The rap on Seinfeld last season was that it was tired, it was repetitive, it was suddenly out of it. These complaints, I noticed, usually came from people who didn't seem to be actually watching the show regularly anymore. Yeah, the first half of the season had its share of clunkers, but the second half picked up steam very nicely, peaking with a few episodes that could stand with this innovative series' best.
Meanwhile, over at Roseanne, the opposite situation obtained. I bow to no one in my admiration for what Roseanne has done to make bitter truths about lower-middle-class life hilarious and poignant, but last spring, the show's energy had begun to flag, and its inspiration had dipped.
Now in the midst of new seasons, Seinfeld and Roseanne have confirmed their respective tendencies. Far from buckling under to the well-deserved acclaim its young Thursday-night neighbor Friends is receiving, Seinfeld is now a revitalized show, snappy and gratifyingly complicated once more. And unfortunately, my beloved Roseanne seems more adrift than ever, opting for crude obviousness in ways it has never done before.
Seinfeld's renewed energy is exhilarating to watch, because it has been accomplished with a certain amount of conceptual daring. By this I mean some of the biggest laughs of the season thus far have come from situations in which the regular characters are behaving in the least likable manner possible. Think of the subplot in which Kramer (Michael Richards) sneaks a hot cup of caff`e latte into a movie theater, spills it on himself, and then has the gall to sue the coffee company for his scalding mishap. Think of Elaine's (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) becoming so angry about the incessant nighttime barking of a neighbor canine that she arranges to have it dognapped. Think of George (Jason Alexander) first proposing to ex-girlfriend Susan (Heidi Swedberg) and then doing everything he can to postpone the marriage, whining and complaining about the amount of time he now has to spend with his betrothed.
And think of Jerry himself, who in some ways has become the most gleefully annoying fellow on the show. Jerry, with his incessant philosophical niggling (''Why would anyone eat canned fruit?''); Jerry, whose self-absorbed, absurdly tidy bachelor lifestyle leads him to aver tastelessly that he'd rather date a deaf woman than a blind woman because ''the blind would tend to be a bit messy around the house.'' And wasn't it Jerry's pushy neuroticism -- his insistence that he be in charge of setting an alarm -- that ended up causing marathon runner Jean-Paul Jean-Paul (Jeremiah Birkett) to oversleep and nearly miss an important race? Seinfeld's willingness to make Jerry such a jerk is one of the show's best pleasures.
Who knows, on the other hand, what Roseanne's problem is? We'd never make the sexist speculation that it has to do with the star's pregnancy, but the plotlines built around this situation have bogged down the show. Roseanne had announced that this season would be the show's last, and despite ABC's moving it to an 8 p.m. time slot, she promised a lot of anarchic envelope pushing.
So far, that ain't happening. In fact, Roseanne has come closer to being a conventional sitcom than ever before, with too much bellowing and a suspiciously hyped-up studio audience reaction to even the lamest jokes. In a recent posting on America Online, a sorrowful Roseanne fan opined, ''Now it seems like every episode is just full of Roseanne being angry and yelling, with no rest.'' An October episode even went so far as to do something the show has admirably steered clear of for six seasons: It tried to teach us a heavy-handed lesson about life, as Roseanne came to understand that she should respect the child-rearing methods of Jackie (Laurie Metcalf). Combine such retrograde impulses with recent stunt appearances by unfunny guys Pat Harrington and Shecky Greene, and you've got a show that, while still superior to most sitcoms, is losing its touch.
The best thing about Roseanne this season is the opening credits, in which we see how cast members have changed over the years via morphing animation. The biggest change, of course, is registered by the plastic-surgeried Roseanne. This sort of blunt joke at her own expense is what we've always loved her for. Why can't she put it back into the content of the show? Seinfeld: A Roseanne: B