The steady drumbeat of library titles moving away from Netflix has become big news over the last year or so, as Disney, Warner Bros. and NBC/Universal inch closer to launching their own a la carte streaming services. Most impacted by this streaming volatility will be Netflix subscribers who've made a habit of streaming shows like Friends and The Office, which have seen robust second lives on the serice. While the media tastes of the Millennial generation (and younger) continue to be an opaque source of frustration for many, they've proven to have an affinity for these old Must See TV faves, leaving Netflix with a big hole to fill when the shows' current contracts expire. Which is why Monday's announcement that Netflix would be acquiring the streaming rights to all nine seasons of Seinfeld is a big deal.
The swapping out of Friends and The Office for Seinfeld is such a symmetrical change that it's impossible not to stack the two up against each other. They were all, at different times, anchors of NBC's prestigious Thursday-night comedy lineup. They each won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series exactly once. And they each became generational touchstones when it came to network-produced studio comedies. So will it be that easy for Seinfeld to slot itself into Friends' void?
To answer that question, two separate assertions must be made:
This statement has the strong aroma of bomb-dropping opinion, but to quote Ms. Mona Lisa Vito (played so memorably by Seinfeld guest actress Marisa Tomei), it's a fact. Seinfeld engaged in a more intricate, acclaimed brand of comedy, threading multiple plots into one intersecting story about the small foibles and challenges of life in New York City. Its peak era (roughly its fourth through seventh seasons) lasted longer than its contemporaries. Its standout performances — Jason Alexander as malcontented George Costanza and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as headstrong Elaine Benes — are far beyond anything featured on other network sitcoms of its era. And believe it or not, Seinfeld has aged a hell of a lot better than Friends. There's a lot more self-incrimination and reflection to the gay panic of "Not that there's anything wrong with that" than seasons upon seasons worth of Chandler and Joey double-taking at moments they get mistaken for gay.
Because Seinfeld's comedy was focused on the smallest moments of modern living/dating, its relatability was bound to endure long after its specific subjects (Today sponges, answering machines) became obsolete.
Friends, by contrast, hits its stride a lot quicker than Seinfeld. Friends is Friends by episode 1, while Seinfeld trudges through two abbreviated seasons before becoming itself in Season 3 (although there are still classic Season 2 episodes like "The Chinese Restaurant"). Friends, meanwhile falls off a cliff after Season 5 or so. Although it's always been a better show than its kneejerk naysayers have said (especially during its peak), it becomes nearly unwatchable during its last few seasons. Seinfeld, by contrast, stays great until almost the very end, with its final season producing more turkeys than usual, but not nearly enough to damn the entire season. When scrolling through your cable guide, happening upon a Seinfeld rerun gives you a higher percentage of landing on a great episode than almost any other oft-rerun sitcom.
That said …
Streamability isn't just about quality; it's about the kinds of shows that will keep an audience hooked episode after episode. Which usually translates to serialized elements. Meaning that both Friends and The Office, with their focus on personal relationships and romances, are uniquely suited to Netflix success. While Friends was criticized in its day for a reliance on romantic cliffhangers, it was that focus that helped it become a phenomenon. And today, Ross and Rachel, Chandler and Monica, Rachel and Joey -- all those storylines that drove some of us up the wall back then -- make for excellent binge elements. That goes double for Jim and Pam on The Office. Or, for that matter, Leslie/Ben and Andy/April on Parks and Recreation. Seinfeld, by contrast, actively avoided serialization except in rare cases, and when it did (George's season-long engagement to Susan), the sentimentality was dialed down severely.
Bottom line: Monday's announcement is great news for Seinfeld fans — especially the ones who either didn't have Hulu or weren't paying for the ad-free version. But if Netflix is thinking it can just swap Seinfeld in place of Friends and/or The Office and call it a day, they may be in for a rude awakening.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.