We love bad people. At least on TV. Some of the best shows have been built on the idea that audiences want to watch characters who are selfish and narcissistic, who act on their worst impulses, and who don’t apologize for any of it. It’s why shows like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia are thriving, it’s why we miss Seinfeld more like 20 years after it ended, and it’s why we’re surely going to miss VEEP. Aside from sharing the comedic genius of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seinfeld and VEEP have a number of similarities. Sure they’re separated by two decades, but they have both had significant impacts on television and can help us understand why shows with amoral characters are so beloved.
The Seinfeld finale was — and continues to be — one of the most polarizing finales. The series, famously a show about nothing, concludes with the central four characters punished for doing nothing. By failing to intervene and prevent a crime, Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards), are convicted under a “good-Samaritan law.” While on trial, the prosecution rounds up character witnesses from the past nine seasons and this provides the show with the opportunity to revisit the exploits from previous episodes. Everything from marble-rye thievery to cheap wheelchair purchases come back to bite the four of them so the prosecution can make the case that they have displayed a total disregard for other human beings, AKA the exact thing that endeared them to us watching at home for nine years.
Critics at the time went as far as to call the finale “spiteful,” and argued that the episode was creator Larry David‘s way of indicting the audience for watching and enjoying these “cruel losers.” Others found it simply disappointing for rehashing old jokes and ending on a sour note by locking the characters behind bars. The finale was appreciated by some, however, who enjoyed the procession of cameos and the show’s willingness to not deliver a happy ending.
One of the strengths of the Seinfeld finale is that it recognizes the inevitability of a long-running show becoming stale. A great final joke in the ultimate show about nothing is that in jail Jerry and George return to a conversation from the pilot about the importance of button placement on a shirt. They even acknowledge that they’ve probably had this banal exchange previously. Like the cameos, these jokes arguably work as fan-service by rewarding audiences who have seen every episode and can catch all the references. The show resists the usual mode of fan-service that a happy and fulfilling conclusion would provide, but manages to cater to longstanding fans by recognizing their devotion. It does this while simultaneously reminding audiences that these jokes can only go on so long before they become repetitive and that all good things — the show itself, the characters’ jokes, and the ability for the foursome to get away with their misdeeds — must come to an end.
The finale also toys with the idea of Jerry and Elaine becoming a couple, a thread that ran throughout the nine seasons. Fans will remember the season two episode, “The Deal,” where Jerry and Elaine tried to have “this, that, and the other.” Larry David had received pressure from NBC executives to turn Jerry and Elaine into the new Sam and Diane by teasing their romantic reunion. The episode was filmed to be the last of the season when David feared the show wouldn’t get renewed, but NBC aired the season out of order so it ended up being the ninth episode. It concludes with Jerry and Elaine in an apparent relationship, but this storyline is dropped in the following episodes and their “Deal” is never explicitly mentioned again.
Any Seinfeld fan will tell you this was for the best. One of the strengths of the show was that Elaine never fell into the trap of being the stock girlfriend character. She held her own when it came to greed, self-absorption, and crass behavior. She spoke about her sexual exploits with a refreshingly frank attitude that put her on par with the guys. This would have never happened if she had just been there to be Jerry’s will-they-won’t-they potential romantic interest.
In the finale, the joke of them as a couple is brought up several times. As the plane they’re all on plummets downward, Elaine begins to profess her feelings for Jerry, but is interrupted when the plane stabilizes. In the original broadcast, she tells him she loves him but this line was cut in subsequent airings. Later on, when Jerry asks what she was going to tell him, Elaine returns to her deadpan attitude and lies about what she was going to confess. In news coverage of the court case within the episode, a reporter speculates about the two of them getting back together. This meta-joke acknowledges that those watching the two of them from the outside would expect to see a romantic relationship between them, but that those of us more familiar with the characters understand why this wouldn’t work.
There’s something to be said about the fact that, much like button placement conversation, we are still discussing the Seinfeld finale and still debating whether or not it worked, and likely will continue to do so for a long time. Love it or hate it, the show entrenched itself into popular culture and left a lasting mark.
As VEEP aired its final episode after seven seasons, it was difficult to not think about the Seinfeld finale. VEEP is one of the shows that excelled when it came to borrowing Seinfeld‘s “no hugging, no learning” rule and running with this concept by delivering unabashedly amoral characters who only ever change for the worst and double down on their misdeeds.
While NBC execs and even David himself toyed with Elaine being the girlfriend character, a move that would have limited the potential of Louis-Dreyfus as an actor, VEEP unleashed her as Vice-President, then President, then former President, and then once again President Selina Meyer. For those left unfulfilled by the Game of Thrones finale, VEEP is the show to study for an example of how to craft a narrative of a woman going mad with power.
While Selina began VEEP as a cutthroat politician, this characterization deepened as the show progressed and culminated with her becoming the ultimate, most morally dubious version of herself. Over the course of the series, Selina serves several roles in Washington, including becoming the President when her predecessor stepped down, but her ultimate goal is always to win the Presidency in an election. By the end of the show, she’s done everything short of murdering someone with her bare hands to secure a victory and shows no compassion to the people she’s had to step on to get there.
While Selina and most of the characters around her have no moral center, it’s illuminating to understand how the show works with the select few characters who actually seem to care about others. Take Gary (Tony Hale), for example. He’s devoted to Selina through thick and thin and his commitment to her leads to what most fans would consider the best scene of the whole series: the moment where Selina finds out she’s going to be President.
This is one of the rare instances where we see another side of Selina, one where she is actually willing to enjoy a moment and briefly let loose. Over the next several seasons we see this side less and less as she becomes more hellbent on success at any cost. This cost includes ending gay marriage, making deals with Chinese operatives to rig the election, and even handing Gary over to the FBI as a scapegoat for the illegal financial maneuvers of her charity, the Meyer Foundation. For a show that takes insult comedy to new highs and that revels in moral bankruptcy, there was actually something a little bit heartbreaking about seeing Selina betray the one person who would never go against her. We always knew she would sink low, we just didn’t know she would sink that low.
The betrayal does work for Selina though as she is ultimately elected president in the finale. In the penultimate scene, she is alone in the Oval Office and, like Seinfeld, the show takes the opportunity to return to some jokes from the pilot. In the first episode, while dealing with one of many catastrophes, Selina comments that the level of incompetence in her office is “STAG-GER-ING.” She begins to repeat this line in the finale but trails off when she realizes that she is alone and speaking to no one. Selina clawed her way to the top, and while she doesn’t exactly show remorse for what was lost along the way, this scene indicates that she’s at least aware of the fact that she no longer has the company she once did. The people that actually tried to help her and that she could depend on are long gone, most of them betrayed or cast aside at some point. She got what she wanted but lost what she needed.
Following this scene, the finale, after yada-yada-ing past 24 years, jumps to Selina’s funeral. Many of her old associates return to mourn her, including Gary, who apparently spent years in prison and was never visited by Selina. Despite all of this, he still has a sense of fealty and can’t bring himself to hate her for it. For a show that never shied away from the toxicity of politics, this scene manages to hit hard as it’s apparent that genuine loyalty has gotten Gary nowhere.
The ultimate joke of the show is that Selina’s funeral is upstaged in press coverage by the passing of Tom Hanks. In the pilot, Hanks’ death was brought up as a potential event that would draw attention away from the latest scandal to engulf Selina. This send-off gives fans a clever in-joke reference, while also furthering the show’s themes of legacy. We find out in this flash-forward scene that Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons), a true bastion of incompetence, was at one point elected President and then impeached. Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), one of the rare goodhearted characters, who is too naive to be cruel, is the current President. He’s lauded and respected for more than just the title he holds but for who he is, something that could never be said about Selina or Jonah.
The show ends on a surprisingly uplifting message that at the end of the day, what makes a legacy is not just holding the title of President because even if that happens there is always the possibility of a funeral being overshadowed or an impeachment tarnishing someone’s success. Richard actually managed to create a worthwhile career and legacy that made a difference. Of course, the political world of VEEP is a fickle one and no one can know where things go from here, but the show does use this development to end on a note that isn’t just moral depravity.
At its best, Seinfeld managed to resist sentimentality and stock characterizations, while also acknowledging the affection that fans felt toward the characters after spending nine seasons with them. The “no hugging, no learning” motto distinguished the series from other sitcoms and provided a framework that other shows have built on. VEEP took this to a new level and gave us some of the most hilariously corrupt characters to ever grace the small screen. The show demonstrated how a woman like Selina can go from mostly manipulative to borderline bloodthirsty over ambition and this seven-season development, coupled with Louis-Dreyfus’ consistently pitch-perfect performance, meant that every plot point of betrayal was earned.
The amoral exploits of all of these characters range from banal to beyond the pale. While we can’t necessarily condone the stories we watch every week, it sure is fun to be entertained by characters who embrace the hedonistic impulses that are frowned upon in polite society. What makes Seinfeld and VEEP work so well is that they give us enough fan-service to reward audience commitment, but they never turn sentimental, they resist going to route of tired romantic subplots, and they don’t pretend that viewers want to see the characters learn or grow. Sometimes it’s best to welcome the desire to revel in characters who are the best at being the absolute worst — no redemption arc needed.