“The Finale” (season 9, episodes 23-24, originally aired 5/14/98)
The series finale of Seinfeld should just be called “The Chip On Larry David’s Shoulder.” There are lots of problems with this episode, but to me, they fall into two general categories. There are the problems generated by the fact that this was a much-hyped, heavily watched series finale, and that “event” status isn’t something that gels particularly well with Seinfeld as a show. Then there’s the problems generated by Larry David (who is the sole credited writer for the episode), who seems hell-bent on reminding us what a dark, dark show this is once you scratch the surface, an approach that is tonally confusing—and also patronizing.
“The Finale” is tough to discuss because it’s something everybody has an opinion on, and the general backlash at the time is firmly ensconced in the public’s mind. I’ve met people who never saw an episode of Seinfeld but checked in for the finale simply because it was such a hyped event (it was watched by 76 million people, or 40 percent of U.S. households, a staggering number beaten only by the finales of Cheers and M*A*S*H among scripted shows). Their hatred of the episode, and the generally uniformed opinion about the show that follows, gave me a fonder impression of the finale and its abrasive qualities. I hadn’t actually watched the episode in years, and so, despite its bad reputation, I was a little surprised by how much of a letdown it is.
The episode is heavy on the plot, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it was one of those graceful, complicated Seinfeld plots like “The Betrayal” where things line up nicely by the end. But that’s not what’s going on here. The plot of “The Finale” isn’t complicated—it’s not even that dense. It’s actually kind of boring. Jerry and George get called into NBC and are told that, due to a change in leadership, Jerry is getting revived with a 13-episode pickup. Overjoyed at the news, the gang decides on a celebratory trip to Paris in the NBC jet, one last hurrah before Jerry and George move to Los Angeles. The jet has a mechanical failure and almost crashes, so it makes an emergency landing in Latham, Massachusetts, where the leads are almost immediately arrested for failing to prevent a comically overweight man from being carjacked. Dozens of recognizable witnesses from the characters’ pasts are dragged before the court in what amounts to a miniaturized clip show; the gang is found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail.
Since this is an extra-long episode (the DVD edition, which has some extended and restored scenes, runs 55 minutes), everything ends up feeling overly padded. Before the cavalcade of guest stars, James Rebhorn (doing a fine job as the district attorney) explains the Good Samaritan law the gang is accused of violating. We’re shown witness testimony from the arresting officer and the fat victim (the latter played by comedian John Pinette), and an incriminating tape is played, even though that’s just recounting information we saw five minutes earlier. That might help for rerun purposes—the episode is broken into two parts when it airs in syndication—but it’s dull to watch.
The returning guest stars bring with them a wave of nostalgia that’s hard to ignore. I’ve reviewed the series in over a concentrated timespan, and still I was thrilled by the montage of all our favorite recurring characters (Newman, Uncle Leo, Puddy, J. Peterman, Kenny Bania, the Ross family, Steinbrenner, the rabbi, Keith Hernandez, etc.) packing their bags to go see the trial. It’s great to see some of the best one-shot characters like Bookman, the Soup Nazi, and the bubble boy take the stand—a lot of them get a fun little callback joke like the Soup Nazi refusing to spell his name (“No! Next question!”) or Babu Bhatt wagging his finger one last time.
But it’s still just a glorified clip show, and considering that this episode followed an hour-long highlight reel (“The Chronicle,” technically episodes 21 and 22 of the ninth season, which aired right before this and features a montage set to a Green Day song) that makes “The Finale” feel especially lazy. There’s no doubt that Seinfeld has a deep, wonderful roster of recurring and one-off guests to reflect on. But the returns are diminishing, especially since they’re just running down their past exploits.
This raises a question, however: What am I looking for in a Seinfeld finale? The very idea of a big-event episode has never worked for this show. Crazy jaunts like the Hollywood misadventures of “The Trip” are hardly the series’ most memorable episodes—the one stunt that came off well was “The Pilot,” but we don’t fondly recall Seinfeld for its big plot twists or how it took advantage of the serialized format. At the same time, could the show really have just done a standard half-hour to wrap itself up? There is an itchy feeling in season nine, particularly during the season’s the latter half. Elaine is the testiest, trying to extricate herself from the group more than once and failing, but everyone feels a little less content with their arrested development. There might have been some angle to explore outside of the gang’s typical hijinks—I just don’t think the trial was the right one.
It’s not baffling that this is what we ended up with, though. For one, NBC likely wanted, nay demanded, a big sendoff. Even if it didn’t, the network would have been horrified had it been pitched “the gang waits to get their dry cleaning” or something similar. For two, Larry David came back to write the finale, the first episode he wrote since he killed off Susan with “The Invitations.” In the meantime, he had written and directed Sour Grapes, which sunk without a trace after largely negative reviews. Of course you’re going to have Larry David write the Seinfeld finale. It’s surprising Seinfeld himself didn’t pitch in.
But it does make for a notable shift in style after the show spent two seasons adjusting to life without David. It also seems like David is trying to make a point about the nastiness of his characters and their dark, weird lives. Jerry stole a marble rye from an old woman’s hands! They sold a handicapped lady a faulty wheelchair! George possibly murdered his fiancée Susan! And knocked over a clown and an old lady when a house was on fire! Jerry peed in a parking garage! The district attorney’s freakout about Jerry having a “pee party” is one of the best lines in the episode, and it calls back to an earlier rant from Jerry. Aside from that, my only big laugh was Steinbrenner saying he loved George (and his calzone) but he was unfortunately a Communist. Frank has a rapid interjection for that: “HOW COULD YOU GIVE $12 MILLION TO HIDEKI IRABU?” How indeed.
It’s all reminiscent of the furor over the finale to The Sopranos and how many people expected Tony to get his grand comeuppance and were disappointed at the ambiguity of the episode conclusion. That show’s creator, David Chase, said that he was put off by the bloodthirstiness of the show’s fans—fans who had happily followed Tony’s wrongdoings for many years. Larry David seems to take the opposite approach, gleefully punishing the gang for their countless wrongs. Were there a lot of Seinfeld fans hoping Jerry’s theft of the marble rye would finally be avenged? Unlikely.
The crime that gets Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer arrested is also a little out of character—they might not have called for help out of cowardice or awkwardness, but the hacky jokes about the fat guy are a bit much, even for them. Pinette is perfectly cast because he’s such a sad-looking, sympathetic figure in that scene—I get weirdly angry about the gang making fun of him, and Seinfeld is not a show that ever drives me to that emotion. There’s a larger joke at work here—the gang is arrested for doing nothing, which is what they’ve always done—but it doesn’t work on any other level.
The final problem is that this episode isn’t that funny. The glimmers of great humor come from outside the main plot—Elaine trying to make a call to her friend is a typical “Jerry explains the weird rules of life!” plot that’s resolved effectively by them going to prison and Elaine using her one phone call to make up for it. Jerry and George’s tiff about peeing with the door open is beautiful. The return of Jerry doing standup at the start and the end of the show (in the end, he’s in jail and his material isn’t going over so well) is welcome. The callback to the first episode where Jerry talks to George about the placement of his second button is lovely, and sticks out especially in an episode that so ham-fistedly recalls the show’s past.
But you know what? I don’t really care. It’s not that important that the finale sucks. It’d be more important if Seinfeld had great mysteries to resolve that didn’t pay off. But there’s another 170-odd episodes of brilliance to enjoy without ever thinking of the finale. Who cares what Elaine was going to say to Jerry on the plane when it was going down? (It probably wasn’t “I love United Airlines”). Who cares if George says he cheated at the contest? I do, a little bit—but I just try to ignore it and enjoy “The Contest” as the masterpiece that it is.
- George’s bitter ranting at the start of the episode feels like Larry David announcing himself to everyone. “I want more than health. The health’s not doing it for me anymore. I’m sick of health!”
- Morty doesn’t watch much TV, except for Xena.
- Kramer wants to go to Japan. Why? “Geishas. They cater to your every whim. They’re shy at first, but they’re quite skilled at conversation. They can discuss anything from world affairs, to the fine art of fishing. Or baking.”
- Newman gets one last great speech in the finale, where he tells Jerry his “day of reckoning is coming, when an evil wind will blow through your little playworld, and wipe that smug smile off your face! And I’ll be there, in all my glory, watching, watching as it all comes crumbling down!” The last shot of the character, however, finds him is him choking on his food as he celebrates the guilty verdict.
- George is not thrilled with the NBC jet. “Do you think this is the plane that Ted Danson gets?”
- Jackie Chiles is basically the star of “The Finale,” especially its second half, and he has some fine moments. But his introduction makes me laugh the most. “You people with the cheese. It never ends.”
- The cameo by Geraldo Rivera as himself is not this show’s finest hour.
- Puddy also gets a great sendoff. “Don’t wait for me,” Elaine says. “Alright.”
- It’s been a dream plowing through this show for the past two years with you guys. I know, despite everything, that you’re going to miss me and my alien robot whining every week. I leave you with whatever your favorite Seinfeld catchphrase is, be it “Mandelbaum, Mandelbaum!” or “serenity now!” or “get OUT!” Mine’s easy, and I apply it to my life each and every day: “You know, we’re LIVING in a SOCIETY!” Thanks again, guys, for keeping these reviews well-discussed to the bitter end.