I do think it’s interesting, though, that Jerry Seinfeld was, during the Must See TV era that his show and Friends dominated, and has continued to be, convinced that Friends “stole” their show premise from his hit. I like that Seinfeld is so competitive when it comes to his art — I’m sure that’s what’s fueled him toward such excellence in his work — but I can’t believe he’d really believe this. Aside from both shows being about single, unrelated people hanging out in New York City — hardly a unique description — these two shows couldn’t be more different.
In fact, I see them as Platonic opposites. Because of the similarities in their basic stats — sitcom, group of friends, Manhattan, professional-class, white — their differences are more obvious. Friends is really about friends — that is, earnest feelings of affection among people who have formed what so many trend articles afterwards called “an urban family.” They loved each other so damn much that they engaged in nearly every permutation of straight romance that could happen among the six of them without things getting really creepy. Friends was about that magical time in life when your friends are the most important people in your life, before you settle down and have a family of your own, blah blah blah. Friends is literally feel-good television.
Seinfeld was a reflection of cynical times, not an antidote to them. Seinfeld did not explore the bonds among its characters; it assumed them for the purposes of pure comedy. (A person could wonder: Why the hell do these people keep hanging out together? Specifically: What’s Elaine’s excuse?) Where Friends says something like, “All we need is love,” Seinfeld says, “We better stop having feelings before anyone gets hurt.” Mind you, that’s what makes Seinfeld great, what makes it more artful than Friends — which is genuinely funny and touching, but not paradigm-shifting. Seinfeld rewrote how sitcoms were written, making room for unsympathetic characters, petty grievances, and plots wound far tighter than anyone had known they could be in 22 minutes.
Watch the two finales for all the evidence you could want. Friends will warm your heart, but you’ll feel a little emotionally manipulated afterwards, like you got your happy ending without totally earning it. Seinfeld will annoy you, disappoint you, and make you think: Was all this time I spent watching this show worth it? But at least you’ll be thinking.