By Walker Harrison
Seinfeld and Friends shared a television genre, a setting, a decade, and a network, but any seasoned viewer would hesitate to call the two shows similar. Friends felt more like a traditional sitcom, mixing comedy with pathos while keeping its audience invested in the grand arcs of its characters. On the other hand, Seinfeld was famously devoid of emotional depth, assuming the embodiment of our pettiest, most callous selves.
As a result, one’s preference between the two shows serves as a faux personality test. Those who like Friends are more wholesome, spiritual even; those who choose Seinfeld darker or at least more pragmatic. Instead of speculating about how different people would value the shows, though, let’s actually dissect the glut of ratings available on the Internet Movie Database.
IMDb certainly isn’t immune from the pitfalls that plague any online rating system. If the rest of the web is any indicator, IMDb’s raters are mostly young, white, and male, and prone to the immaturities that define anonymous online reviews, namely extreme opinions, spiteful ratings and ballot-stuffing (likely occurring in that order).
But the site also provides demographic breakdowns of their ratings for every episode of a show, allowing us to not only determine the general trends between how different groups rate the show, but also pinpoint specific episodes that most threaten those patterns. For our purposes, let’s focus on one split in particular: Men and women.
So, without further ado, all 236 episodes of Friends as rated by men and women. [For additional clarity, purple indicates an imbalance toward female ratings, blue an imbalance toward male ratings.]
The tight formation of points along the identity line (y=x) indicates that not only is there a high correlation between how men and women rate episodes, but that those ratings are similar in size, something further evidenced by their near identical overall averages. In other words, the two sexes’ feelings aren’t only tied together in direction but also in magnitude. Perhaps this mirror image is a reflection of the evenhandedness of the show, whose six main characters divide into three men and three women.
Still though, some episodes stray slightly from the pack. Women ranked “The One with the Invitation” 0.36 points higher than men, the biggest difference toward that end of the field. The episode’s central conflict is whether Ross should invite Rachel to his wedding, and whether Rachel should accept. An extended montage of the couple’s on-again, off-again relationship, the episode offers scant new developments and overall is the most poorly ranked of the entire series.
But why does it elicit a distaste from males in particular?
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, one might consider the narrative’s heavy sentimentality a turn-off for its male audience. It also doesn’t help that over the course of the episode, Rachel pricks Ross in places where many men are most tender, mentioning his inadequacy in the eyes of her mother, his past infidelity, and even his erectile dysfunction.
As tangential as the references to manhood in the aforementioned episode are, they’re explicit and unreserved in “The One with Ross and Monica’s Cousin,” which received on average 0.23 more points from men. A central piece of the plot is Joey’s pending nude audition for a role that requires him to be uncircumcised (he is not). Even though the episode’s writers lighten the mood with some absurd prop comedy, the narrative still wasn’t familiar or captivating enough for women to win their highest marks.
(Or maybe guys just dug Denise Richards’ cameo as Monica and Ross’s attractive cousin who constantly finds herself in suggestive scenarios, like slowly eating a hot dog or munching on popcorn from Ross’s lap.)
Moving on to Seinfeld and its 180 episodes…
Seinfeld skews more heavily toward males. On average, men rank episodes a full half point higher than women, and the female view sometimes has little bearing on its complement, as demonstrated by the episodes that drift down the horizontal axis without anything close to a proportional ascent up the vertical. As a result, the correlation coefficient sputters to 0.67, significantly lower than that of Friends.
In fact only one episode of the 172 has a net-female ranking. “The Virgin” was given an average of 8.43 by women compared to 8.32 by men. While the episode doesn’t quite feature the explicit affronts on masculinity aired in “The One with the Invitation,” parts of Elaine’s dialogue offer clues as to why the episode is unevenly appreciated. First she relates a story about a mishap with her diaphragm, likely bewildering the great masses of male viewers unaware of alternative, non-rubber contraceptives. Later she explains to the title character Marla how juvenile men will act after sex, possibly winning a collective head nod from the show’s female audience.
On the other hand, men adore “The Opposite,” a famous episode in which George, weary of his long history of romantic failures, decides to act in exact opposition of his instincts when talking to women. The approach lands him a beautiful date, and, indirectly, a new job with the New York Yankees. Men likely sympathized with George’s frustration and may have even inserted themselves into the fantasy of using pure guile to pick up an attractive girlfriend and a position in a sports franchise’s front office.
Elaine, on the other hand, sees a series of flukes torpedo her job, relationship, and apartment, and with it, apparently, the average female rating of the episode.
[Note: Technically speaking, the show’s two-part finale offers the largest imbalance in ratings along gender lines. But we’ll avoid these episodes since finales are particularly vulnerable to distortion. Why? Audiences feel an enormous obligation to definitively label a finale as success or failure. Despite otherwise accommodating complexity, viewers faced with a finale devolve into binary operators, capable only of calling it a sweeping triumph or a miserable defeat. Reviews turn to arms races between the finale’s promoters and its detractors, who stockpile 10s and 1s in an effort to swing the average and in doing so exaggerate the subtle variations that exist along demographic ridges.
So far the analysis’ tone has been pretty lighthearted: Few would accept the gender distribution of Seinfeld ratings as legitimate science, and our exploration of individual episodes is motivated mostly by an attempt to mine some humor from the two sexes’ predictable reactions to absurd sitcom plots. Unfortunately, these patterns persist on a larger scale, sucking some of the fun out of the exercise.
Take for example, Friends and Seinfeld’s peers: Half-hour, live-action sitcoms set in New York City since 1990. According to Wikipedia, there are about 50 of such shows, 43 of which have at least 500 overall ratings each by men and women on IMDb. If we plot these shows by their gender splits and add in a variable indicating if the lead roles are male, female, or a mix (easily determined by reading synopses or looking at promo material), we find an unsettling trend:
Notice that there are shows about men favored by women, shows about women favored by women, shows about men favored by men, and shows about both favored by one or the other, but never a show about women favored by men. One might argue (correctly) that women in general rate shows better than men, which would magnetize the whole graph toward their side, or that women feeling the need to elevate shows starring their gender creates the phenomena, as opposed to men trying to sabotage the ratings.
An awareness of the Internet’s history of misogyny, both subtle and blatant, weakens that argument, though, as does some of the evidence available in the graph, which is anecdotal but extreme. Do men really think that The Mindy Project, Ugly Betty, and Sex and the City are three of the worst New York sitcoms of the last three decades, or have some of them made a concerted effort to disparage shows considered groundbreaking and empowering for the opposite sex?
Alas, this isn’t unfamiliar territory. Our analysis may be limited to sitcoms in New York City to fit the theme of the blog, but the pattern certainly isn’t. FiveThirtyEight documented widespread instances of men severely undercutting the IMDb ratings of shows aimed at women, and no indication of similar acts in the opposite direction.
So while it was entertaining to link review discrepancies in single episodes of Seinfeld and Friends to their plots, we must never put too much faith in online ratings. Often those numbers reflect not the quality of the reviewed, but the lack of quality in the reviewer.
Featured Image Source: The Odyssey Online