''I would compare writing Seinfeld to writing the Talmud a dark Talmud. You have a lot of brilliant minds examining a thought or ethical question from every possible angle.''
Thus spake onetime Seinfeld writer Larry Charles. And upon reaching the end of this exhausting, exhilarating quest to view, synopsize, and critique 169* episodes of the most successful, irreverent, and giddily unpredictable sitcom of its time we find more than a little resonance in Charles' Talmudic analogy. In documenting the travails of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, we have delineated the history of a long-suffering people. Far from being about nothing, it's a show about virtually anything; a tale rich with small triumphs, eternal truths, and dogged struggles in the face of an indifferent world.
And yet, it's a story that almost wasn't told. NBC originally passed on Seinfeld after focus groups deemed the 1989 pilot episode ''weak.'' It only lives thanks to the network's Rick Ludwin, senior VP of specials, prime time, and late night, whose faith was so strong, he gave of his own budget to create four more episodes, which aired in the summer of '90. In January of 1991, Seinfeld returned as a mid-season replacement, inaugurating an uninterrupted seven-year run, first on Wednesday nights, then Thursdays, where it ultimately became the network's Must See linchpin at 9 p.m.
And now, as the cast well paid though stingily honored (only 10 Emmys so far including one for Best Comedy, three for Michael Richards, one for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and two for writing) makes its highly anticipated yet deeply lamented exit, Seinfeld is leaving behind something as close to a belief system as pop culture will allow. The 30 million or so who watched fresh episodes every Thursday made it a top five Nielsen show for six consecutive years, and have helped NBC to retain its No. 1 standing for the past three seasons. The millions who catch reruns every day have propelled the show to No. 1 in syndication in the top 10 markets.
Such numbers bespeak a fervent following, bent on studying, dissecting, and interpreting Seinfeld's bizarro dogma. To wit:
INERTIA SHALL PREVAIL.
Despite the foursome's many trials, no lessons are learned, no growth allowed all good according to Seinfeld: ''That's part of the key to the show.'' Adds Charles: ''The characters gleefully do not grow.''
NOTHING IS SACRED.
Not the hearing-impaired, the mentally and physically challenged, priests and rabbis, or any number of ethnic groups. Add to that celebrated musings on constipation, oral sex, onanism, even date rape.
HATE THY NEIGHBOR.
Whether literally, as in right next door, or in society at large. Nine long years have convinced the foursome (and us) that the world is full of weirdos, manipulators, and phonies ever ready to give you the screw-gee, as George might say. As in so many other respects, Kramer is something of an exception here, but just barely; seemingly incapable of hate, he simply prevails over his enemies through subversion and downright intimidation.
NO GOOD EVER COMES FROM HELPING ONE'S FELLOW MAN.
A corollary that teaches us what happens when one disregards the above. Witness the results of Jerry's efforts on behalf of restaurateur Babu Bhatt, Kramer's support of a local shoe-repair shop, and George's helping hand to a busboy and a security guard.
WORSHIP A HIGHER POWER.
A wealth of inspiration is to be drawn from those superheroic beings who've devoted their lives to crusades against earthly evil and defending "truth, justice, and the American way." Among these deities are Elastic Man, Spiderman, and Batman. None can hold a green lantern, however, to the all-powerful Superman, who serves as Jerry's (and thus, our) paragon of virtuous strength. (As for how successfully he actually practices what these role models preachlet's just say he's a work in progress....)
LOOK TO THE PAST FOR INSPIRATION.
Though praised for his show's boundary-breaking modernity, Seinfeld readily admits that its sensibility was forged some 40 years ago: ''It [wasn't] conscious,'' he says, ''but when we got into the swing of doing the show, we realized, 'This is really like The Abbott and Costello Show from '51 to '52.''' Bud and Lou's spirit is evident in everything from Seinfeld's dizzyingly deadpan comic rhythm to its wacky array of maligned bureaucrats and wrathful fruit vendors and barbers. Other oft-referenced forefathers: those three wise men, Moe, Larry, and Curly, and, less respectfully, Dragnet's Joe Friday and Bill Gannon.
DEATH BE NOT BAD.
The only thing stranger than death's prominence on Seinfeld is the utter lack of compassion it elicits.
WORK HARD AT NOT WORKING.
There's a reason why careers are treated with dread (George), breezy nonchalance (Jerry, Elaine), or blissful ignorance (Kramer): They're merely a distraction that prevents one from pondering life's really important issues and questions (like the hierarchy of toes and which is Captain; like what it means to bunk something, as opposed to debunking it; like how a Latino deals with the linguistic similarity of seltzer and salsa).
NO REASON IS TOO TRIVIAL FOR ENDING A RELATIONSHIP, BE IT
STINGINESS WITH EXCLAMATION POINTS OR BAD TASTE IN COMMERCIALS.
For Jerry, the list goes on and on. That doesn't stop our consummate bachelor from dispensing wisdom on romance, however. No indeed; central to our serial-dating, perfunctorily dumping funnyman's life are his sage edicts on relationships between the sexes (sprinkled throughout the following guide as Sexual Dealing).
A SHORT, STOCKY, SLOW-WITTED, BALD MAN CAN BE A CHICK MAGNET.
Fact: George Costanzaself-proclaimed loser among losershas dated a vast array of stunning women. An apparent mystery that Seinfeld flatly refuses to explain: ''You don't take apart the frog to see how he jumps.''
THE CRAZIEST PERSON IS THE SANEST OF ALL.
While ostensibly the resident weirdo of the quartet, Kramer may just be the most together of the bunch. Seinfeld concurs: ''Kramer knows what he wants and goes after it. He's not reflective.... He's got total peace of mind. We secretly envy him.''
What these tenets demonstrate more than anything is that morality works in mysterious ways on Seinfeld. We're talking about a hit show revolving around four venal, dishonest, selfish, even hateful people. ''That's become very vogue to say, but that's only on one level,'' notes Seinfeld. ''There's a great warmth beneath the surface of these characters. Just the fact that we forgive each other shows you that.''
And the fact that viewers keep coming back for more. Please bear in mind that the synopses that follow are mere sketchesmental benchmarks for your viewing pleasure; if we had fully detailed each labyrinthine episode, you'd be holding a book, not a magazine. No doubt you will quibble with our harsher critiques. But, then, why should we be any less judgmental than the show's four minutiae-minded harpies? We have, after all, been remade in their image.
*Although NBC and Seinfeld have touted 171 episodes, they consider some one-hour episodes to be two, and we do not.