“It’s just very difficult to end a series,” Sopranos creator David Chase once said, years after he aggravated millions of fans by cutting to black before Tony could get his comeuppance. “For example, Seinfeld, they ended it with them all going to jail. Now that’s the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner.”
Seventeen years after the Seinfeld finale, people are still crapping on it. Not just haters, but even its stars. Like when Julia Louis-Dreyfus went on David Letterman’s final show last month and cracked, “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.”
On May 14, 1998, approximately 76 million people tuned in to see how the show “about nothing” would execute its farewell. Co-creator Larry David, who’d left the show after season 7, returned to write the finale, and NBC’s hype machine was running full throttle. Would Elaine and Jerry get hitched? Would Newman be killed in some delightfully ghastly accident? Of course, what actually happened was Jerry and George finally got their TV deal, but before they could celebrate with Elaine and Kramer in Paris, the four of them were arrested in Latham, Mass., for failing to help a man being car-jacked. A media circus descended on their trial, where they were found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail—essentially for being horrible people. All the fringe characters they’d ever wronged during nine seasons of TV—from Marla the Virgin to library cop Joe Bookman—testified against them. The penultimate scene was of the four guilty losers discussing the buttons on George’s shirt—a throwback to the show’s first episode.
Seinfeld-ian sweet, right?
No one seemed to think so on the morning of May 15. Many fans, whose expectations had run wild in the build-up to the finale, sneered—and critics pounced. “The show’s swan song was off-key and bloated,” wrote EW’s critic Ken Tucker. “Ultimately, Seinfeld and David’s kiss-off was a hearty, ‘So long, suckers!’”
Jeez. As George Costanza might have said, “You think this was the kind of reception Ted Danson got?!”
The ever-sensitive David blanched at the criticism, but it’s widely assumed that his Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2009 was his attempt at a do-over of sorts. Last year, he told Bill Simmons of Grantland, “I think the thing about finales is everybody writes their own finale in their head … They go, ‘Oh, well this should happen to George, and Jerry and Elaine should get together,’ and all that. They’ve already written it, and often they’re disappointed, because it’s not what they wrote. … I was not interested in an emotional ride, and neither was Jerry. No wonder why [people] would dislike it.”
In important ways, though, the last Seinfeld, simply titled “The Finale,” was true to the characters and the tone of the show. “No learning, no hugging,” had always been the show’s unofficial motto, and David stuck to his guns until the end. America’s favorite New York misanthropes were sent to jail for callously watching a crime unfold, adding insult to injury by mocking the overweight victim.
“I will never understand people,” Elaine once said.
“They’re the worst,” Jerry agreed.
Or, as their slick lawyer Jackie Chiles said, “You don’t have to help anyone. That’s what this country is all about.” This was a perfect ending—the only appropriate ending—for these delightfully despicable characters.
Plus, the finale was a reunion, too; all the show’s favorite oddballs returned for one last cameo. There was George Steinbrenner, Keith Hernandez, Uncle Leo, The Bubble Boy, Sidra “They’re Real and They’re Spectacular” Holland, Poppy, David Puddy, Mr. Pitt, the Soup Nazi, Babu, Leslie the Low-Talker, J. Peterman, Kenny Bania, Mabel “Marble Rye” Choate, and Susan’s parents. Plus, Judge Arthur Vandelay was presiding! When you scanned the courtroom, it was like looking at one of those spectacular Simpsons’ Springfield group shots, where you can’t help but marvel at the breadth of the imagination that conjured all these colorful characters.
“I was happy with the Seinfeld finale because we didn’t want to do another episode as much as we wanted to have everybody come back to the show we had so much fun with,” Seinfeld said in a 2014 Reddit interview. “It was a way to thank all of the people who worked on the show over the years that we thought made the show work. I don’t believe in trying to change the past but I’m very happy with it.”
Seinfeld had a major impact on the high-profile series finales that followed. Showrunners feared disappointing fans, and today’s audiences have been conditioned to expect wish-fulfillment finales, where each favorite character practically walks away with a pony. (See: The Office, Parks and Recreation.) Seventeen years later, with all of Seinfeld now available on Hulu Plus, it will be interesting to see what the next generation thinks of the finale. They will view it at their leisure, on their own time-table, without the hype and unreasonable expectations that 1998 audiences had. Perhaps now, it can be treated for what it is instead of what it wasn’t. “It’s not a big thing,” Seinfeld said during the final season, when pressed on how the show would end. “It’s the shoelace that comes undone in the men’s room and touches the floor. That’s the kind of mood I’m looking for.”
That’s not nothing.
Even if you’ve never watched Seinfeld, there’s a good chance one of the many sayings, terms, and lines of dialogue that series is famous for have popped up somewhere in your life. The sitcom gave birth to and/or popularized an endless stream of phrases that have remained culturally relevant even in the years since the show ended.
For example: You likely know a “close talker,” a “low talker,” or a “double dipper.” You’ve probably hoped someone in a public bathroom could “spare a square” for you or been in a relationship with a “bad breaker-upper.” And with all of Seinfeld now on Hulu, you’ll likely rediscover how some of these phrases originated, or realize that another saying or two you’ve heard for years came from Jerry, George, Elaine, or Kramer.
Below, find 15 of the best Seinfeld-isms the show produced, listed in alphabetical order—as well as the episodes that made them so ubiquitous.
•Seinfeld: What to watch (and skip) from each season
•EW’s 15 favorite Seinfeld phrases and sayings
•A megafan’s dreams come true at Hulu’s Seinfeld apartment set
•9 surprising facts you didn’t know about Seinfeld
•What the world was like when Seinfeld premiered on July 5, 1989
•Who said it: Larry David or George Costanza?