The early history of Seinfeld has become a well-told story of genius vs. the philistines. NBC nearly killed the series in 1989 after test audiences hated the pilot. Now the new DVD of the show's first three seasons teaches us that the philistines were ... right. Sort of. On second look, the pilot, while funny enough, is weak compared with the observational gem the show became. As Jerry Seinfeld gamely admits on a commentary track with cocreator Larry David, "We didn't know what we were doing."
The pleasure of this DVD set is watching Seinfeld and David add distinctive elements episode by seminal episode. (The abbreviated Seasons 1 and 2 are on one volume, and the full-length Season 3 on a second; $49.95 each. A $119.95 gift set comes with a script, Monk's Diner salt-and-pepper shakers and playing cards.) In the episode "The Baby Shower," the two weave separate story lines for each character. In "The Chinese Restaurant" they explore the possibilities of doing nothing, as the ensemble spends 22 minutes waiting for a table. Meanwhile, Jason Alexander finds George's note of aggrieved bluster, Michael Richards perfects Kramer's balletic pratfalls, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus whets Elaine an edge that could cut diamonds.
The DVDs were a long time coming because of negotiation over the supporting cast's payment. They make up for lost time with hours of features: an hour-long making-of documentary, cast interviews, deleted scenes, bloopers, stand-up outtakes and a chat with the real-life inspiration for Kramer. The "Notes About Nothing" feature subtitles episodes with all the trivia you could want and some you don't. (The nine months between the show's conception and its airing is the same amount of time it takes for a baby to be born. Thank you, Dr. DVD!)
As the episodes get better, David and Seinfeld's commentary becomes a little laconic--often they just sit back and yuk at their own jokes. Who can blame them? After 15 years, it's still amazing how the show made timeless comedy out of such ephemeral material. "Where was pesto 10 years ago?" wonders George in "The Busboy." Probably the same place it's gone today. But what David and Seinfeld whipped together will be with us for decades to come.