Sunday, May 08, 2005

Much ado about nothing

I've been watching the DVD's of Seinfeld the past few days. Oddly enough, I rarely if ever caught the show during the years of its first-run status: I've only recently discovered it via reruns on local stations, and have found it to be incredibly addictive. It's not so much that the plotlines suck you in (as with, say, The Sopranos, quite possibly the greatest TV series in history), but rather that the characters are so appealing (or appalling, as the case may be) that you want to keep coming back to visit with them. You become part of their social sphere. That's a tribute to the realism of the dialogue and the fact that most of us can relate in some way to the people and situations depicted.

The first box set consists of the pilot episode (where the characters and the situations seem oddly threadbare and underdeveloped, at least as compared with the later shows), and all of the (abbreviated) first and second seasons. There's also a dryish documentary about how the show got started, which serves mostly to demonstrate that TV actors tend to be less appealing in real life than in television life. As for the writers and executives, that's why they invented chapter skip.

At least the exterior is real. (Not a DVD screen shot.)

Once the series really begins to take off--with the "Chinese Restaurant" episode--you're hooked. Most of us can relate to the agony of waiting and waiting for a table while everyone else's name gets called, even people who've come in a good half-hour after you, while your promised wait time remains frozen at "5 or 10 minutes." That's the genius of Seinfeld: it recognizes the fact that some of our biggest frustrations in life--at the moment they're occuring--arise as a result of the dumbest and least significant things. Hence, as the saying goes, a show about nothing.

The video transfers of the first two seasons, which are high-definition jobs from the original film sources, are superb--far better than most of us can receive on regular TV. The colors and details of the basic sets, for example--Jerry's apartment and the cafeteria, to name the two most notable--can be discerned for the first time. This adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of the show, which (depending to some extent on your screen size), now plays more like a light movie than a TV series. Nor can I detect even a touch of edge enhancement, that teeth-gnashing bugaboo of home video.

While it may be true that surveys place this show in the company of classics like The Honeymooners, I can't go quite that far: there's no sitcom of the modern age that competes on that level (even Jerry--the real one--might agree). That said, it's almost always a funny and absorbing half-hour (or 24 minutes, as the absence of the commercials reveals), and easily one of the best-written and -acted television series of the past several decades. As for the DVD's, while the box is flimsy and the extras listless and obligatory, the video looks great, and the main attraction is hugely entertaining. I'm just now starting to watch season three (which occupies the entire second box), and am signed up for a pre-order of season four, which is coming soon. Bring it on!