Seinfeld of the times Finale next week: What does this comedy, and television's other hit sitcoms, have in common?

May 06, 1998

THE SUCCESS of "Seinfeld," or any show on the small screen, is fairly simple, in theory at least, and can be described by one word.

Character.

As Sun television critic David Zurawik pointed outin an analysis of the show, only four situation comedies have topped the Nielsen ratings for at least four seasons: "I Love Lucy" in the '50s, "All in the Family" in the '70s, "The Cosby Show" in the '80s and "Seinfeld" in the '90s.

All had a core "family" of strong, distinct personality types. Most important, the characters were appealing even if achingly peculiar.

Lucy Ricardo might have made viewers as anxious as her TV husband with her witless schemes, but she was lovable nevertheless. Archie Bunker was a bigot, but so pathetic, he evoked compassion. Bill Cosby's Huxtable family was the least dysfunctional of the sitcom hits, but the show's namesake has long been adored as a father figure for America.

Then, there's "Seinfeld", the Thursday-night series that became habit-forming for millions and that ends its nine-year run May 14. One can find a lot of "Lucy" in "Seinfeld": the "New Yawk" feel; the wacky, intrusive neighbors; the hopeless get-rich-quick pursuits; physical comedians who triggerlaughter (or laugh tracks) merely by entering a room.

But "Seinfeld" veered from the other classics in its biting use of language and its frenetic cross-cutting, jumping between multiple "stories" simultaneously.

The other top hits were all set in a single "living room" with simple camera work -- more evidence that character was king.

If there was a deeper message in the "Seinfeld" series, it wasn't that viewers identified with neurotic George or narcissistic Elaine or irrational Kramer or droll Jerry. Rather, this show was perfectly suited for an era when folks complain about being so harried and wonder if civility is dead.

Pub Date: 5/06/98

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