Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Early on in the fourth season of “Seinfeld,” Jerry Seinfeld and his friend George Costanza go to pitch a sitcom to NBC. George’s idea? A show about nothing. The idea is swiftly met with confusion. No plot? Nothing happens?
It’s the quintessential self-referential moment of the NBC sitcom, which ran from 1989 to 1998, and, in that poignant scene, poked fun at itself for its absurdist premise. But the joke is on those fictional TV executives, because this telling episode is the exact opposite of art imitating life.
In reality, “Seinfeld” – which is celebrating its 30th anniversary – helped define a generation, quickly becoming a cultural touchstone. Though it was the show about nothing, it was also the show about the everyday experiences and conversations that animate our lives. Simply put, the show was genius.
And it meant everything to my teenage self. It was the show I’d watch in the evening and then talk about with my friends in school the next day, because they had all watched, too. It was also the one that I watched with my family every night and the one that never fails to remind me of my father, who died in 2003 – a few years after the show ended. In fact, when I think of “Seinfeld,” I think of family dinner where we laughed at the time Elaine Benes gained weight from mismarked frozen yogurt, or the time the whole gang – Kramer, Elaine, George and Jerry – spent 22 minutes trying to find their car in a parking garage.
“Seinfeld” fever is still going strong, propelled even now by its wide syndication. But it’s not the only cultural touchstone of an earlier time – my time, as it happens – that you can still find every night on TV, and that is having an anniversary. “Friends” is celebrating its 25th anniversary next month. And indeed, just this week, pop culture devotees took to Twitter to debate one of the great questions of our generation: Is “Seinfeld” or “Friends” the better TV show?
My friends, it is “Seinfeld.”
Perhaps it’s easiest to start with how the two shows are similar, since, arguably, their list of similarities is shorter than George’s resume. Both shows follow the lives of a group of friends living and working in New York.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Where “Friends” suffered from simplistic and generic storylines, “Seinfeld” remains one of the smartest and most unique sitcoms. In the 21 years since its finale, few, if any, shows have ever been able to replicate that same level of magic and ardent fandom. And what about its many contributions to the American lexicon? Do you ever say “yada, yada, yada?” Do you celebrate “Festivus?” Thanks, “Seinfeld.”
Where “Friends” gave us unrealistic expectations of life in our 20s – a sort of hyperreality – “Seinfeld” was just real. On “Friends,” all the characters were airbrushed, beautiful people living in massive New York City apartments that far exceeded what even successful bankers could’ve afforded. On “Seinfeld,” however, the characters had messy – or not much – hair, dressed in jeans and T-shirts and lived in more normal apartments. (Though given how little they worked, it was hard to imagine how they afforded even those.)
And while we may have wanted to be as cool and chic as Rachel Green in “Friends,” in reality, we were all much more similar to awkward Elaine from “Seinfeld.” Just think about it in contemporary terms. If Rachel were a real person living in 2019, she would be an Instagram influencer posting her #OOTD full of #sponsored clothing from hip places like Madewell or J. Crew. If Elaine were a real person living in 2019, she would probably swear off social media – or use it to spy on her exes.
But the differences don’t stop there. Where “Friends” is that show about a specific time in your life (your late 20s and early 30s), “Seinfeld’s” eccentric characters speak to all phases of life – and, as such, is the show I can always go back to, no matter how many years have passed. Once I aged out of that “Friends” demographic, I began to see the characters and their lives differently. In fact, I tried re-watching the series a couple years ago, and I couldn’t get beyond the first episode. They all seemed to spend so much time complaining about romantic relationships that would never amount to anything – and I just didn’t have patience for this kind of kvetching.
Indeed, the older I get, the more relatable “Seinfeld” becomes. Jerry and company were talking about the banalities of life that we all struggle with, like regifting and double dipping, ridiculous haircuts and close talkers.
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As TV historian Jennifer Keishin said in an interview with Business Insider, “The ‘nothingness’ that they talk about … is really not nothing. It’s actually everyday stuff. And I think that’s what keeps us coming back to it, and that made it a hit, a fairly widespread mainstream hit at the time … they’re dealing with these everyday irritations that we all really relate to.”
“Friends” doesn’t come close to that, which is why “Seinfeld” shall always remain the master of the sitcom domain.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated that Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza in season four of '"Seinfeld" attended a pitch meeting in Los Angeles. The meeting was in New York.