1. Elaine Benes
Best-known episode: "The Sponge"
(Somewhat) lovable loser. Persnickety smart aleck. Erratic goofball. Seinfeld's three other leads can be boiled down to types. But no box could contain the full essence of Elaine Benes, the show's most complex, quirky and ultimately hilarious character.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus did her brilliant work under the radar, seamlessly weaving Elaine's idiosyncrasies into each episode without overshadowing her co-stars. She grabbed lines off the page and went full Jackson Pollock every time she opened her mouth: "He took. It out." "Maybe the dingo ate your baby." "I touched them."
Kramer was the most ostentatious physical comedian, spinning into doorways and sticking in his too-tight jeans, but Elaine was the most nuanced actor in her own body. She jerkily kicked her way into awkward-dancing history, but also exploded at the site of George's toupee, went full Stanley Kowalski after overdoing it on muscle relaxers and made Russell Dalrymple marvel at her ketchup secret.
Elaine's sexual vitality was itself a revelation. Her character was groundbreaking, even for the Nineties — a woman in her thirties not obsessed with marriage and children, passionate about abortion rights and favored contraception methods. Her sexual appetite rivaled her male peers (she was the second one to exit "The Contest" and she flipped out when Jerry banned Puddy from doing "the move"). And she had actual career aspirations, too, though her dream jobs in publishing were always thwarted by the idiocy around her.
Elaine was comfortable with her hapless pals, but was most aware of a life beyond examining the "excruciating minutia of every single daily event." She wasn't exactly a cock-eyed optimist, but she let herself live and love and hate and scheme and laugh in ways Jerry, George and Kramer never could. She was the straw that stirred the drink, and, ironically, the character who wasn't originally part of the lineup. We wouldn't want to imagine the Sein-world without her. CARYN GANZ
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