“Seinfeld” was one of the most revolutionary shows on television because it purposefully avoided emotion. Jerry Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David had two dark rules that governed the way the “show about nothing” evolved: no hugging and no learning. Long before our relative Golden Age of cringe comedy like “The Office” or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Seinfeld” stood out by avoiding moralistic lessons at the end of every episode and diving in on the aggravating minutiae of life with four fundamentally selfish and self-centered people. Jerry (Seinfeld playing a fictionalized version of himself), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) didn’t grow or meaningfully evolve for nine entire seasons.
But like anyone that consistently makes you laugh, they felt like friends anyway, and viewers came to identify with them all in spite of the show’s ethos. This is why many fans were outraged by the show’s ending, which sent them all to prison explicitly for being bad people. As we’ve all learned as we get older, maintaining adult friendships is a very deliberate act of kindness. The way they showed interest in the small details of each other’s lives and often went out of their way to support one another belies a more complicated reality than “no hugging, no learning.” Often the conflict of each episode concerned one of the foursome making a great effort to do the polite or “right” thing to a relative stranger as well. Here are just a few times the “Seinfeld” characters were actually good people.
When George thinks he’ll be a father
In “The Fix-Up,” Elaine and Jerry scheme to set up George with Cynthia (guest star Maggie Jakobson, Janice from “Friends”). Although they end up having sex, Cynthia isn’t terribly impressed by George on their first date. A plot twist arrives when her period is late and she thinks she might be pregnant. Although George used a condom, it was a discounted one given to him by a friend of Kramer’s, which of course turned out to be defective. Based on his lifetime of shirking obligations and avoiding responsibility, George seems likely to react with his typical neuroticism and fear.
But, surprisingly, he is not only elated (“My boys can swim!”), but he also rushes to Cynthia and tells her that he’ll be there for her no matter what happens, no matter what she decides, and whatever she needs, as she recounts to Elaine. Even Elaine is taken aback: “Wow. You see? You think you know somebody.” The pregnancy turns out to be a false alarm, but George’s show of dependability is enough to win Cynthia back — that is, until she sees him eating up close for the first time.
When Elaine returns from Europe
“Seinfeld” featured a lot of physicality in the rhythms of its comedy, usually some sort of pratfall from Michael Richards. But when Elaine returns from a trip to Europe in Season 4’s “The Wallet,” the moment she opens the door is one of the most energetic and joyous celebrations in a show that’s usually restrained. Spontaneous running in place and group yelling show their genuine delight at her return, followed by hugs all around (violating the no-hugging, no-learning rule). It’s never clearer that the foursome is a family, and they couldn’t be happier to be reunited.
The moment must have been easy for the cast to play because it was actually Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ return from maternity leave as well. To accommodate her absence, the end of Season 3 and beginning of Season 4 feature an extended arc about just the fellas visiting Kramer in Los Angeles, as well as Elaine taking a trip to Europe with her therapist boyfriend. In “The Wallet,” in one unrestrained moment of happiness, the status quo is finally restored. The studio audience even cheers louder than they ever have for one of Kramer’s trademark entrances.
When Jerry buys his dad a Cadillac
The car that Jerry buys for his father in the classic two-parter “The Cadillac” turns out to be nothing but trouble. Jerry’s parents Morty (Barney Martin) and Helen (Liz Sheridan) are always worried about him and trying to slip money into his pockets. To prove once and for all how well he’s doing, he buys them a brand-new Cadillac Fleetwood and has it delivered to them in Florida. There’s some self-interest for Jerry in the act, but it’s still a generous deed. Unfortunately, the Seinfelds’ new car makes the rest of the condo board suspicious that Morty, the president, is embezzling funds.
In another unlucky coincidence, the deciding board member for the impeachment vote is the woman whom Jerry mugged for a marble rye back in “The Rye,” and Jerry’s father is ceremonially removed from the condo board in a shot-for-shot parody of “Nixon.” But isn’t it the thought, ultimately, that counts? Despite his parents’ constant hectoring, Jerry time and again lets them stay with him in New York. This gift also proves him a devoted and caring son. Regardless of unintended consequences, that has to mean something in the abstract.
When Jerry pretends not to be funny for George
In “The Visa,” George meets a woman in a diner who finds him hilarious. He gets her number and sets up a date, but when they bump into Jerry and Elaine, he starts to fear that comedian Jerry will soon make him look like chopped liver. When his date uses the phone, he asks Jerry not to be so funny all the time. After some initial incredulity, Jerry actually agrees to intentionally suppress the entire fabric of his personality just to make his best friend look better.
Jerry might overdo it a little when the subject of birthdays comes up and he morosely observes that, despite the years passing, “for the rest of our sad, wretched pathetic lives, this is who we are to the bitter end.” But he gamely keeps up the facade, even when he has to meet George’s date (an immigration lawyer) again to get her help with the titular visa for his neighbor. The entire ruse backfires, of course, when she becomes more interested in Jerry’s supposed dark and twisted personality than she is in George’s sort of funny one, but you have to applaud Jerry’s commitment not only to the bit but also to George’s happiness.
When Kramer gets his keys back
The most consequential story arc in all of “Seinfeld” bridged the end of Season 3 and beginning of Season 4. When Jerry gets tired of Kramer’s incessant mooching and barging in, he asks for his spare keys back and sets off an existential crisis in his eccentric neighbor. Kramer up and moves to Los Angeles to try his luck in show business and start his life over completely. Of course, he promptly gets mistaken for a serial killer, but Jerry and George help exonerate him while they’re in town for Jerry to do a talk show.
In a rare moment that directly violates the “no hugging” rule, Jerry apologizes for taking his keys back, but Kramer tells him it’s forgotten, and the three men part ways with a hug. Kramer resolves to stay in LA, but in the very next scene walks through Jerry’s door in New York City like everything’s back to normal. After a moment of surprise, Jerry tosses Kramer his keys back without a word, and order is restored to the universe. Jerry’s eternal patience for Kramer — tested really just this one time — is one of the nicest parts of “Seinfeld” throughout its entire run.
When Elaine saves the friendship
Jerry and Elaine’s relationship is one of the most mature and adult friendships on television. As exes, their comfort and ease with one another contrast with the bickering most other sitcom characters with romantic histories indulge in, like Ross and Rachel on “Friends” or Sam and Diane on “Cheers.” Though the show occasionally has fun with their history, by and large they’re a rare case for the idea that men and women can just be friends, no matter what “When Harry Met Sally” has to say about it.
In “The Mango,” their friendship nearly ends when Elaine reveals to Jerry that she faked orgasms while they were dating. Jerry spirals, and the hard-won balance of their friendship as exes is undone by his new insecurity about his prowess in the bedroom. After initially refusing his entreaties for “another shot” to prove himself, Elaine decides that, as a hail Mary, they have to “have sex to save the friendship.” With an assist from the titular performance-enhancing fruit, they’re entirely back to normal by the following episode.
When George goes against his instincts
In the Season 5 finale “The Opposite,” George has an epiphany and decides to do the opposite of whatever his instincts are telling him, and turns his entire life around. In every decision, he’s essentially being a good person by denying his usual instincts to lie or dissemble and drown in his own neuroses. He’s honest with a beautiful woman named Victoria (“My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents”), who’s immediately attracted to his candor.
He gets a job with the New York Yankees the same way: by angrily telling George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David) exactly what he thinks and earning the tyrannical boss’ respect. George earns the applause of an entire movie theater by standing up to two noisy patrons, instead of staying quiet like his usual cowardly self. He even charms Victoria further by declining an invitation to come up to her apartment on the first date, displaying an emotional maturity that he usually lacks. In a brilliant piece of storytelling, George becomes the ultimate good person in “The Opposite” by acting nothing like himself.
When Kramer goofs around with a camcorder
“The Tape” has the rare scene of the gang of four goofing around with one another in a spontaneous and fun way. Normally they confine their camaraderie to complaints about their days, but when Kramer shows up testing out a new VHS camcorder, everyone indulges in a bit of improv. Elaine, fresh out of Jerry’s shower and in a bathrobe, pretends to be an adult film star, and Jerry plays along as the director that discovered her. All three of them smile broadly as they pretend to be behind the scenes on the set of “Elaine Does the Upper West Side.”
Concocting an elaborate scenario, Elaine snuggles up to George and claims “he plays an airline pilot who’s just returned from Rome and I’m about to show him how much I’ve missed him.” George is unfortunately in the middle of a phone call, and also dealing with a newfound attraction to Elaine based on a sultry message she left on Jerry’s tape recorder, and gets too flustered to continue the bit. But for a fleeting moment, “The Tape” shows us a glimpse of the easy chemistry that these people have as friends, and the pleasure and comfort they have to playact like teenagers goofing with their parent’s camera.