Before going to sleep, I like to watch an episode or two of Seinfeld to unwind. I like that series in general because there’s very little in it that gets me in trouble. Shows about married guys making mistakes can be way too stressful, as my wife may transfer the mistake on teevee to me. Not good. No, the guys in Seinfeld are different enough from me that I can count on them to do stuff I’d never do. Hence, it’s great to unwind to.
It’s also one of the best comedy series ever done. Nine seasons of classic comedy. Well, more or less…
See, that’s why I’m ranking them. I have seen other people’s lists and they don’t ring true. They pick episodes because of a cultural impact or because they remember some aspect vividly. I don’t see any criteria used for judging. Without criteria, any system of ranking is flawed. My system is based upon awarding up to 30 points per episode. Here’s how it breaks down:
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine can each score up to 3 points per episode, one point per third of the episode as a general rule. Truly exceptional blow-ups, outbursts, etc. can warrant a 4th point – so far, I’ve only awarded that 4th major character point in two episodes, one for Kramer dumping cement into a washing machine (exceptional physical comedy) and one for Elaine’s attempted eviction of a do-nothing boyfriend, culminating in her celebrated “Van Wyck” monologue. That’s it. Everything else can top out at three. To earn a point, the major character basically has to have a decent chunk of lines. If all the character does is play straight man, no point for that third.
In the first season, there are episodes in which a major character appears and has nothing but dud lines. That’s the low end of the scale, for sure.
OTHER CHARACTERS: When other characters make life difficult for Jerry and the gang, the show powers ahead with comedy gold. When the other characters just go on dates with Jerry and the gang, the show tanks. This isn’t a relationship comedy. It may be a show about nothing, but we need to see how even crazy, colorful, larger-than-life characters can get sucked into the nothingness. When the others show up and crack wise, the show is richer for it. Up to five points per episode can go towards what other characters do.
DIALOGUE: When we get those extra zingers, the episode scores dialogue points. This is more than just a great scene: this is a great line, that we want to repeat over and over in order to relish. Up to five points per episode go towards the “No soup for you!”-type lines.
SITUATIONS: For a show about nothing, we still need great situations for the characters to not learn from or to grow personally from. These are the situations that become cautionary fables, the plots to collect cans in New York and drive them to Michigan, the plan to buy back the Cadillac from Jack Klompus, the need to bring Mr. Steinbrenner a calzone. Each major character can score a point for a great situation that they fall into: if all the situations tie into each other, or one goes over the top, situation point number 5 can be scored.
PERVERSE ENDING: Season one tied things up by the end of the show and we were left with nothing to talk about during the closing credits. Later seasons realized the potential for having fate deal one last blow to the characters. They would not learn a moral lesson from these things, but they would potentially sharpen their animal instincts in knowing what to avoid in the future. Up to three points can go towards George showing up in the coffee shop wearing a sheet, Susan licking the envelopes, or an Ohio farmgirl pledging her love to Norman…
ENOUGH ALREADY: Penalty points, no limit on them. When I’m watching an episode and going, “Enough already with this” over a scene or a bit, I take a point off. Season one is loaded with these moments of pain as we endure Jerry or George having a normal date with a normal person that’s just going bad by a little bit. We need things going off the rails. We need explosions on the launch pad. We need avalanches and landslides, not rainy weekends in Vermont.
That’s my rubric. It is somewhat subjective, true. However, it allows me to justify my rankings for the shows and to let me see what’s needed to make a show truly epic instead of just good. I’ll write more about my rankings in the coming days, since I’ve got this spreadsheet of numbers and totals and I might as well get into the science of comedy with this data I’m collecting.