More than 30 years ago, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld brought an impressive innovation to the TV sitcom: Protagonists who are uniformly terrible people.
Sure, Married… with Children’s deplorable Bundys had been on air for a couple of years, but that series was on Fox — then a small upstart network — and an explicit parody of family sitcom tropes, while Seinfeld was, at least on the surface, a more traditionally structured show. It was also in the big leagues, airing on NBC, and the terribleness of its central characters was a lot more subtle: Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer made us love them while also reflecting some of our worst flaws, overreacting to small slights and petty annoyances in all the horrible ways we’d probably like to, if we thought we could get away with it.
After a rocky start in the ratings, it broke out in a big salad way, and was a ratings monster through the remainder of its nine-season run. It has remained a favourite in reruns (and, more recently, on streaming services) ever since — thanks in no small part to an all-time great cast. Its even darker spiritual sequel, Curb Your Enthusiasm (which featured a whole season revolving around a fictional Seinfeld reunion special) is still going strong. Oh, and Seinfeld’s coming to Netflix starting Oct. 1 — the streaming giant having paid some $696 million to grab the rights away from rival Hulu — so you’ll be able to while away your spring visiting or revisiting the gang.
Maybe you’ve never watched the show, and are feeling left out of this particular pop culture moment, or maybe it has just been a couple decades and you need a refresher. If you don’t want to immediately dig into 180 episodes, you can take a representative sample and totally get the gist (not hard when the show is about nothing, am I right?). Like a lot of TV, this show peaked somewhere in the middle seasons, and despite some minor plot continuity and a few running gags, there’s no need to start at the beginning.
This isn’t a “best of” list. Rather, these are 10 episodes that represent the things that Seinfeld did particularly well — including a couple with iconic punchlines and catchphrases that will get you in with the cool crowd, circa 1995.
Season 2, Episode 9 (May 2, 1991)
Seinfeld picked up steam (and popularity) in its second season — which is fine! The first season, initially titled The Seinfeld Chronicles, was only five episodes long, so that’s not a huge ramp-up. If year two isn’t the show at its best, it’s clear its found its footing and voice quickly. “The Chinese Restaurant” from later this season is frequently (and justifiably) cited as the first truly great episode, but it’s “The Deal” that really nails (pun slightly intended) the Jerry and Elaine dynamic, seeing the ex-couple enter into a friends-with-benefits arrangement laden with typically neurotic rules, and also serving as an early example of the series’ great use of not-at-all subtle innuendo to skirt the censors.
The episode explores the idea of Jerry and Elaine as couple — mostly demonstrating why they don’t work — but the emotional and uncharacteristically ambiguous ending puts a poignant wrap on things. (Kramer also gets a great moment when he inadvertently makes a case for himself as a better boyfriend than Jerry.) It’s a reminder that the cast isn’t just made up of great comedians, but very good actors. Season two aired way out of order, and this one was actually the last episode produced before the show went on a hiatus the creators expected would actually be a cancellation (how wrong they were). It’s interesting to imagine it as the series finale that might have been.
Season 3, Episode 3 (October 2, 1991)
You heard the line that this is a show about nothing? Here’s an entire episode about one of those fancy pens that writes upside down.
There’s a creeping sense of impending doom with this one, which isn’t to say it isn’t funny. But from the moment Jerry’s mum Helen utters the immortal line “What’d you take his pen for?” it’s all downhill. Jerry and Elaine are visiting his parents in their Florida retirement community when he makes the fatal mistake: complimenting a pen belonging to neighbour Jack Klompus. Jerry accepts the astronaut pen as a gift after refusing it several times, triggering a complex chain of events that ends in an open brawl. I come here not to mock retirees, but my own family tends to be older, and, though exaggerated, this episode’s explication of the gossip networks and the over-the-top reactions to small slights among shifting groups of allies is 100% on the nose. (A retirement community is not so different from high school, really.) George and Kramer aren’t around for this one, but Elaine gets some solid moments of physical comedy involving an incredibly uncomfortable sofa bed.
Season 4, Episode 11 (November 18, 1992)
Sitcoms had been dealing with sex since the ‘70s, but without nearly the frankness of television today. I suppose there was to be an expected element of deniability in case the kids walked in the room. “The Contest” has a tremendous amount of fun with that idea, exemplifying both TV-friendly sexual innuendo in peak form, as well as a sending up of the entire idea of sexual subtlety. If you don’t get the episode’s premise fairly early on, I’m not sure what you could possibly think it’s about.
In the opening scene, we learn that George’s masturbating has landed his mother in the hospital (technically true), leading him to swear off the practice entirely. A bet ensues that involves everyone: who will be able to go the longest while remaining “master of their domain.” A series of occasionally bizarre temptations challenges each of them, from an exhibitionist neighbour to a cab ride with John F. Kennedy, Jr. (RIP.) An iconic episode, and it gave us a solid euphemism for jerking off, of which there can never be too many.
Season 4, Episode 11 (November 25, 1992)
Purely a coincidence that we’ve got back-two-back episodes here — though the fourth season was particularly strong, including classics the likes of “The Bubble Boy,” “The Junior Mint,” “The Outing,” “The Old Man,” and “The Pitch.” If you were to pick an entire season to start with, this one wouldn’t be a bad choice.
And as an example of the dynamic between the main characters, there’s probably no better episode than “The Airport,” even if they’re split into pairs for the whole thing. Take the moment when Jerry and Elaine are checking into their flight and they’re informed that there’s a free upgrade to first class… for one of them: Each pretends to hesitate for just a fraction of a second, but since Elaine hesitates just a tiny bit longer, she loses out. Neither of them is the kind of friend who is going to give up the better seat for the other. Another show would blend in a moral lesson with the comedy: Jerry would certainly be due some sort of comeuppance for his brazen act. Not here, though — Elaine finds herself in the coach section from hell, while Jerry literally parties with models up front. Meanwhile, George and Kramer get distracted from their plan to pick their pals when Kramer spots a man at the airport who owes him money. The resulting scheme is (typically) overcomplicated and entirely doomed to fail.
“The Marine Biologist”
Season 5, Episode 14 (February 10, 1994)
Some of the best episodes of the series send the characters off in four different directions that then absurdly and miraculously come together by the end. While many sitcoms can get by just fine on goodwill and strings of jokes, Seinfeld episodes tend to be mini-masterpieces of narrative construction. This one is pure silliness, but it’s saved from feeling empty through the sheer attention to detail in its plotting.
The episode is build around George’s habitual lying, only this time it’s Jerry who’s fibbing on George’s behalf, telling an old crush that his friend is a marine biologist (of all things). Doubtful that he can pull off that particular whopper, George nonetheless gives it his best shot. Meanwhile, Kramer gives Elaine an electronic organiser (again, it was the ‘90s) that winds up getting dropped on guest star Carol Kane’s head multiple times, as Kramer becomes obsessed with getting rid of the 600 golf balls he’s collected for some reason. The finale sees George give a spectacular speech as he’s called upon to rescue a whale with one of said golf balls stuck in its blowhole.
Season 5, Episode 22 (May 19, 1994)
With a little help from Jerry, George comes to the conclusion that every single decision he’s ever made has been the wrong one. The only way to dig himself out of the hole he’s created? To vow to do the exact opposite of what he’d normally do. If his instincts are so thoroughly unhelpful, maybe it’d be worth it to try ignoring them. Introducing himself to a woman he’d like to date, he asks her out while informing her that he’s unemployed and lives with his parents — and impressed by his candor, she says yes. This is one of the great George episode (not because he’s wrong about his poor choices, but because it turns out that he’s 100% right), but it also takes a long, hard look at the rest of the gang: Jerry begins to realise that he’s incapable of truly getting ahead or falling behind, Elaine fears that she may have become George herself, and Kramer continues to be Kramer, making a disastrous appearance on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee (it’s 1994, remember) to promote his book.
Season 6, Episode 7 (November 10, 1994)
Awkward social situations are Seinfeld’s bread and butter, and the curse of the unwanted gift is a recurring theme (see: “The Pen”). It’s a killer premise to hang jokes on because it’s so relatable: We’ve all gotten a gift that we either didn’t want, or that carried with it obligations we had no desire to fulfil. Here, it’s a little bit of both: Kenny Bania, Jerry’s obnoxious comedian friend (a recurring character who makes his first appearance here) gives Jerry an Armani suit that neither of them really has much use for. Kenny extracts a promise of dinner with Jerry in return — yet when the promised dinner is underway, Kenny’s not very hungry. He’ll just have some soup, and Jerry can take him out some other time. Naturally (and this bit is very relatable), it’s not the cost of the meal that Jerry considers the payback, but the time spent with his tiresome acquaintance. There are good side plots too — Kramer decides to get rid of his refrigerator; Elaine sets off on a quest for a big salad — but the meat of it, and the Seinfeld of it, is the awkward encounter over soup.
“The Soup Nazi”
Season 7, Episode 6 (November 2, 1995)
Speaking of soup: In an age before internet memes, people used to use literally any excuse whatsoever to deny you soup, at the very top of their lungs. I’m entirely serious: “No soup for you!” was a top-five catchphrase for a couple of years there, and let me tell you: It got old fast. I even used to get lunch at a DC-based outpost of the Canadian “Soup Nutsy” chain, its name proudly inspired by this Seinfeld episode — and they’re still around.
So that gives you a sense of the cachet of both this show and this particular episode, and it’s not Seinfeld’s fault the bit caught on a little too much. This is an episode where the A and B plots work fairly in tandem: George and Jerry deal with the title’s tetchy soup purveyor, while Elaine enlists Kramer’s help to move a newly acquired armoire into her apartment — moving furniture being forbidden on Sundays. The plots eventually fold together elegantly, and what should be an absolutely meaningless, nothing conflict becomes a disaster as our leads work overtime to overcomplicate things due to a righteous refusal to just get soup somewhere else. Larry Thomas, who played The Soup Nazi, got an Emmy nomination and returned for the series finale.
(If the title reference seems insensitive, it’s also worth remembering that Nazis weren’t generally seen as a going concern in 1995. Though reasonably regarded as history’s worst-of-the-worst, they didn’t have much current cultural relevance outside of serving as the villains in an Indiana Jones movie. Certainly most of us didn’t expect they’d be making a comeback.)
Season 7, Episode 10 (December 14, 1995)
Kramer isn’t always my favourite character, if only because the sense of the surreal he brings to the show can spill over into pure silliness, especially in the later seasons, where he is even broader and more cartoonish — not the best mode for this particular show. Except when it is.
Here, we get a return visit from Kramer’s sidekick Lloyd Braun (no foreknowledge required — Lloyd’s a minor recurring character and not even played by the same actor here as in previous appearances), who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. Even though the rest of the gang either dislike him or doesn’t care, Kramer convinces Jerry, George, and Elaine to carry on with the ruse that Lloyd is one of the gang, indulging him in increasingly ridiculous ways. By the end, we’ve gotten several memorable bits involving unintentional exposed cleavage, ridiculously oversized glasses, a Henry VIII costume, and, of course, a lot of gum. It (almost) all works, and impressively, it all works together. Seinfeld pretty much never wraps up with a tidy moral, but this episode serves as a great elucidation of the series’ kinda-sorta mission statement, which is along the lines of: “No good deed goes unpunished, so why bother?”
“The Chicken Roaster”
Season 8, Episode 8 (November 14, 1996)
A big part of Seinfeld’s appeal is in the blending of the banal with the utterly surreal, and “The Chicken Roaster” (based on a real-life conflict between a Kenny Rogers Roasters and the tenants of a neighbouring office building) is a great example of the form.
Kramer finds himself unsettled by the absurd, virtually demonic red light coming into his apartment from the neon sign on the chicken place next door. Kramer convinces Jerry to switch apartments with him — just so that he can get some sleep. The result? The two wind up switching personalities with apartments, a sleepless Jerry looking and acting quite a bit like a well-rested Kramer. It’s an everyday situation taken to extremes, which is something the show excels at. It’s also forefronts one of the series’ great catch-22s: the light from the restaurant is ruining his life, so Kramer initially wants the place shut down, but quickly finds that he can’t live without its chicken.