Why I’m against a ‘Seinfeld’ reunion
All it took was two words. Last week, Jerry Seinfeld sat across from Ellen Degeneres on the Ellen show, and, after years of consistently shooting down the very idea of a Seinfeld reunion series, said these words in response. Is he really relenting, though? This is a reply ambiguous by definition, words that could be applied with equal accuracy to the odds of Donald Trump tweeting something sensible and Sally Hawkins winning the Best Actress Oscar she deserves. Possible does not equal likely.
That said, it seems more possible than before. Netflix just signed up prolific show-runner and true-crime sensationalist Ryan Murphy for a $300 million (around Rs1,930 crore) deal, and numbers like that—to use a unit of currency Mr Seinfeld understands—could sure buy a lot of Porsches. At this point, with Netflix trying to build more mainstream traction by getting big names on board, Jerry Seinfeld could name his price. It helps, also, that the alumni isn’t incredibly busy: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine Benes, has had a golden run with Veep, but the show will soon end; Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza, ends up in dismal shows nobody watches; and Michael Richards, who played Kramer, lives on only in reruns, tarnished by a racist outburst he would surely like to eclipse with one last Bob Sacamano story.
This is indeed a good time to get the band back together, not least because the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, while uneven, showed that creator Larry David (who co-created Seinfeld) appears to be missing the Seinfeld-style gags and structures. My theory is that Seinfeld was testing the waters last week to see how much hysteria he would generate before throwing his hat into the ring. As they say in heist movies, the stage is set for one last job. We need but one phone call to a certain portly postal employee. But should that call be placed?
I vote not.
For one thing, reunion shows are an embarrassment. There is the inescapable feeling of watching outtakes and cover versions, something that is close to the near thing but not quite there. People have aged, edges have dulled, times have changed. At a point when all old shows are being revived, the only one to do it somewhat right—by mocking the leave of absence and the years in between—is Will & Grace, but even though the quips are on point, the show has lost its snap. A revival that is an actual triumph is Twin Peaks: The Return, but that is exclusively due to film-maker David Lynch’s visionary auteurism.
My other statement—and this, I confess, is hard to write—is that Seinfeld hasn’t aged that well. I adore this show, as readers of this column are doubtless aware, and my love for it translates into alarmingly verbatim recitations of entire episodes, but it is a hard show to fall in love with today. Of course it is groundbreaking, insightful, and has added phrases to the lexicon faster than the young millennials who control the hashtags at Buzzfeed, but it feels a bit tired. This isn’t only because of the laugh track drowning out the jokes, or the static backdrops of Jerry’s apartment and Monk’s Café. Compared to shows like Cheers or M*A*S*H*, older shows that still feel vital, reruns of Seinfeld (streaming in India on Amazon Prime) feel like a bit of an indulgence, primarily because the leading man can’t act.
This is something I have always defended. Jerry—who snickers at Kramer’s rants or rolls his eyes at Elaine’s anguish or fails to keep a straight face during George’s cockamamie schemes—is a stand-in for the audience, the straight man in the joke, perpetually amused by the idiots he happens to have befriended. His role is crucial for balancing out the otherwise high-strung energy of the show. He’s the one who needs to ask who’s at the door when the others knock-knock—or, in the case of Kramer, barge in spectacularly.The fictional Jerry is a delight because in him we see a supple young comic, a picky Superman-obsessed New Yorker, getting by with a little help from his comedically gifted friends.
I doubt we’ll give Jerry Seinfeld, a man with a net worth close to a billion dollars, anywhere near that much aw-shucks elbow room. It isn’t just the money, naturally. Over the years, Seinfeld has backed himself coldly and successfully away from accessibility. His force field is an aura of smugness. He appears glad to have relieved himself of everyman-ness, and while this personality may enrich his new stand-up comedy routines, it would undoubtedly affect the dynamic between the Seinfeld characters, as well as the way we consume the show.
Besides, we saw a Seinfeld reunion just a few years ago, on the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Hotstar). In that (exceptional) season, Larry David desperately puts together a reunion of the show, and it has everything from Kramer frightened at the idea of confronting a black man to Elaine Benes being condescending to Jerry Seinfeld being unamused. This, to be fair, works even better than the classic tickled Jerry, I must admit. It culminates in a breathtaking mess, where Larry David steps in to imitate Jason Alexander to play George, a character based on David himself. It is exquisite chaos and works superbly in the Curb world—but, compared to a tightly written episode of Seinfeld, it doesn’t track. That is the show that gave us The Marine Biologist (season 5, episode 14). It has to wow us.
The other thing to remember is the Seinfeld finale. The gang was trapped by a Good Samaritan Law, and held to trial with many a guest star (from The Soup Nazi to the real-and-spectacular Sidra) showing up to testify against their selfishness. I may defend this finale with the undying blindness of a diehard fan and claim it was ahead of its time, but must admit it wasn’t as funny. It cocks a snook at the very idea of the finale—the tease of a fatal plane crash, Elaine declaring love briefly for Jerry, heroes exposed as horrible people, the show circling back to the very first scene of the series—which is impressive subversion, but not top comedy. What if they came back and the new episodes were more like the end and less like The Contest?
As Cosmo Kramer said, “I’m out.”
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
Raja Sen tweets @rajasen