheroes are found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. We leave them — apparently not for a year, but for all eternity — as they sit in one cell together, talking incessantly, Jerry criticizing George’s shirt for its “button placement.” The camera pulls back, back, back … and that’s it.

At the time of the finale, Larry David hadn’t been involved with the show for a while; he returned to write the jumbo-sized episode. Early in “The Finale,” there’s a classically constructed Seinfeld segment that now seems amusingly quaint: Elaine has a friend whose mother recently died; Elaine calls her on her cellphone to express her sympathy. Jerry and George are scandalized by the idea that anyone would make a sympathy call on a cellphone — “the lowest phone call you can make!” explodes George. In those days, the cellphone was apparently thought to be an inferior mode of communication. Jerry and George believe that serious people calling on serious business use serious phones — i.e., land-line phones in the privacy of their homes. This is, due to the passage of time, now quite funny. At the time, it just seemed petty.

Similarly, the procession of characters from previous episodes at the trial seemed, in 1998, like a lazy variation on a “best-of” clip show — especially since, the week before, NBC had aired “The Chronicle,” an hour-long clip show featuring many of the same characters revived for the finale. But when you look at “The Finale” now, the episode works as a clever reminder of how many episodes of Seinfeld you enjoyed, enabling you to see faces that once were obscure (“Look, there’s Teri Hatcher as Jerry’s old girlfriend!”) or to appreciate lesser-known characters, such as Bookman, the library cop — I forgot how much I loved Philip Baker Hall’s crusty overdue-book investigator.

Indeed, watching “The Finale” this time around was almost pure pleasure all the way through. While I’m sure the gang’s lawyer, Jackie Chiles, would come under P.C. scrutiny for the portrayal of a black man as a hustler with a law degree, I also admired Phil Morris’s deft performance, delivering reams of rapid-fire dialogue with ease.

Seen now, the prison-cell ending of Seinfeld is kind of prescient: What are Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer being punished for if not their political incorrectness in a wide variety of social situations? Put aside actual crimes (Jerry pushing the old lady and stealing the rye), and “The Finale” is, unlike the rest of Seinfeld, a show about something: an overdue reckoning for four people who have acted selfishly for nine seasons, who have flouted the decencies of human interaction. Seinfeld was built around Larry David’s famous mantra that the show would feature “no hugging, no learning,” and while the quartet never hugs in “The Finale,” these prickly, self-righteous characters do learn something — that there’s a limit to how boorishly you can behave without punishment. Or, as the judge puts it in handing down his sentence: “Your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundations upon which our society is built.” Sounds awfully timely in the Trump era, doesn’t it? I hereby upgrade the Seinfeld “Finale”: a solid B-plus.

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