I love Seinfeld. It’s by far my favorite sitcom, one of my “go-to” programs I can just throw on at any time, in any emotional state, and find myself enjoying. I remember first getting invested when I was around 12 and my older cousin, whom I idolized at the time, started talking about it a lot. I went home and immediately sought out reruns on TV, first to fit in with him and later because the series genuinely struck a chord with me. The humor was a great mix of goofy observations and pointing out the ridiculousness of everyday life which I, even as a young teen, could identify with. (As opposed to many other “adult” shows which relied on references to other media/current events or shock value and thus, were harder for me to get into at that age.) I could laugh at how self-sabotaging George was. I could appreciate how Jerry went through each day with a smile on his face, pointing out the silliness around him and just laughing along with it. And I could marvel at Kramer, the most bizarre human being I had ever seen in anything up to that point.
The Devolution of Elaine Benes
The one person who seems to get left out of a lot of the fandom’s gushing and appreciation is Elaine, and I’ll admit I wasn’t a big admirer at first either. Even now, I find her to be incredibly unlikable in many episodes, because her mannerisms remind me a lot of my worst female bullies in secondary school, thinking they were the hottest shit on Earth and could treat people however they wanted. For awhile I had mostly written her character off as the weak link in the cast at best, insufferable at worst. Then I got the DVD boxsets and started watching the series in chronological order. With that perspective in mind, I realized Elaine’s rudeness didn’t start until Season 6 and got increasingly worse with each subsequent year. Specifically, I’d say her penchant for looking down on blue-collar laborers like the doorman and throwing George’s toupee out the window were the back-to-back turning point.
I binged the whole series again this past year (thanks, COVID) and found that I now suddenly identified with the earlier incarnation of Elaine Benes a lot more than the other characters. Elaine’s experiences in Seasons 1 through 5 rang true for what I had just gone through in early adulthood, trying to find my footing. I empathized with her shitty acting roommate making a lot of noise all the time. I had plenty of those in college, and so Elaine’s habit of leaving her own dwelling to constantly chill at a friend’s place was a shared experience.* I could relate to her tangled mess of curly hair and somewhat tacky button-down dresses, since my hair’s the same and I bought a lot of secondhand clothes to quickly build a feminine wardrobe in the early days of my transition. I found it adorable the way Elaine went about fretting over her goldfish in the parking garage, and how she’d make snippy comments to people who ignored her pleas for help. (I can say for better or worse, I’ve done the same when people are rude to me on the street.)
* It was also a plausible excuse for her to always go to Jerry’s, as opposed to later seasons when they all pop in and out of his place at random for the convenience of the plot despite having their own nice apartments.
The Underrated Early Seasons of Seinfeld
Upon feeling this new sense of camaraderie with the younger version of Elaine, I decided to take a closer look at the seasons which she inhabited. I walked away with a newfound respect for the episodes produced before the show really hit it big. Many dismiss the ’89 to ’93 era as sort of a “practice run” or “working out the bugs” before finding mainstream success in ’94 through to the end, and to an extent that’s true. However, if one is willing to ignore the comparative lack of one-liners, there’s something really special going on in the formative years of Seinfeld.
Season 5 is definitely the overall funniest season, with arguably the strongest lineup of individual episodes ever in television history. However, the older I get, the more those first 4 years of Seinfeld stand out to me as having the best characterization and tone. The group actually felt like real people struggling to make their way in life back then. Their negative characteristics were present but still believable as something an average Joe could do in their situation. There was a consistently applied, realistic dynamic between the protagonists which provided a sense of continuity to their world. This is best exemplified by the fact that Kramer wasn’t really Jerry, George or Elaine’s friend early on, but rather the freeloading neighbor, and hence didn’t socialize with the others outside Jerry’s apartment. (This occurred most famously with “The Chinese Restaurant,” one of Kramer’s notable absences.) There was a slightly awkward, yet commendable sincerity in the way Jerry and Elaine hadn’t quite gotten over each other despite dating other people. This dynamic was best expressed through the most vulnerable line in the whole series: “I never thought she’d find someone she liked more than me. But, you know, I guess I had my chance and that’s that.”
In terms of production values, the editing for S1-S4 was not done in the rapid-fire style of the later years. The first two seasons in particular allowed scenes to drag out and even venture into slightly uncomfortable territory. Sure, it wasn’t as effective for the comedy but it allowed for some good character-establishment. The best example of what I mean is in “The Stakeout,” when Jerry discusses his complicated relationship with Elaine to his parents.
Finally, our protagonists were allowed to be put in dangerous situations, such as Kramer as a murder suspect as well as Elaine’s stalker and controlling psychologist boyfriend. This later-abandoned predilection towards black comedy was accentuated by a darker lighting on set, and a comparatively drab color scheme. Contrast almost any scene from S3/S4 to S8/S9 and you’ll see exactly what I mean. To watch an episode of S1 and then immediately pull up something from S9 is almost like seeing a whole other show; nearly every aspect of the production, writing, humor and characterization is different, and in some cases, even diametrically opposed.
From Relatable Underdog to Callous Caricature
The most significant difference between the “early years” and “post-breakout point” in terms of characterization is, once again, Elaine. In the formative years of the show, she had confidence and was attractive by any metric, but she wasn’t yet so full of herself to start bullying George (and others) as though he was beneath her either. She had money problems and was notably less well off than Jerry and George, even borrowing money from the former at one point. She had an imperfect relationship with her gruff father, and could get pressured into going out of her way for others against her own better judgement. (Specifically watching Kramer’s car in “The Jacket.”) In one episode, Elaine dated a guy at least twice her age who made her feel inadequate over her perceived lack of intelligence. Most strikingly, Elaine had “frenemies” whose approval she craved, so much so that she subserviently went out of her way to throw someone a baby shower at great inconvenience to herself. It’s implied through this kind of exposition, as well as nuances in Julia’s acting, that Elaine was a lot more insecure in her youth and allowed people to walk all over her as a result. These humble, everyday sort of shortcomings kept Elaine grounded as a person and led to more interesting (if less zany and laugh-a-minute) plot lines for her character.
The later seasons weren’t afraid to give the gang their comeuppance for acting selfishly, but never portrayed any of them as insecure or seeking outside approval. If anything it was quite the opposite, with the protagonists depicted as smug in their unwarranted condescension towards others. A typical S5-S8 episode may end with one of the characters getting caught in an embarrassing situation, or rightly told off by someone they’d wronged, or hilariously indifferent to those whom they’d hurt. Never would it let a member of the Big Four end on a sympathetic note, meekly pondering whether the line “you’re just like you were in college” was meant as a put-down or not. When pre-’94 Elaine and George hurt someone (in “The Pez Dispenser” and “The Busboy,” respectively) they at least felt guilty and tried to apologize. The humor in these instances came from their inability to successfully do so, not their callous lack of trying as would be the dynamic in the years to come. If paleo-Elaine saw her peers being unfairly hurtful to someone, like Kramer in “The Nose Job,” she stood up to them and apologized on their behalf. I could never in a million years imagine neo-Elaine doing the same.
Probably the best single episode in defense of my point is Season 3’s “The Tape.” It’s one of the few times in the whole series where we see a truly warm dynamic between George and Elaine. She lets him in on the joke she pulled on Jerry and is even up for hanging out just the two of them in one scene. She, of her own accord, brings George into the game the other three were playing with Kramer’s camera, and makes him feel like a valued participant in the group overall. This is not the same person who coldly left George, alone, off a Christmas card list which included everyone from her work acquaintances to minor family members. Nor is it the same person who could inspire genuine fear in George (as seen in “The Dinner Party,”) withhold a sponge from him so he couldn’t have a nice night with Susan, and tell everyone who’d listen she thought he was a loser who didn’t deserve to get married. From around Season 6 on, it always felt to me that Elaine saw George with contempt and only barely concealed those feelings out of respect for Jerry. It brings back terrible memories for me of my very close neighborhood buddy dating a mean girl in high school. She’d constantly get digs in at my expense while I tried to ignore them to avoid hurting our friendship.
In short, Elaine circa Seasons 1 through 4, both looked and acted like someone you could meet and befriend in real life rather than the kind of person who’d mock you for getting robbed in the street. (As in “The Finale.”) I’d love to have a friend like S1-S4 Elaine, while I’d stay as far away from S7-S9 Elaine as possible.
In this writer’s personal opinion–and I say this as a huge fan of his work–as Seinfeld wore on, Larry David took his famous “no hugging, no learning” philosophy a little too far. The Elaine Benes, and probably even the George, Jerry and Kramer of yesteryear, would never have shrugged off Susan’s death nor cracked fat jokes to a guy getting mugged as their mean-spirited future iterations did. Those moments, and others, may have given us some hilarious episodes but ultimately I liked imperfect, approachable, struggling-to-make-ends-meet Elaine better. I’m glad Seinfeld never took itself too seriously, never forgot that at the end of the day sitcoms are supposed to make people laugh, and never did any “very special episodes.” What bugs me is the way the later mean-spirited direction has colored the popular discourse of the entire series. I’ve seen everyone from major publications to Larry David himself acting as though the characters were always irredeemable from the show’s conception despite the evidence to the contrary. In any case, it’s interesting to note how the series changed over time, and fun to ponder if Seinfeld could have stayed true to “no hugging, no learning” without making its protagonists thoroughly unlikable caricatures in the process.
I have enjoyed watching Seinfeld episodes with you. And knew how much you liked Elain. I admire your skill at media analysis. Once again you made some very good points.
Seinfeld is one of those much-lauded US series that for one reason or another I’ve never got round to watching (Mad Men is another). Still, as long as there are heart-warming and revealing essays like the above devoted to it, I’m more than happy to leave it that way and read those instead. 😉
And, since I have a young relative of that name, anyone called Elaine is alright with me. Not that her hair is in a tangled mess — and nor, in my opinion, is yours. 😎