Seinfeld was a cultural institution in the 1990s. Over the course of that decade, the so-called “show about nothing” racked up 180 episodes across nine seasons. As it turns out, those writers had a lot of things to say about nothing. By the end of that run, NBC would stop at nothing to ensure that the show stayed on the air. But Jerry Seinfeld himself had started to notice a decline in the quality of the show. This happens with all shows when they’ve been on the air for a certain amount of time. The premise starts to wear thin and the actors start to get a little big for their boots with all the publicity and the fame and the writers start to run out of ideas. It’s natural. This is just what happens to TV shows. They run their course and they go downhill. That’s what started to happen to Seinfeld after nine seasons, but luckily, Jerry Seinfeld caught wind of it early and ended the show at just the right time. He turned down $100 million! That must’ve taken some guts. Anyway, here are all nine seasons of Seinfeld, arguably the greatest sitcom ever made, ranked from worst to best.
9. Season 1
When you go back and watch the first season of Seinfeld, it’s pretty clear that the show hadn’t quite found its voice yet. The characters weren’t fully developed. George isn’t the George that we know today. Elaine barely even has a voice of her own and really serves only to have a woman on the show and set up Jerry’s jokes at this point (she would eventually go on to become one of the strongest and most empowered female characters in TV history). The first season has more of a focus on the standup aspect than the witty storytelling that would eventually become the show’s hallmark. This is because one of the early memos from the NBC executives who were developing the show and grooming it for a TV audience said, “Why are they interrupting the standup for these stupid stories?” Stupid stories?! Seinfeld is now remembered as one of the most brilliantly written TV series ever made, with a writing style and storytelling technique entirely of its own. But Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David hadn’t quite worked that out yet. They were still at the drawing board, trying to figure out how the hell you tell a story on the small screen. Neither of them had any experience doing a half hour sitcom, so the fact that it ever became the greatest TV show of all time is nothing short of a miracle. The fact that the first season is at all watchable and not a total disaster is also nothing short of a miracle. But still, it is the weakest season of the show.
8. Season 9
By season 9 of Seinfeld, it had become clear that the show was running out of ideas. This happens to all shows eventually. The thing that makes Seinfeld different is that Jerry Seinfeld realized this, and he felt that going on without any ideas would be cheating the audience, so he decided to end the show. Usually, with shows like Friends and Two and a Half Men, the producers don’t care if the show isn’t good anymore, as long as it’s making them a lot of money. For Jerry Seinfeld, that wasn’t as important as making a show that was good. It was a smart move by Jerry to call it quits after noticing a decline in the show’s quality, especially since it meant turning down $100 million from NBC to do a season 10. That couldn’t have been easy. Imagine turning down that amount of money! And for the final season of a show that is in a decline, there are still some very strong episodes in this season. Season 9 gave us “The Serenity Now,” a classic Frank Costanza episode; “The Betrayal,” an homage to Harold Pinter told backwards; and “The Puerto Rican Day,” a terrific example of an episode with a nothing premise that ends up having a lot going on.
7. Season 8
Seinfeld’s eighth season was the first season of the show after Larry David left the show’s writing staff and Jerry Seinfeld took over his role as showrunner. You can really notice that he’s gone, because in David’s absence, the show lost its balance of Seinfeld’s optimism and David’s pessimism. Therefore, it became less dark and cynical and more light and wacky. Surreal humor took over and we got Benny Hill-esque slapstick routines that didn’t feel very Seinfeld-y at all. In some cases, the surreal humor and lighthearted nature weren’t a bad thing. For example, the episode “The Bizarro Jerry” is a brilliantly done play on a Superman concept that you can tell was something that Seinfeld had been desperate to do for years and David would never let him. But the episodes that didn’t have Larry David’s input don’t have that hard Seinfeldian edge that we got used to. Highlights from this season include “The Yada Yada,” “The Summer of George,” “The Muffin Tops,” “The Pothole,” “The English Patient,” and “The Andrea Doria.” Oh, and surely this season can’t have been all bad, since it gave us the immortal Costanza line, “The jerk store called – they’re running out of you!”
6. Season 2
The second season of Seinfeld isn’t perfect, but you can see the greatest sitcom of all time and its distinctive signature wit beginning to take shape – and it’s a beautiful thing. Ratings-wise, the show was barely scraping by and it was a miracle that NBC even gave it a second season at this point, but if the first season showed the potential for brilliance, then the second season showed that potential begin to be realized. The characters are taking form and the writers are figuring out their unique style of telling and structuring stories. You can see something magical starting to happen. The season has some episodes that are now considered classics, like “The Chinese Restaurant.” That was the first example of Seinfeld as “a show about nothing.” It showed that this was something truly special that you wouldn’t find anywhere else on the television airwaves. This was a show that could do a whole half hour episode about the characters waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant and make it absolutely hilarious and riveting and deep. Even though they’re just waiting for a restaurant, everyone has something interesting going on. That’s just one example of the kind of genius that Seinfeld was giving us, even in such an early stage.
5. Season 7
George getting engaged was a good idea for a season story arc that would shake up the character and give him a whole new world to live in, but the fact of the matter is that Susan is not a funny character. She doesn’t even work as the straight woman to Costanza’s wackiness. Jason Alexander was putting all the funny in the world out there with the performance of a lifetime, and she just kept beating it to death with a total lack of humor. Plus, the season finale with her death just comes off as awkward. It was kind of a big middle finger from Larry David as he was on his way out the door. He departed the show after the seventh season, but he wasn’t going out quietly. He left the writers to clean up the mess he’d left behind. He killed off a major character’s fiancée and their job was now to make that funny. And to be honest, the complete lack of emotion from the characters when they find out about Susan’s death in the hospital is more disturbing than funny. Still, this season has some really great episodes and introduces us to many great concepts that we can relate to in real life (“Worlds are colliding!” and the like).
4. Season 3
The third season was the first instance of Seinfeld being Seinfeld as we know it. The tight plot structure, the dovetailing of storylines, the dark humor, the witty, snappy, Abbott and Costello-esque dialogue – it was all there! Season 3 was the first full season of the show, as NBC ordered a cool 23 episodes from Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, so there’s a lot of meat to dig into here. David himself believes that the third season was a huge turning point for the show, as the writers started to play around with nonlinear storylines and episodes were getting rammed with plots that all intertwined and bounced off of each other. The characters were becoming more refined, too. George was becoming more deceitful and better at lying, Elaine was developing her own quirks and could therefore start having more laughs, and Kramer was becoming even wackier to become the lovable slacker as we know him today. As the first really Seinfeld-y season of Seinfeld, season 3 is just fantastic. It would come even more into its own over the next few years and give us even greater episodes and jokes and storylines and character moments, but season 3 is a terrific season of the show.
3. Season 6
Any show will start to lag after six seasons, but Seinfeld’s sixth season shows a minimal amount of lagging. Of course, it can’t be as fresh as it was before, but the writers still had plenty of ideas for where to take these characters and they still had that sharp wit and they were still regularly pumping out hilarious half hour episodes of the funniest stuff that was on television at the time. Season 6 of Seinfeld sees the show still on fine form, right at the peak of its success. See, Seinfeld was often called “a show about nothing,” which might make it sound boring, but that’s not what it means. People misconstrue that term. What it means is that the show created storylines about the smallest minutiae of daily life and blew them up into these complex, brilliant, engaging plots. That’s proudly on display in the sixth season. Take “The Big Salad” as an example. It takes something tiny from everyday life like the fact that some restaurants serve both a small salad and a big salad – as well as the observation that people sometimes have the gall to take credit for a favor they’re not responsible for – and turns them into comedy gold.
2. Season 5
After the serialized storytelling of season 4, season 5 was a nice return to episodic, week by week storytelling. Every episode has a clean narrative from start to finish, with a strong and clear focus on the comedy. Of course, this would all be meaningless if the episodes weren’t any good, but they’re among the best episodes of the entire show! Series co-creator Larry David has long considered “The Puffy Shirt” to be one of his all time favorite episodes of the show. That shirt even has its own place in the National Museum of American History – that’s how iconic it is! Anyway, that one was in season 5. So was “The Dinner Party,” in which something as simple as Jerry and Elaine trying to get a cake and George and Kramer trying to get a bottle of wine turned into some genuinely spectacular and zany antics, with a very Seinfeldian ending. Some of George’s best episodes are in the fifth season. In “The Fire,” we see him push all the old ladies and children out of the way after finding a fire in a birthday party and then trying to convince them later that he was doing it to help them. And of course, there’s the season 5 finale “The Opposite.” This was Costanza on fine form.
1. Season 4
The fourth season of Seinfeld may have gotten off to a rocky start with that unusual episode set in L.A. where Kramer was arrested as a serial killer (come on, guys, really?), but after that, it took off and became arguably the best season in the show’s history. As soon as Jerry is approached in the comedy club by some NBC executives who want him to make a sitcom for them, we’re hooked! That storyline made for a great season arc – very meta. In fact, this was an early example of the kind of meta episodes and storylines that all comedy TV shows would eventually be doing, from Community to 30 Rock to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And aside from this overarching storyline, the season has some terrific standalone episodes, too: “The Bubble Boy,” “The Outing,” “The Movie,” “The Airport,” “The Implant,” “The Junior Mint” – all classics! Oh, and “The Contest,” often cited as the greatest Seinfeld episode of all time! The season 4 finale is a great finale episode, too, because it pulls everything together with all the minor characters from the season’s episodes – the girl with big boobs, the old man who Jerry looked after and then lost, the bubble boy and his parents, the virgin and JFK, Jr. – are all watching the pilot on TV.