What does it say about society that Seinfeld ended up being much more popular than Mad About You?

These two shows about neurotic new yorkers stumbling into elaborate schemes to avoid discomfort and inconvenience began around the same…

What does it say about society that Seinfeld ended up being much more popular than Mad About You?

These two shows about neurotic new yorkers stumbling into elaborate schemes to avoid discomfort and inconvenience began around the same time, ended around the same time, and canonically took place in the same universe (with crossovers & shared locations).

The cast of Seinfeld, as famously shown in the last episode, are bad people. They are constantly screwing other people over with their egocentrism. The famous statistic about the number of women George Costanza slept with is because every member of the core cast is dating and dumping somebody new almost every week. These romantic interests exist mostly to have their pain be slightly annoying & inconvenient to the main cast.

The pilot gives us a hint about how we might want to handle this, by opening up with a Jerry Seinfeld standup bit that implies that Jerry is unaware of menstruation, and following it with an episode about Jerry and George being weird and out of touch about women. In other words, we can take the cue from the pilot and say: this is a show about fundamentally unlikeable and unadmirable people, and we are not supposed to actually empathize with them. I think other Larry David productions do this better. I don’t think the majority of audiences interpreted the show this way during its run, though, and later we’ve seen that the actors in fully half the cast have shown themselves to be egocentric and unempathetic in major scandals. (As far as I know, Jason Alexander, who was already an established character actor, and Julie Louis Dryfus, who consistently has the most compelling, interesting, and believable performances on the show, have not scandalized themselves.)

Mad About You, as I’ve noted, is also about neurotic new yorkers. But while the plots in Seinfeld are about a convenient solution to discomfort being impossible (or some shortcut being in reality untenable), Mad About You always centers on moral conundrums. Paul and Jamie are good people in exactly the same environment as Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. They deal with the same kinds of off the wall situations and characters. (Paul even deals with Kramer.) But Paul and Jamie are always weighing the good thing against the easy thing. As a result, Mad About You has a lot more heart. It also has a lot more solidarity. The primary and secondary cast of Mad About You are family members and current or former coworkers. While there are some Seinfeld-style wacky one-off characters who blow through to set off the plot, most of the conflict in Mad About You is about how to do right by people you care about even when the circumstances make it difficult to know what’s right. Most of the drama, over the course of several seasons, actually comes from a continuing subplot about Jamie’s former coworker’s divorce. This family was introduced as annoying friends, and they remain sort of annoying, but their feelings are still treated as real & with respect.

I guess that if we want to give the 90s sitcom viewing public the benefit of the doubt, we might say that this kind of serial storyline limited the accessibility of the show: not everybody could watch enough episodes to follow a side character’s multi-season arc. (Especially if it was competing with water cooler discussion of Twin Peaks and, later, The X Files, both of which did the semi-serial thing with higher stakes.) Today, I think it’s normal to expect that sort of thing. (Later seasons of Bones are very focused on the arcs of supporting characters, for instance, and that’s a police procedural with completely episodic A-plots.)

In the end, shows like Mad About You *did* win: when shows became available on home video and streaming, there was an emphasis on rewatchability, and as people cut their cable cords, syndication became less important, so serial plots became more common. Serial plots in ostensibly-episodic TV are basically what we are talking about when we talk about the “golden age” of television — which has accelerated to the point where series made for streaming are essentially 10-hour-long segmented movies now. At the same time, even comedy shows that have inherited the cynicism and edge of Seinfeld are now expected to have heart too — there may be no “hugging and learning” but that makes tragic-comedies like Bojack Horseman hit even harder.

In the age of Bojack Horseman, it’s hard to watch Seinfeld without expecting the show to eventually address how broken and dysfunctional these characters are in an emotionally open and honest way (since, after all, even Rick and Morty manages to do that). But it never does. If Seinfeld were made today, rather than a one-off episode about George’s complex around his occasional homosexual desires, we’d see an arc about it like Always Sunny did, wherein George eventually comes out as bisexual but doesn’t actually become a better person because of it.


Watch Mad About You. When it comes to 90s sitcoms, this one has aged a lot better than most, because it’s about relatable people who love each other and aren’t irredeemable assholes.