Thursday, July 22, 2010

Seinfeld vs. Friends vs. Frasier

30 Rock and The Office may be critical darlings, but are they Must-See TV material? They got nothing on the powerhouses that are Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier. Just sayin'.

When you're an unemployed recent high school graduate, like myself, you will most likely be spending your weekday nights watching syndicated reruns of Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier on your local FOX affiliate, instead of partying it up with booze and blowing your parents' money off at the local cineplex. Right? Yes, absolutely! Nineties sitcoms are so in!

Moving on from socially acceptable norms, I want to talk about what I've been doing to occupy all the free time I have. I've been doing mostly nothing but mindlessly watching television and filling out applications for minimum wage employment. The former is much more enjoyable and a better topic for discussion.

So every night from 9pm to 11pm, I watch Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier, in that order. It is arguably the most amazing two hours of comedy on television right now. In a way, it's almost like a time capsule that brings the golden age of NBC's Must-See TV to 2010. Unfortunately, this comparison would be much more clever if Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier ever aired on the same Thursday night (only Friends and Frasier did).

I'm just living in the past and I'm not ashamed of it!

It is only natural to compare these shows. In my world where nothing is ever fair, there is always a clear-cut winner.

For anyone following my Twitter, they know I love the f--- out of Seinfeld. So there's already no competition. But I'll try to keep the discussion alive the best I can.

Greatest show ever...if you're part of the Baby Boomer Generation or Generation X. Or you're just part of it in spirit.

Seinfeld is one of the most original, unique, inventive sitcoms I've ever seen. In the last twelve years since it has gone off the air, no other show has had such a spectacular cultural impact or an eye so keen for clever social commentary. It relies on no reliable formula. It's completely unconventional. The characters are all bursts of wondrous comedic creativity and so brilliantly played by Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, and Jason Alexander (ROBBED SO BADLY FOR AN EMMY). It's so witty, so quotable, and almost always hysterical.

Not only do I tune into Seinfeld at 9pm, but also at 7:30pm, and sometimes at 11pm, where they rerun the episode that aired at 9pm. There are some episodes that are so funny that they demand to be seen twice in one day.

It hasn't always been like this, though. I used to find Seinfeld loud and obnoxious, unfunny and unamusing, and generally tasteless. But, for some absurd reason, I would always tell my fellow friends that I preferred Seinfeld over Friends. I think that was the rebel inside of me at work, trying desperately to be different. But truthfully, as much as I enjoyed Friends, I've always found it overrated--more on that later.

I sympathized with Seinfeld, though, even though it's a show with complete and utter cultural relevance and is one of the most successful television sitcoms ever made. But I sympathized with it because my dear ol' Generation Y just didn't get it. I, for one, wished I did.

That was just fate at work, of course, because after my numerous declarations of a preference for Seinfeld over Friends, I actually began to enjoy some of the episodes that I would often catch while channel-surfing. (I guess this is a prime example of becoming what you say you are.) I remember thinking that "The Handicap Spot" and "The Bizzaro Jerry" are absolutely hilarious and brilliant. The episodes that truly got me hooked were "The Fusilli Jerry," "The Pitch," and "The Engagement." There was no turning back after seeing those episodes. The structure is brilliant--everything just ties together in the end, in the most unique, unpredictable way possible.

Seinfeld is notorious for being a self-labeled "show about nothing." And in a way, yes, George Costanza knew what he was talking about. But in the finale, George sums up the show perfectly by telling the NBC executives, "I really don't think so-called relationship humor is what this show is all about." And surprisingly, George is once again correct. While Friends is about marriages, divorces, hook-ups, break-ups, pregnancies, babies, and other genuinely emotional life events, Seinfeld is about muffin tops, pudding skins, soup, man-hands, puffy shirts, big salads, and ultimately, itself.

In Seinfeld's most thoughtful seventh season where George--the jackass, the loser, the Average Joe--gets engaged to a relatively decent woman, yet he spends the rest of the season trying to get out of the engagement so he could pursue other women. The show takes the entire relationship formula and throws it out the window.

But that is the core of Seinfeld: it's about selfish, miserable people whose plans often get destroyed by karma. That's why Jerry and Elaine were never meant to be, though they were perfect for each other (I'm not the only fan who thinks this, right?). But the characters are incredibly human and surprisingly warm (at times) to those in their inner circle.

Jerry Seinfeld said it best: "There's a great warmth beneath the surface of these characters. Just the fact that we forgive each other shows you that."

Those are all the qualities that made Seinfeld click with me, and perhaps the 76 million people that watched the finale (and the many that hated it). The show addressed things that are universal and often made it one giant inside joke for the fans that tuned in week after week (and oh how I wished I could have experienced that).

However, it's also a beautifully nihilistic reflection of the minituae. While some believed the show epitomized New York, it's a fine representation of misery, frustration, and disappointment from any part of the world. And there's the absurd humor ready to be dissected from it all.

There will never be another show like Seinfeld. Some people believe Curb Your Enthusiasm is the present-day Seinfeld and it's definitely comparable, being the brainchild of Seinfeld co-creator, Larry David, but it's a little too formulaic to be "better" than Seinfeld.

Seinfeld is inimitable. And I even liked the finale.

Greatest show ever if you're a fifteen year old girl. Just kidding!

Speaking of imitation, I believe that every generation needs their own Friends. I mean this is as a compliment. I believe that every decade or so, Friends should be remade. So while How I Met Your Mother is technically Friends, its unoriginal premise is not offensive because every generation needs a Friends! (But honestly, I can't care for How I Met Your Mother because I've already seen most of the last ten seasons of Friends. Does anyone else feel that way too? Or do you think How I Met Your Mother's quirks, wits, and Neil Patrick Harris make up for the fact that it's basically a pseudo Friends rip-off?)

I have a love-hate relationship with Friends, as you might have guessed. Friends is the first sitcom I fell in love with. My mom used to watch it in syndication and on Thursday nights on NBC. I would watch it with her and I thought it was relatively funny and cool because when you're ten, funny and cool pretty much makes a show gold.

Unlike Seinfeld, Friends is a certified "relationships show." The show often hinges on whether or not Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) get together in the end or when will the whole group find out about Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Monica's (Courteney Cox) secret relationship, etc. It's a show that centers its whole existence on the idea of life's great emotional events.

But that's exactly why it's popular. That's why it's still many of my friends' favorite show ever. I get it!

Watching Friends as an eighteen-year-old, it's like watching the show with a brand new pair of eyes. I notice the infantile humor, the unacknowledged, uncalculated, accidental emotional immaturity of the characters (Seinfeld's characters can be immature, but Friends' characters are just plain stupid sometimes), the unbelievably moronic tendencies of its male characters (I know girls like it when they feel dominant towards the opposite sex, but do you really like guys who just don't have a clue?), and the emotional manipulation. Friends feels like a chick flick exclusively made for fifteen year old girls.

Yet I feel incredible warmth when I hear the iconic "I'll Be There For You" theme song and see the cast frolicking in the fountain. I feel completely nostalgic whenever I watch an episode because here is a show I used to love--it's like visiting an old friend.

I saw "The One Hundredth" the other day and there was that moment in the end where Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) looks at her triplets and tells them how much she wishes she could see them everyday. And while I may hate Friends for its blindly cartoonish, immature antics, there are certainly some very sweet moments that just hits all the right notes.

I remember watching the finale live back in 2004. It is one of the most crowd-pleasing television finales I've seen. While the Seinfeld finale remains controversial to this day, the Friends finale left its fans with just the right amount of smiles and tears. I knew twelve-year-old me choked up at the sight of the empty apartment. At the time, I already spent the past three seasons watching Friends every Thursday night at 8pm. I actually feel chills just thinking about the last scenes of Friends.

Call it emotional manipulation or pulling of the heartstrings or whatever you want, but Friends has a damn good finale, which makes watching the reruns more satisfying because I know everything will turn out alright.

But then again, there's Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc. Which I find underrated, but still relatively lame.

Some say that there are two different types of people in the world: Those who prefer Friends and those who prefer Seinfeld. But I wonder if there is a certain type that prefers Frasier, or is Frasier the one show that unites all...?

Greatest show ever if you're a senior citizen. Or if you appreciate wisdom. Or both.

I just started watching Frasier a month ago, so I'm not a Frasier Expert yet.

Up until recently, I thought Frasier was a show made exclusively for old intellectuals who read Proust, Shakespeare, and Joyce on a daily basis. I've never seen an entire episode and every time it came on, I just switched the channel immediately. Well, I recently decided to give it a try and thought it was just hilarious. So lesson learned: Never judge a book by its cover.

While the so-called warmth in Friends can feel shallow and superficial at times, the writing in Frasier is so crisp, so clever, so witty, so touching that no wonder it's one of the most awarded sitcoms of all-time. While the humor is intellectual, it's not inaccessible to the ordinary person.

The sibling rivalry between Frasier and Niles Crane is often hysterical and they are even more hysterical when they have to work together. I was watching "The Show Must Go Off" the other day and the chemistry between Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce (who, along with Michael Richards, stole all of Jason Alexander's Emmys, but who can blame him?) is unbelievable. Not only do they have an uncanny resemblance, they really are convincing as brothers. And, of course, David Jacobi is excellent as an ex-Shakespearean theater actor turned sour.

The on-and-off relationship between Niles and physical therapist Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves) really is the sweetest thing. While Ross and Rachel may be the king and queen of the television on-and-off relationship of recent times, Niles and Daphne are so endearing, so sweet that Ross and Rachel can't even hold a candle to their relationship. Niles' nerdy longing for Daphne is funny and heartbreaking, wonderful and romantic.

The rest of the supporting cast--Peri Gilpin and John Mahoney--are a charming pleasure.

I can definitely see Frasier as a no-contest favorite in the future, but for now, I am just enjoying the journey of spending my weeknights with these wonderful, funny characters.

But right now, Seinfeld is the clear-cut winner. Its warmth is subtle. Its frustrations and comedy are blatant and endless. For a show that lets all romantic relationships slip through its fingers, it's a show I relate to and feel for the most. It's the show I feel the most affinity for. And I'm not even a lifelong New Yorker, though I was born there. That must be why.

So I direct this question to those who trespass: Seinfeld, Friends, or Frasier? And why?