It’s two decades since the divisive finale and from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to Atlanta the influence of Seinfeld can still be felt in shows that put an emphasis on probing taboos rather than sitting comfortably
10 May 2018 | Randall Colburn | The Guardian
t’s clear now that “the show about nothing” moniker was always a misnomer. Seinfeld, the nine-season juggernaut, built its brand by being nothing like anything else on air in the early 90s.
Television of the time was built around motivating touchstones, whether that be a job or a setting (Cheers) or a relevant cultural issue. Lacking those, the simple act of raising a family functioned on its own (Full House). Seinfeld had none of these. To quote Larry David, there was “no hugging and no learning”.
It was a show about four friends, none with particularly active goals, bantering in between moments of recognisable awkwardness. It wasn’t a show about nothing; it was a show about a little bit of everything. Nothing made that more clear than its controversial finale, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on 14 May.
The blowback to the show’s swan song was mostly focused on its back half, which finds the central foursome on trial for cracking jokes while an overweight man is mugged before their eyes. Memorable guest stars and recurring characters arrive as character witnesses, each sharing their own unsavoury experience with Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer before the quartet are hauled off to prison.
Is it good storytelling? Not particularly, and it was called “off-key and bloated” by critics who were perhaps expecting something like the ending of Cheers, which the writer Bill Simmons said was “basically like a Viking funeral … [where people expected] this emotional ride and then they were going to say goodbye to the characters”.
Jerry Seinfeld has said he sometimes regrets the finale, saying in 2017 “there was a lot of pressure on us at that time to do one big last show, but big is always bad in comedy”. Larry David said the experience was so bad it made him not want to try and “wrap up” Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“I was not interested in an emotional ride, and neither was Jerry,” said David in 2014. “I think the thing about finales is everybody writes their own finale in their head, whereas if they just tune in during the week to a normal show, they’re surprised by what’s going on … often they’re disappointed, because it’s not what they wrote.”
But despite the reception of its finale, Seinfeld opened the door to bold, inventive comedy with a dark streak, rather than the comfortable fare that had come before. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia reigns as Seinfeld’s most obvious descendent, with its antiheroes and irreverence mirroring that of its predecessor.
The makers of hit podcast You Made It Weird have said how much Jerry and George discussing life’s minutiae served as the basis for their show. Arguably, Seinfeld was the start of TV’s obsession with the antihero and the work of Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman and Louis CK all owe a debt to the show.
But it’s another series – Atlanta – that’s redefining what “nothing” means in this context. Creator and star Donald Glover told the New Yorker that his straightforward pilot was “Trojan-horsing” the network. “If I told them what I really wanted to do, it wouldn’t have gotten made,” he said.
That pilot set up a very clear arc: Glover’s cash-strapped Earn convinces his cousin, burgeoning rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry), to become his manager, thus preparing viewers for the story of a rapper’s rise and his upstart manager’s efforts to ascend with him.
Since then, however, the rap game has served as little more than set dressing as Glover and his team use Earn, Paper Boi and others as vessels for exploring race, poverty, community and fame.
Where Seinfeld centered around embarrassment and minutiae, Atlanta submerges itself in crime, violence and exploitation. But they depict their scenarios in a similar way; as relentless, ever-present and occasionally comic realities of daily life. Nobody grows, nothing changes and, by the next episode, we’ve moved on.
Atlanta’s incredible second season has sprawled in the way stories do when they lack narrative borders. As Paper Boi’s career evolves offscreen, Glover chooses to explore themes of hustle via the rapper’s scatterbrained barber, or to construct a chamber horror drama around pal Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and a Michael Jackson-esque recluse played by Glover in whiteface. Genre is increasingly fluid, as is the setting – one episode takes us to a German carnival – and protagonist – Earn, our ostensible lead, is absent from many of the episodes. With every new instalment, Atlanta becomes harder to describe.
It’s worth comparing it with Alan Ball’s Here and Now, an HBO series that recently wrapped up its debut season. The story of a multi-racial family of progressives in Trump’s post-truth America, Ball’s series pivots between realism and the supernatural as it strives to document any number of hot topic issues, from racism, transphobia and tokenism to sexuality, bullying and business ethics.
It’s well-intentioned, but fundamentally flawed, functioning more like a conversation than a TV show as the characters drift from one talking point to the next. Here and Now is the epitome of a “show about everything” and, as such, ends up not being about very much at all.
Atlanta works because, like Seinfeld, it never tries to be about more than whatever is happening to its characters at any given moment. Too often, writers fail to tell the small stories in between the big ones. They migh
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