Imagine a world where Seinfeld was instead titled “Costanza.”
It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. It doesn’t roll off the tongue.
But it might be a more accurate title.
Despite taking place in his apartment, despite the stand-up bits that open and close so many episodes, and despite his name gracing the title of the series, Jerry Seinfeld is not the true protagonist of Seinfeld.
That would be George Constanza.
A protagonist is the leading character in a story whose motivations, goals, and actions we most closely follow. On Seinfeld, George is the character most frequently occupying this position.
Seinfeld’s structure almost always follows along an A-plot (the main plot) a B-plot (a side plot) and a C-plot (another side plot, often smaller than the B-plot), and each of these plots come together at the end of the episode for a final punch line.
Most often, Elaine and Kramer occupy the B and C-plots while George and Jerry take the A-plot.
Of course, all four characters interchange positions depending on the episode, but of all the characters, George’s character is most frequently at the center of the A-plot, even if it’s not always obvious.
The first aspect of George that makes him the center of Seinfeld is his motivation.
None of the characters on Seinfeld ever improve as people, nor do they really improve their standings in life. Jerry, for example, doesn’t improve because he doesn’t want to. His life is fine the way it is.
George, on the other hand, doesn’t improve because he constantly fails to do so.
He tries to improve his life though, (not himself really, just his life), and his desire to improve his standing creates motivation.
This means George is always active in a story, almost never just allowing something to happen to him.
While Jerry may spend an episode passively trying to adjust to an odd girlfriend quirk or trying to foster a friendship with Keith Hernandez, George is actively trying to use that friendship to further his own gains.
Whether it’s winning over a woman, staying on unemployment, or getting his parents to move to Florida, George always finds a way to impact his situation, even if he normally fails.
These actions often drive the A-plots on Seinfeld and places George at the center of many of these stories, but George’s role as a leading man doesn’t end there.
Desperation is an amazing storytelling device. The more desperate your characters are, the further they will go to achieve their goals, providing more extreme and hilarious situations and more drama.
No one is more desperate than George Costanza.
This desperation is another large part of what makes George such a deep well of story ideas for the A-plots of Seinfeld.
On Seinfeld Season 5 Episode 11, “The Conversion” George believes he is in love with a woman, so to continue to date her he decides to convert to her religion.
His desperation to please her pushes him not just to convert, but to cheat on his conversion test and go against his parents' wishes, providing us the main draw of the episode.
George’s desperation and attempts to change his life create the storylines that we invest in, even if we only invest in watching him fail.
However, when George isn’t desperate his actions still often set the stage for an episode’s story, like in Seinfeld Season 4 Episode 7, “The Bubble Boy.”
The plot is set in motion by Jerry’s agreement to meet with a fan that lives in a bubble, but this only acts as the catalyst for George’s story. It’s George who leaves Jerry behind on the road and George who gets into an argument with the bubble boy.
It’s George who creates the number one ingredient to storytelling: conflict.
Almost all of George’s decisions create conflict, where for Jerry, conflict instead seems to find him.
That’s not to say you can’t have a passive protagonist, but due to George’s actions often being the most integral to the progression of the story, George’s character is the one most integral to the show.
George holds another unique position amongst the Seinfeld crew; he is the only character to suffer real consequences.
Suffering consequences is one of the most important aspects of a lead character because it provides the character with a journey.
On Seinfeld, the gang often gets reset to their standard lives by the end of an episode. No hugging, no learning.
Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer lead relatively comfortable existences, so a reset to their baseline is mostly inconsequential to them.
George, however, dreads his everyday life. A reset to George’s baseline is the worst thing that can happen to him.
The consequence of George’s inability to escape from himself is the only journey on Seinfeld.
It may be a journey through a stagnant life that’s rendered inescapable by the protagonist's own decisions, but it’s a journey none the less.
That means that every chance at success means something to George, and having a meaning pushes his character to the forefront.
On Seinfeld Season 4, when Jerry and George create a pilot for NBC the most Jerry stands to lose is the opportunity for a new career move. He wants the pilot, but he doesn’t need the pilot.
For George, the pilot represents his chance at a new life. He’s desperate to get that pilot made because it will rocket him out of his pitiful life and into the stardom for which he was born.
That causes him to take charge of the meetings and negotiations, resulting in a chaotic development of the show as George has absolutely no idea what he is doing.
It’s Jerry’s pilot, but it’s George’s story.
Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George are all integral to Seinfeld. On a base level, Jerry is the central figure we focus on as his friends interact with his life.
We are introduced to most of the show through Jerry’s eyes, and there are plenty of episodes that Jerry takes an active role, so to completely dismiss Jerry as the central figure of his show would be disingenuous.
George Constanza, though, is the beating heart of Seinfeld.
His motivation, actions, and desperation make him a compelling figure with a strong ability to create conflict, and his eternal struggle with his position in life makes him the center of Seinfeld’s only journey.
And that is why George Constanza is the secret protagonist of Seinfeld.
Tommy Czerpak is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.