Seinfeld is a television phenomenon. This we all know, even those of us (like myself) who somehow missed it over the nine seasons and 180 episodes are aware of the series mainstays. From Kramer to stand-up routines to inane conversations you or I on a particularly unusual day might find ourselves drawn into, Seinfeld is famously the show about "nothing" where rather a lot goes on. With the first three seasons compiled onto two DVD volumes Columbia Tristar will begin milking one of their biggest cash cows come November 1st, and those of you familiar with the series having watched it over the years will be the first sucking at the proverbial teat but what about those of you like me, keen to know just what it's all about? Is Seinfeld worth investing in? Well let's find out...
First a little history. Back in 1989 Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comic from New York who over the years had been enjoying a moderate level of success playing clubs and more prominently for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show", found himself in a position where the NBC network heads wanted him to star in his very own TV special. In the first of many peculiarities surrounding the eventual show, Seinfeld's pull with the network executives allowed him to bring on board an unknown writer to help develop the project, friend and fellow stand-up comic Larry David. A volatile character David, alongside Jerry would be the main creative force behind the show. Drawing from his own life experiences Larry provided the inspiration behind three of the principal characters, with many of the situations presented in the initial run of episodes being sourced from incidents he himself had encountered.
Following an unsuccessful pilot episode the support from the network never wavered, further episodes were developed allowing the characters to be fleshed out further and most importantly bring another into the mix. The introduction of a principal female character would allow for the third person from David's own life to be realised on screen, and also highlights the second of those aforementioned peculiarities. Seinfeld is made up of a predominantly male cast, with its sitcom leanings resulting in a series that features numerous conversations on relationships, all presented from a very real male perspective. To look at another series of the time, you can forget the realm of Sam's womanising methods in which he struggles to avoid those awkward confrontations with Diane in Cheers, this is a show where men talk about the details, the break-ups and more commonly, the power the opposite sex have over us.
But for everything that Larry David brought to the series (a ban from the network meetings included) the show was and forever will be about one man, Jerry Seinfeld. From its concept title "The Seinfeld Chronicles" to the catchier, far more marketable name of "Seinfeld" this was a show that relied on a relatively unproven lead which the network showed unusual faith in. With little knowledge of how to write for television Jerry, as previously mentioned, employed the services of another complete novice in Larry David. Together the two drew from their conversations as men, tinted with their comic styling, choosing to combine stand-up comedy routines with a show that through its predominantly male cast would simply be about whatever pops into our heads on a daily basis. Plotlines would inevitably focus upon relationships the leads held with significant others in their lives but as those would come and go the show would more importantly see them develop as friends, talking about everything and anything from buttons to jacket linings and maybe every once in a while, their jobs.
And for these initial three seasons that is certainly the clincher, and is what makes Seinfeld quite unique in its field. Jerry plays himself, he is a stand-up comic who's enjoyed success on "The Tonight Show" and plays venues in and around the New York area. His best friend George Costanza (Jason Alexander), eccentric neighbour Kramer (Michael Richards) and ex-girlfriend turned "friend" Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) make up the rest of the principal characters and through their encounters Jerry sources material for his act. Each episode begins with Jerry doing his 'bit', using subject matter that will later be addressed in the shows opening act through everyday situations, before the storyline develops and Jerry closes the episode on another 'bit' poking fun at the already amusing situations presented. It's an intriguing format, one that doesn't always work simply because the stand-up occasionally falls flat on its face, but when it does work (and that is often) you can see why the execs at NBC had faith in this guy.
So, for a series about nothing that virtually pre-dates reality television with its concept of everyday characters presented with slightly irregular situations and talking about them, you must have realised it all comes down to the writers ability to pen natural dialogue and the actors ability to deliver it through characters you can love. And throughout these three seasons we are treated to exactly that, with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld taking the bulk of writing credits they bring their own rapport to the screen characters with ease. Jerry is Seinfeld, a walking-talking stand-up comedian he is always 'on', living in a regular apartment block situated in the heart of New York City his over the top delivery fits that of a comic who loves nothing more than to use his talents to win over the ladies and poke fun at his friends exploits and musings. Observational humour is Seinfeld, from his standup routines which use his daily escapades for their humour to the more general humour seen throughout the episodes, the majority stems from the character's ability to think fast and deliver the kind or remarks the rest of us mere mortals only stumble across five-minutes after the moment has passed. Jerry delivers both on the page and on the screen, and this is what sells the everyday nature of the show and what makes his day to day exploits so much fun to watch.
Larry is brought to life onscreen by Jason Alexander in the role of Jerry's best friend George Costanza, a short balding slightly tubby figure whose neurotic musings on the opposite sex come from a long line of dating mishaps that allow this man to proclaim he knows little about the female population when all he can do is offer advice on them. Together Jerry and George share a great deal of screen time, bouncing off one another as they literally sit and chat about whatever fits the mood, its always laughably honest and sadly often true when topics regarding the opposite sex come around while those conversations about nothing are always oddball enough to guarantee interest, but its the delivery and natural chemistry that really sells the dialogue throughout.
Based on David's real-life neighbour Kenny Kramer, Cosmos Kramer is portrayed onscreen masterfully by Michael Richards who combines a memorable physical appearance with outlandish, assured delivery as he plays the eccentric neighbour cum friend to Jerry and his clique. Opposed to the 'system' Kramer is that someone we've all met in varying forms before, willing to believe in concepts we merely laugh at he truly accepts the unscientific, the unproven and unestablished practices in this world and does so in such a loveable manner you cannot help but accept him for it. At his worst Kramer delivers the belly-laughs while the other cast members provide the story and keep a smile on your face, at his best Kramer delivers the physical punchline to the awkward situations he presents while the others merely marvel at his incredible displays in character, be he pouring cement into a washing machine or playing detective, Kramer is truly memorable and from what I've seen of the real-life equivalent, a case of fiction improving on its inspiration.
As Elaine Benes the beautiful and talented comic performer Julia Louis-Dreyfus completes the signature cast though never actually makes an appearance until the second episode, and only then goes on to feature in a regular capacity with the latter episodes of season one. A former girlfriend turned close personal friend to Jerry (onscreen not off) the plutonic relationship Elaine shares with Seinfeld is one that is ripe for the picking, with it occupying two complete episodes in the first two seasons alone. As a character Elaine is something of a marvel, an attractive young woman who appears more at home in the company of men. Rarely do we see her with a girl friend as she prefers to hang out with the boys, frequently exerting her physical strength over George as she proves she can take whatever they might throw her way, and knock a few insults back. As with all the characters she has her fair share of quirks, in these early seasons especially Elaine is developed as a highly moralistic person who attacks those she disagrees with, from people wearing furs or smoking cigarettes her somewhat neurotic nature results in just as many laughs as when she is holding her own in the witty remark bouts.
With four well defined characters and a cast that have clicked by the end of season one the show about nothing only begins to lose its way somewhat though the lack of plot and in the second and third seasons, a lack of continuity between episodes. For all of the character development, onscreen chemistry and jokes that work there are times when the situations presented fail to grip the viewer, from a slow pace and wandering plot lines in the earlier episodes which can be attributed to the cast and crew finding their feet to a sense of the writers becoming overwhelmed by a full season as they take threadbare concepts and stretch them over an entire episode. The Parking Garage fails because of this, a third season episode where the group misplace their car in a multi-storey car park, though in fairness an earlier episode set completely within a Chinese restaurant works marvelously and does so without the aid of Kramer's antics. This may throw up questions regarding the group dynamic and how they work when split up into different sections, but over the seasons presented here every possible dynamic is explored and usually proven to work. Where they don't so much is when the group explore singular storylines and despite being stuck together in The Parking Garage they all go their separate ways at one point, so this could be the key, though I'm more inclined to go with the dull surroundings and lazy scripting that employs toilet humour when the series usually opts for something more inventive. Excursions such as those seen in The Parking Garage and other season three episodes become more common as the plot's importance grows beyond the characters’ in season two, with them roaming further a field, leaving the central Seinfeld apartment behind in comparison to the first and second seasons insistence on having everything take place there, so much so that Elaine uses every excuse in the book to carry out her storylines in Jerry's presence.
For a sitcom that deals with relationships the number of partners the main characters get through is certainly impressive, with any episode that deals with the subject seeing a new partner being introduced for whoever's dating woes are on the cards. On that rare occasion we do see a relationship carried over to a second or even third episode there tends to be an unsatisfying conclusion, with Kramer for example dating Elaine's flat mate over two episodes only to suddenly not be in the next. The most striking example follows the Season Two finale, as Jerry and Elaine break their own rules and return to being a couple, only to come back the following season as if nothing happened. Elements such as these bring Seinfeld into more traditional sitcom territory and with that comes the viewers need for resolutions, unfortunately we're not given them here and while in keeping with the series innovations to the genre they do ultimately prove to be a distraction.
A final and very minor issue I personally have with the series has me agreeing somewhat with the original test audiences. Early on it was suggested the show featured too many New York references and Jewish character traits (albeit stereotypical ones). Now I'm not American, I've never even ventured to the big apple so any cultural references are certainly lost on me but this is not where my problem lies. Instead I find myself complaining about the whiney, loud and aggressive (often confrontational) nature the central cast frequently takes (Jerry and George in particular). Be they chatting amongst themselves or taking issue with a fellow American this demeanor is something that falls within the stereotypical New Yorker, certainly those of the Jewish faith (think Mel Brooks' onscreen rants) and forgive me for going along with this, but it does fit with the fast pace of life often attributed to the bustling city. Jerry's screen parents are probably the worst example falling straight into the bickering Jewish stereotype, with an episode that sees Jerry visit their home in Florida almost unbearable due to the level of ranting and whining that takes place. However insignificant this may sound to some, you may like me find yourself struggling to watch more than a disc at a time as your enjoyment level is marred by this characteristic of the series. It's one that truth be told is often easy to overlook thanks to the many positive points already covered, but has on occasion prevented me from watching the series in the volume I am usually accustomed to (an entire season at a time is not uncommon for this TV on DVD addict).
The first three seasons arrive on DVD split across two volumes. Seinfeld Volume One includes the 18 episodes that make up Seasons 1 & 2 spread over four discs, while Seinfeld Volume Two includes the 20 episodes that make up Season 3 spread over four discs. The first two volumes can also be purchased as one collection, as reviewed here. Rather than bore you with an episode listing and a blow-by-blow of the extras over each volume I will instead point you in the direction of Columbia Tristar's Official Seinfeld DVD Website which includes this information in a far more agreeable format than I could hope to provide here.
Picture and Sound
Presented in the original 1.33:1 Full Screen aspect ratio Castle Rock/Columbia Tristar have spent a considerable amount of time and money restoring and mastering these early Seinfeld episodes, finalising high-definition masters which have then been used for the transfer to DVD. The result is varied but mostly impressive, with the picture quality steadily increasing as the seasons continue. The 'Pilot' episode suffers from a general softness, lack of resolution, some minor blooming on colours and a noticeable level of digital noise. Those problems aside, it actually looks quite good and is just an unfortunate precursor to the remaining season one episodes which lose the issues mentioned bar some of the softness and digital noise, and look much better than you might expect.
Season Two looks even better with a more solid colour scheme and greater level of detail evident, while the third season presentation convinces me this is the best Seinfeld has ever looked (surely superior even to the original broadcasts) offering a sharp, well defined image that maintains a natural level of grain and never sacrifices detail to poor encoding. Compared to other series from the times, such as Frasier the transfer here is something of a revelation though when compared to recent series brought to DVD its age does become more apparent.
Accompanying the superb video transfer is the original stereo mix which sounds as clear and defined here as it probably ever has. And that's about as much as can be said with regards the audio quality, it does the job as you would expect any soundtrack from a sitcom this old too...it's hardly begging for a 5.1 remix extravaganza.
French and German viewers are catered to with dub tracks and optional subtitles that extend to cover all bonus features. Hard of hearing viewers in the UK will be pleased to find they have not been ignored, with both episodes and bonus features fully subtitled.
I have split this section into three segments, each with self-explanatory titles...
Volume One Bonus exclusives
How It All Began - Created for this DVD release How It All Began is a sixty minute documentary which looks at the shows beginnings and thanks to participation from everyone involved proves to be an educational and entertaining watch. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David are key figures throughout giving honest interpretations of their early meetings at NBC while several network executives from the time are also on hand to deliver their side of the story, both pleasingly interlocking rather than contrasting as they so often do. All of the principal cast and several writers also share there thoughts on the shows genesis while plenty of vintage footage of Jerry doing standup and original TV Spots are included to keep things fresh.
Original and Revised Pilot Episode - “The Seinfeld Chronicles” is presented in its original broadcast format and its revised format from when it aired with the rest of season one. The differences are few making this one for the true fans only who might get something out of spotting them.
The Tonight Show Appearances runs for a total of 19-minutes and comprises of two appearances Jerry made with Johnny Carson and an appearance Michael Richards made with Jay Leno. The latter is a slapstick sketch with Richards in character as a fitness expert demonstrating his abilities, while Jerry makes his very first appearance on The Tonight Show back in 1981 doing standup (not all that successfully in my opinion) followed by his guest appearance prior to Seinfeld's premiere in which he sits down for a chat with Carson.
Camera Test - This Easter Egg on the first disc of Volume 1 presents a series of camera tests with Director/Producer Tom Cherones and Production Designer Tom Azzari commentating on what we're seeing onscreen (3mins).
Volume Two exclusives
Kramer vs. Kramer: Kenny to Cosmo takes a look at the real life inspiration behind Kramer. Due to my review set not including disc four of volume two I am unable to comment further on this extra.
General Bonus Features
Audio commentaries can be found on selected episodes over both volumes, with several teams taking on the challenge. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld join forces to cover The Stake Out, the Pilot and the closing episode of Season Two, The Deal providing some interesting comments on the source of material and generally lambasting some of the early concepts and production values. They're not quite as funny as you'd expect and seem quite unfamiliar with the episodes so tend to go silent as they take in the proceedings with you. The mood continues and the tendency to watch rather than commentate increases on Volume Two as they cover The Pen and The Pez Dispenser.
Providing the most informative tracks is writer Larry Charles who focuses heavily on the scripting process and what he attempted to bring to the show, such as his influence on the direction Kramer as a character would take, someone he felt was the most open to development. Inevitably these tracks do tend to be somewhat dry in their delivery but Charles is easy to listen to and never becomes repetitive over the episodes covered which include: The Baby Shower, The Heart Attack, The Library and The Limo.
Director/Producer Tom Cherones and Production Designer Tom Azzari sit down for The Parking Garage in a track that, would you believe it, focuses mainly on the sets specially created for this episode and the tricks employed to get the most out of them. Again this is more technical in nature than the actor/comic tracks and like Charles efforts a little dry, but also delivers some interesting information on the shows early production period. The duo return on disc four to cover The Parking Space, but as already noted I'm unable to comment on this particular effort due to a missing disc in my review set.
The best of the tracks for my money are delivered by the trio of Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus who despite having a tendency to sit, watch and laugh along with the show do so in such an infectious manner you cannot help but be drawn into the atmosphere. When they do manage to offer some insight to the episodes covered it’s usually of a critical manner toward their own performances, pointing out the source of a gag or showing how frequently Jerry likes to smirk at his own jokes. On Volume One they have a great time sitting through The Busboy and The Revenge then on Volume Two they continue to offer the best tracks with The Subway and the double-length The Boyfriend.
Notes About Nothing are present for every episode and amount to a text commentary, providing a wealth of information from location facts to baseball facts and quotes from the cast and crew in magazine interviews over the years which relate to the episode in question. A fun feature of this detail heavy bonus is the 'Girlfriend' and 'Kramer Entrance' counters, which increase each season as we see a new girlfriend for a Jerry or George or one of those memorable entrances to Jerry's apartment from Kramer. French and German notes about nothing are also present.
Inside Looks can be found on the majority of episodes. These short one-to-five minute long pieces feature recent interview footage with the cast and crew as they discuss the episode in question. Stories from the set along with raw footage from the shoots (both outtakes and behind-the-scenes) make these a welcome addition and often better at combining humour with details than the commentaries are.
Deleted Scenes can be found for selected episodes and range from the mildly amusing to plain dull. The Heart Attack stands out for having the most cut material (5mins once it plays out with footage that made it) but that doesn't necessarily make the footage any better, while most episodes boasting deleted scenes generally only feature 1-2 minutes worth.
Not That There's Anything Wrong With That (Out-takes) on Volume 1 runs for 13-minutes and contains a multitude of outtakes from the first two seasons. These vary as usual but are mostly hilarious thanks to the casts comic performance background and the fact laughter is contagious, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus's being the most delightful in that sense. Due to a missing disc I am unable to comment on the Volume 2 extra of the same name.
Master of his Domain (Exclusive Stand Up) on Volume 1 runs for 7-minutes and consists of raw stand-up sessions from which they took segments for use on the series, with plenty of unused material found within. The quality of the standup varies and this would be why most of it was never used, but fans of Jerry's routines will find much to enjoy here. Due to a missing disc I am unable to comment on the Volume 2 extra of the same name.
Introductions are featured on a handful of episodes and prove to be most notable by how dated the footage looks, as rather than being newly shot these are sourced from re-runs where the cast were brought in to give the audience something new to enjoy before the episodes were repeated.
Photo Gallery on Volume 1 runs for just over 3 minutes and features numerous promotional shots and stills from the production. Due to a missing disc I am unable to comment on the Volume 2 extra of the same name.
Sponsored by Vandelay Industries is a series of NBC promos and trailers for the show.
Despite the negatives discussed these early seasons of Seinfeld offer quality entertainment throughout with plenty of repeat value thanks to the combination of sight and vocal gags. Looking better than it probably ever has done the DVD presentation has much to commend with a good viewing experience backed up by some worthwhile extras that manage to benefit the episodes and fuel the laughter.