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Published: Thursday, 11/25/2004

The genius of 'Seinfeld'

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Seinfeld: Seasons 1 & 2 and Seinfeld: Season 3 (Columbia, $49.95 each) are finally on DVD. Seinfeld: Seasons 1 & 2 and Seinfeld: Season 3 (Columbia, $49.95 each) are finally on DVD.
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Man's inhumanity to man.

Hilarious, I say.

So do you, actually.

You watch Seinfeld, don't you?

Today, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for Seinfeld, and I'm especially thankful that Seinfeld: Seasons 1 & 2 and Seinfeld: Season 3 (Columbia, $49.95 each) are finally on DVD after prolonged (and well-publicized) negotiations with, well, everyone involved in the show who isn't Jerry Seinfeld.

Many say it's the greatest television series ever. When friends would say this, I would say "Well, maybe The Simpsons ..." I would argue Seinfeld might be dense, it might be so devoted to nothingness and the inability of immoral people to change, it could be the longest act of absurdist theater ever staged - but it's not great.

I'd actually argue that.

Now I have a confession.

Like George Costanza wrestling out a white lie in a really unattractive explosion of guilt - well, sheesh, how do I get out of this one? If you own a television, what I am about to admit will seem truly insane. Here goes:

I have never seen Seinfeld.

Until now, that is.

Not in its entire run, from 1989 to 1999. I caught a few scenes here and there. I saw most of the farewell episode. But somehow I managed to avoid seeing an entire episode. (I never had to review the series, either.) I admit this now because as I watched the first three seasons on DVD, I was struck by how much I knew anyway, how many references I was well versed in, how much of the dialogue I had heard before.

A sample from the first disc:

George: "You like Magellan?"

Jerry: "Oh yeah, my favorite explorer. Around the world, come on - who do you like?"

"I like DeSoto."

"DeSoto? What did he do?"

"Discovered the Mississippi."

"Oh, yeah, like they wouldn't have found that anyway."

Because of Seinfeld, lines that wonderfully perverse are out there, floating in our pop ether 24-7. Indeed, there's a fair question to be asked: Why would you want to buy a Seinfeld DVD when all you need is a television, where an episode is always on?

As a newbie, what's fun about these sets is watching a classic come together, line by line, situation by situation, without the jumbled order of syndication to worry about. That and the fuzzy, washed-out appearance of reruns is no more: these episodes have the crisp, over-lit look of a brand new sitcom. Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) isn't in the first episode. George (Jason Alexander) doesn't seem quite so confrontational yet. And the studio audience doesn't reflexively go bonkers when Kramer (Michael Richards) barges in on Jerry.

That first episode is not even especially memorable. "We didn't know what we were doing," creator Larry David admits on the commentary track. NBC famously took baby steps. The first box set contains two seasons but only 18 episodes: the first six that make up the entire first season, and the next 12 that make up the second. Not until the third season (and the second box set, which has 23 episodes), do we see the Seinfeld we know, the one that dug its heels in and gave a vision of humanity that could be called unabashedly miserable if it weren't so funny.

When George says in an early episode, "I always wanted to pretend I was an architect," you know this show was never about nothing, as much as it argued. The extras include an hour-long documentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, bloopers, interviews, commentary tracks from a host of writers (David), directors (Larry Charles), and actors (the Big Four take turns). But I doubt you'll watch this stuff a whole lot. Not when you have the episode where Jerry is stalked by a library detective (Toledo native Philip Baker Hall), the one where Jerry and Co. wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant, the one with the Pez dispenser - the one where Elaine says, "You got to see the baby, got to see the baby!"

And so on.

And yada, yada, yada.

If Seinfeld is just about nothing, Moby Dick is about a whale. But what it has to say about human nature is so bleak, it'd be more comfortable if it were just about nothing. But that discomfort is what makes it great. After an election where a large chunk of voters claimed that they voted on the basis of "moral values," you've got to wonder how much rope a network would give a sitcom like Seinfeld today. Can a red America ever love a show so hilariously, so stridently, blue?

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DO IT AGAIN: Is it too soon to rescind that long-held conventional wisdom about a movie's sequel never being as good as the original? Let's hope not. One of the year's most welcome trends is terrific sequels, and three of the best were Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner, $29.95), Spider-Man 2 (Columbia, $29.98, available Tuesday), and The Bourne Supremacy (Universal, $29.98, available Dec. 14) - three of the best movies of the year, period.

How could this happen?

Quite simply: Smart, inspired filmmakers, who normally have trouble getting more idiosyncratic material through a studio, are taking what they can get and making the best of it. Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) took the bold step of tweaking Harry to suit more lyrical ends, and made the finest installment of that series. Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) made action itself - the visceral blur of the chase - a character in Bourne. And Sam Raimi continues to root the Spider-Man pictures not in action but primarily in character. What all three share is a remarkable willingness to allow silence to creep into a summer blockbuster and make the typically forgettable, very personal.

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LOUNGE ACT: Someday long after Steven Spielberg has passed, The Terminal (DreamWorks, $19.95), new on DVD, will be judged for what it is: a deeply sentimental minor work of first-rate filmmaking that got an odd reception when it originally opened. My theory on this is simple (and not to be trusted): Audiences heard it was about this guy (Tom Hanks) trapped in an airport and they thought: Department of Motor Vehicles. They thought of long lines and the smell of the person standing behind them. Too bad, because Spielberg is tapping a relaxed vein he needs to hit more often. The Terminal has messages of self-reliance and perseverance, but forget that. It's about Spielberg, after decades of Event Movies, kicking back and proving he can still shoot a film about people. Just don't call it small. Included in the extras is a jaw-dropping look at the elaborate construction of that mammoth terminal re-creation. Some people can sure spend money.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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