May 14, 1998, marked the end of two pop-cultural touchstones. One was Frank Sinatra, who died in Los Angeles at the age of 82. The other was the TV series Seinfeld, which aired its final episode on NBC that evening.
It may seem trivial to lump a man’s life with a TV show, but while Sinatra was mourned by many, the end of Seinfeld garnered even greater recognition. NBC devoted its entire Thursday night comedy block to the show – an hourlong retrospective clip show, followed by the hourlong finale. The episode attracted over 76 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched TV finales of all time. (No other series finale since then has come close to that number, with only one – the Friends finale – even getting halfway there.)
A momentous, historical occasion – yet when the final credits rolled, the reaction was… less memorable. While some had enjoyed the finale, many ardent fans were deeply disappointed, calling it a letdown and even a betrayal to the series they once loved.
In the twenty years since Seinfeld wrapped, the show has remained enormously successful in reruns, yet the sting of that ending remains. There’s been some redemption – notably a great season of Curb Your Enthusiasm which reunited the cast to produce a much better “ending” – but in general, the Seinfeld finale remains a cautionary tale to writers and producers everywhere.
Two questions thus arise: What precisely about the finale has inspired so much fan ire? And, more importantly, what has TV learned from it?
The Seinfeld Finale Gave Closure to Characters Who Never Needed It
The first mistake that the Seinfeld finale made was assuming that Seinfeld needed a true “finale.” The self-proclaimed “show about nothing” gained fame and notoriety because of the way it eschewed the typical storytelling tropes of character and story development. No one on the show ever changed, none of the characters learned valuable lessons. Storylines would fold in on themselves each week; even when the series devoted time to lengthy arcs (such as George’s wedding nuptials in Season Seven), the end result proved anticlimactic. TV had long subscribed to the “illusion of change” philosophy, but Seinfeld never even bothered to hide the illusion.
And therein lies the problem. For a series finale to be “final” – for it to finish a series in a satisfying and meaningful way – it must say something definitive about the story and/or characters of the series at large. It need not be broad or grandiose, but it must display an understanding and respect for the show it caps. A truly great finale reminds audiences why they fell in love with the show in the first place.
And whatever its shortcomings, you can’t claim the Seinfeld finale isn’t trying to do exactly that. It plays like a “Greatest Hits” collection of the show as Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are placed on literal trial and, one by one, popular guest characters from seasons past show up to chastise them for their loutish and self-centered behavior.
On paper, it sounds like a clever idea – a way for the series to hold a mirror up to its central characters and expose them for the awful folks they really are. A way of acknowledging the last nine seasons of the show while also saying something new about it.
Except that nothing stated in the Seinfeld finale is actually “new.” The message is easily understandable to anyone who’s ever watched even a single episode of the show, let alone multiple seasons. Yet “The Finale” trots the message out as though it’s a daring new philosophy, rather than the core ethos of the show for nearly a decade.
What’s worse, the baldness with which the episode asserts its message flies right in the face of everything Seinfeld has ever stood for. The show has always prided itself on depicting its characters as one-dimensional, generating humor from their complete lack of self-awareness. Yet “The Finale” make a concerted attempt to imbue them with emotional depth, literally placing them on a stand and forcing them to reckon with the consequences of their many terrible actions. The glibness of the show is here replaced by didactic proselytizing, with an obvious moral delivered in a most unappealing way.
Obviously, the bitter aftertaste of “The Finale” hasn’t hurt the popularity of the show. Nor should it – Seinfeld has aged quite well, and twenty years since its end, it remains as funny as ever. But still, it’s unfortunate that one of television’s all-time greatest sitcoms had to end on such a sour note.
And yet, there is a silver lining. While its intended message may be inconsequential, “The Finale” does deliver another, more important message – albeit unintentionally. And it’s a message that TV writers everywhere have and should continue to take to heart.
Series finales don’t need to be “events”
For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it seemed like every successful TV show needed a finale that not only tied into the series, but felt like a quaking phenomenon on its own merits as well. While earlier shows like The Fugitive and Mary Tyler Moore had featured memorable endings, the trend of “event” finales seemingly began in 1983 with the last M*A*S*H episode, which carved out a 2.5-hour block of airtime and gave the once-comedic series a surprisingly dark and depressing finish. This finale, watched at the time by a whopping 106 million viewers (a number unsurpassed by any TV broadcast until the 2010 Super Bowl) was hailed by critics and loved by audiences, and set new standards for what it meant to “end” a TV series.
In the 15 years that followed, other shows tried to ride M*A*S*H’s coattails and wrap up their stories by delivering an emotional, often shocking, jolt to their audience. Some tried to reveal that the entire series was a dream or a fantasy (Newhart, St. Elsewhere, Roseanne, although the last of those has thankfully been retconned). Star Trek: The Next Generation aired a finale that both mirrored and subverted the show’s pilot. The Cosby Show finale ended with the entire cast stepping off the set to the applause of a cheering studio audience – an ending I feel comfortable spoiling because none of you will ever watch The Cosby Show again.
It was a clever idea, and it paid off incredibly well in ratings. The concept of the Grand Finale became so ingrained in TV culture that when a show opted not to go big in its final episode (Cheers, for example, ended its eleven-year run with a deliberately run-of-the-mill capper), it was viewed as an exception to the rule.
But the Seinfeld finale taught many people – viewers, producers, and networks – that finales don’t have to be “grand.” Though its ratings were astronomical, Seinfeld was never much more than a minimalist show, exploring the minutiae of life in the most mundane of ways. Why, then, would anyone think it wise for the show to “go big” in its final offering?
The concept of the Grand Finale has tapered off in the last twenty years, with many long-running sitcoms choosing to give their finales a more moderate profile. Shows like 30 Rock, Community, and Everybody Loves Raymond avoided any Hail Marys in their final minutes, and their finales were widely praised by critics and audiences. Conversely, shows like How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men tried throwing last-minute twists into their endings, and were harshly condemned for their efforts.
It would be wrong to give all the credit for this tonal shift to Seinfeld, of course. As TV has grown more serialized, the concept of a Grand Finale has lost some of its power. Viewers now judge shows based on seasons, rather than individual episodes, and many series finales play out as the last chapter of a lengthy novel. (Consider The Shield, which has what is perhaps the best finale in TV history – it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if not for the effective way the show’s last season builds to it.)
Furthermore, as television shows grow excessively more niche in their audiences, the ratings pull of the Grand Finale has lost some of its power. No longer will tens of millions tune in to give a series its proper goodbye – a good chunk of viewers will in fact stream it online a few days later. The most popular shows on cable and streaming services are not even close to the Events that typified the most popular network shows of the late 20th century.
Seinfeld cannot take full credit for changing the way we think about TV finales. But it deserves an appreciative nod for deterring other shows from making the same mistake it did. By failing to emulate the past, it paved the way for greater successes in the future.
The Seinfeld finale – and all episodes leading up to it – are available on DVD and streaming on Hulu.