As with a lot of TV shows, Seinfeld’s first season is its weakest. It set a record for the shortest run in television history with just five episodes, including the pilot episode, and while there are glimmers of the inspired genius that would go on to make Seinfeld one of the most popular TV shows ever to hit the airwaves, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David fell far short of the greatness they would later achieve.
After the mixed reception met by the first season, Seinfeld and David learned from their mistakes, refined their style, and turned Seinfeld into possibly the greatest sitcom ever made.
Less Stand-Up, More Stories
The basic concept of what became Seinfeld was the story of how a comedian comes up with his material. Most Seinfeld episodes have stand-up segments at the beginning and end of the show. After Larry David departed and Jerry Seinfeld took on duties as head writer alone, the stand-up segments were dropped entirely.
But in the first season, there are stand-up segments peppered throughout each episode. Early reviews decried the stories interrupting the stand-up, but the greater crime is the stand-up interrupting the stories. Seinfeld’s storytelling later became its greatest asset, so focusing more on the narratives was a wise decision.
Giving Elaine Equal Footing
In the first season of Seinfeld, Elaine isn’t really a main character. She doesn’t even appear in the pilot and was only added at the behest of the network, who wanted the show to have a female character.
From the second season onward, Elaine had equal footing with Jerry, George, and Kramer and went on to take the spotlight in some of the show’s all-time funniest storylines.
Limiting Mindless Conversation
The story goes that when Jerry Seinfeld was asked to write a pilot for NBC, he went around New York with Larry David, joking about items in supermarkets, and they decided that the show should just be mindless, everyday conversation.
There’s a lot of this kind of banter present in Seinfeld’s entire run, but it features heavily in the first season. In subsequent seasons, it was simply used to introduce scenes. It supports the story, rather than carrying it as it did in season 1.
Defining The Main Characters
The main characters of Seinfeld didn’t arrive fully formed. In fact, in the first season of the show, they’re nowhere near as defined or rounded as they would eventually become.
For example, George is shown to be good at his job and relatively sensible in social situations, which isn’t right at all.
Developing A Unique Creative Voice
There’s no show quite like Seinfeld. Its creative voice is so unique that, despite being one of the most influential sitcoms in TV history, no subsequent series has come close to matching its style.
It took a while for the show to develop that voice. The series’ first run felt a little bland. There were flashes of the idiosyncratic tone that would eventually grow, but it wasn’t on full display yet.
Building A Supporting Cast
Some of Seinfeld’s beloved supporting characters appear in the first season, like Jerry’s parents (although Morty is played by Phil Bruns as opposed to Barney Martin), but most of them weren’t introduced until later.
While it was definitely the central quartet that made Seinfeld great, characters like Newman, Puddy, and Frank and Estelle Costanza made it even greater.
Capitalizing On The Cast’s Chemistry
Every great TV show needs a cast with tangible on-screen chemistry. The chemistry in Seinfeld’s cast is virtually unparalleled. The four actors are perfectly in tune with each other’s timing and have a delightful repartee.
However, that repartee feels a little stilted in the first season. The exact reason for this isn’t clear — whether the actors hadn’t quite developed their dynamic or the writers didn’t know what to do with them yet — but it certainly improved as the series went on.
Integrating Kramer Into The Storylines
Kramer was always hilarious, thanks to Michael Richards’ energetic performance, but in the first season, he’s just the wacky neighbor who occasionally swings by Jerry’s apartment and says funny things; he didn’t actually have a part in the storylines. Of course, later seasons would integrate Kramer into the storylines and the show was immensely improved by it.
Putting Jerry And Elaine’s History In The Backseat
The first season of Seinfeld focused a lot on Jerry and Elaine’s past as a couple and their struggle to make it as friends. Then season 2 had that excruciating episode, “The Deal,” in which they got back together.
But after that, Jerry and Elaine’s history took a backseat. Their platonic friendship took center stage without the pesky emotions that Seinfeld famously stood against and their dynamic grew into something truly memorable.
More Complex Plotting
What made Seinfeld’s later seasons stand out was their complex plotting. Each episode had a handful of storylines that all dovetailed with one another and headed toward the perfect punchline — sometimes sharing one punchline between several stories, which had never been done before.
By comparison, the first season’s storytelling is tame. The story threads don’t intertwine, and that’s when there’s more than one storyline in an episode.