Last year marked the 20th anniversary of “The Finale,” the final episode of the seminal TV series Seinfeld. The show finds razor-sharp humor in life’s most boring aspects. Up until “The Finale,” its four protagonists get away with the most anti-social behavior while continuing to live life on their own terms.
Seinfeld was one of the first shows to usher in the age of scoundrelly on TV. This tactic of having shows, especially comedies, feature characters whose reckless behavior goes unpunished is still popular today. As a result, this trope has become stagnant over time — The Simpsons is a prime example. Such shows should take inspiration from Seinfeld’s finale, which forces its characters to pay the price for their unique brand of reckless behavior.
Scoundrelly Is Good?
The beginnings of the TV scoundrel trope can be pinpointed to the 1980s and 1990s. Sitcoms transformed dramatically during these two decades. Protagonists no longer had to be “goody-two-shoes.”
Take the sitcom Cheers, for example. Sam Malone’s womanizing ways go unchecked even as Diane Chambers concocts outrageous schemes to get Sam to commit to her. This tactic’s acceptance as a reliable TV trope would only grow. Occasional jerks, like The Big Bang Theory’s Barry Kripke, are harmless compared to the scoundrels we’ve got nowadays.
Two and Half Men‘s Charlie Harper never faces the fallout of wasteful spending habits or constant one-night stands. Similarly, Family Guy’s Peter Griffin increasingly absurd actions, such as getting his son Stewie hooked on steroids, go without punishment.
And, of course, we can’t discuss this trope without bringing up The Simpsons. Patriarch Homer Simpson routinely engages in behavior that ranges from outsourcing his parental responsibilities to framing his wife, Marge, for drunken driving. And he still hasn’t faced the music.
But over time this trope gets tiring — and predictable. After all, we can only watch the same scenarios play out for so long. Perhaps this could be why The Simpsons‘ fanbase is waning.
When the Original Is Better
In Seinfeld’s finale episode, Jerry and company mock a carjacking victim — during the actual carjacking. Their despicable actions land them in handcuffs for violating Massachusetts’ newly minted Good Samaritan Law. The prosecution brings in a plethora of character witnesses, who double as the quartet’s victims from throughout the series. You can guess how this is going to go.
The victims are eager to testify against them, even as they’re still in shock over their anti-social behavior. Watching this trial play out reminds us of how terribly the New York Four have behaved over the course of nine seasons. They’ve gotten away with some truly awful acts.
Like the time Kramer tried to woo a woman by replacing her wheelchair but opts for a cheap one that proves defective. Or when Elaine mercilessly mocked a coworkers’ germaphobia. Jerry actually mugged an elderly woman for her marble rye. And George basically killed his fiancée, Susan, by unwittingly picking out a cheap set of wedding invitations. Susan licked the toxic envelope glue and found herself six feet under. The rest of the gang’s indifference about her death is bad enough, but George’s reaction is downright callous. Susan’s barely cold before he’s on the phone trying to court another woman.
Ultimately, the gang is found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison. In the judge’s words, it is the opinion of the court that quartet “contemplate the manner in which they have conducted themselves.” This is not the ending fans expected.
There exists an alternate ending in which the jury finds the gang not guilty, much to the shock of everyone else in the courtroom. While we don’t get to see what happens next, we can assume a happy ending. For fans, this ending made the most sense, as the quartet hadn’t faced any lasting punishments up to this point.
While the original ending of “The Finale” may have disappointed fans, it did strengthen the series overall by providing a unique twist that shook things up by forcing the protagonists to atone for their misdeeds. Given that Seinfeld is one of the first shows to usher in the TV scoundrel trope, this is important. It demonstrates that for any trope, or era, of TV to remain relevant, it must evolve, which sometimes means breaking the foundation that built it.
The age of the TV scoundrel is flourishing now more than ever, but it continuously fails to exceed or defy our expectations. For this trope to remain fresh, the shows that have mastered it will need to shake things up, Seinfeld style.
Teaching an Old Trope New Tricks
Seinfeld took a risk by ultimately holding the cast responsible for their reckless behavior, effectively breaking free of the TV scoundrel trope it helped usher in. It’s time for other shows to make this same gamble.
It’s a move that could help The Simpsons win fans back. Even through his negligence, Homer does experience some moments of character growth in earlier seasons. But in recent years, he’s become too static. It’s time Homer’s getting fired from the nuclear plant or separation from Marge last longer than one episode.
Seinfeld should be remembered for more than its self-created tagline: “The show about nothing.” It should also be remembered for ushering in the age of the TV Scoundrel and successfully breaking a trope of its own creation, redefining an era of television in a creative and unexpected way. This should’ve been the start of something greater, but, instead, we’ve seen shows copy Seinfeld‘s basic formula without ever challenging it. We need shows to carry the creative spark that Seinfeld‘s “The Finale” created and to use it to set fire to the tried and true methods of TV sitcoms. Here’s to hoping that 2019 will see shows like The Simpsons take the risks they built their names on.