Why “Seinfeld” Was the Peak of Television

· TV
Authors

On television, you can do anything; except nothing.

Despite there being entirely too much of it, I like television today more than I liked it when I was a kid.  It is fashionable to label the modern era “the golden age of television.”  In reality, that “golden age” ended with a pathetic whimper following the finale of Game of Thrones (if not before) and then the onslaught of streaming junk for the desperate, content-starved homebodies of American lockdowns and beyond.  The era we’re in now is… for lack of a better description, something else and very clearly something worse.

Still – before all this, the 21st century had a good run when it came to television.  As a medium naturally in competition with cinema, the new era of television was built around being both more of what movies were, and also more of what movies weren’t.  To wit: the basic difference between cinema and TV was that the cinema is a specific setting that promised immersive spectacle of the kind you generally couldn’t get anywhere else.  You went to movies to journey and dream somewhere, and hopefully to be as emotionally impacted as deeply as the screen was big.  Television, on the other hand, is a device for your house, and the content you’d receive was generally about consistency – like having a group of guests around you and your family.  But the 21st century saw the elevation of television in ways that blurred but also expanded upon those differences.  On the one hand, TV was starting to look like the movies and becoming dangerously capable of matching their levels of spectacle.  On the other, television began leaning more heavily on its serialized and continuous (read: soap operatic) nature to give people what films and all of their bloated expense couldn’t – the chance to see a cliffhanger resolve or get your answers immediately, or the chance to see a big epic story be given the time and attention to detail that a two-hour film can’t always give you.  I say “soap opera” because arguably that’s what television is in its purest form.  Compared to this, a film can seem superficial.

Television in the 21st century, and its “golden age,” can therefore be defined by three popular dramas that ran through the 2000s decade: The Sopranos, 24, and Lost.

Yeah, I know – now that I’ve said that, it seems ridiculous to label the 21st century the “golden age” of anything on account of at least two of those three shows botching their ending.  That is largely my point.  But before they met their debatable ends, all three of those shows broke most of the rules for what was previously thought possible in a television series.  A TV series could suddenly be darkly and deathly serious week to week in ways that were rarely attempted before.  It could provoke visceral responses consistently, not only with drawn-out suspense or mystery, but even action, thrills, urgency, and eventful drama.  Not to say television wasn’t capable of any of this before.  You can find lots of dramatic surprises and strong themes in certain episodes of Star Trek, The Fugitive, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and so many others.  But those three dramatic juggernauts are the reason people today expect all of their TV shows to do it as well as the movies do, if not better.

With movies having been on the decline all century long, good TV is worth appreciating.  But even when TV is great, there has been since 1998 a great void left by a show that did “Nothing”.

What does it mean to do “Nothing”?

I once read a children’s book by Stephen Manes called Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days!  The challenge for Milo on the third day is to do “nothing.”  He spends the day sitting in a chair until he falls asleep.  This, of course, is not nothing, so he fails, as does everyone else because no one can do nothing, not even the dead.  Even if a person has been reduced to a pile of ashes, those ashes are doing something, whether they’re sitting in an urn or being carried like grains of sand by the ocean tide.

And yet somehow, impossibly, Seinfeld did “Nothing” anyway. “Nothing” is not actually nothing, but an aggressively hilarious reflection of universal self obsession.

When Seinfeld was being conceived, the decision to label it a “show about nothing” was just a catchy way of saying “it’s not about anything else you assume TV shows are about, and our characters will haunt you with their everyday familiarity.”  The ‘80s saw a perfection of the sitcom formula, best represented by Cheers and The Jeffersons.  And within that formula, the two major types of sitcoms people were accustomed to seeing were the professional sitcom – shows like Murphy Brown and Frasier – and the family sitcom – shows like Married… with Children, Family Matters, and Full HouseFull House, being perhaps the cleanest and most idyllic show (“whatever happened to predictability?”), was about how the Tanner family can overcome any kind of challenge simply by being a devoted family.  If Seinfeld was the antithesis of any show, it was the one where every episode ends with a hug, a kiss, and at least one character learning something important.

Even though the “Nothing” came from very specific creative origins, none of them was so pretentious or taken so seriously as to override the others or, more importantly, to override the central objective, which was to elicit the effect of laughter.  The life story and career of Larry David is anything but a story about nothing.  The standup comedy of Jerry Seinfeld is anything but nothing.  These things do not automatically combine into nothing simply by coexistence.  They make for “Nothing” because neither is expressed in a way that is authentic or representative.  Jerry Seinfeld’s standup exists outside the show, and if you want to know the real story of Larry David, George Costanza is not how you get it because if it ever became funnier to have something else happen to him, or to have him do something else, that’s what would happen.

Jason Alexander has famously remarked upon the confounding nature of Seinfeld’s writing.  Two characters have a heated argument, the conversation ends without resolution, and then not only is the issue never brought up again, characters will do things later on that reflects or suggests having no memory whatsoever of arguing about it.  In that era, not only was each sitcom episode written with ironclad structure; there would at least be a loose sense of continuity that reflects the ages of characters or what stage of life they were in, especially in family shows where the child actors are growing older before the audiences’ eyes.  Sitcoms that featured adults would inevitably have two of them get into a serious relationship; then engagement; then wedding; then kids; then maybe buying something big and starting a business – and each of these developments could be stretched out over a season.  Not so in Seinfeld.  Characters you meet in Season 1 are doing more or less exactly the same overall stuff in Season 9.  Jerry is doing comedy and being neurotic about ordinary things while he sets up others to humiliate themselves for his amusement.  George is constantly at odds with social conventions and norms (“was that wrong?”), Elaine is the most directly socially satirical of the group, exhibiting a level of vanity, jealousy, and selfishness that frightens firstly on the level of seeing a human being do what she does, and then frightens even more as she makes herself the most relatable person of the cast.  And Kramer is the most of everyone and everything.  He is the source of the show’s physical comedy, both the most sensible and senseless person of them all, and entirely comfortable with that.

The structure of Seinfeld is therefore in its lack of one. The word “sitcom” is an abbreviation of situational comedy, and Seinfeld was all about funny or interesting situations stemming from the smallest everyday details of life that go unnoticed, and from people who both have entirely too much to say about all of it, as well as nothing to say at all because there is nothing extraordinary about them, except for those characteristics which make for good television.

Nor would Seinfeld make the mistake of insisting upon itself as a representation of anything.  In other shows, for example, oftentimes the reason something funny doesn’t happen is that it would interfere with something seemingly more important, like a character’s heroic self image or the greater need to convey a strong moral lesson.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example, would let entire episodes pass through without so much as a snicker because it was keen on representing the single woman in the American workplace, and we all know how unfunny that can be.  Seinfeld had no such alternative priorities.  No one here was a paragon or an exemplar.  If it was funnier for Elaine to steal a royal English pastry from her boss’s fridge or to have her boss fire her just to get her out of a screening of The English Patient, to hell with her career!  In The Statue, a toy George wins in an eenie-meenie game is allegedly stolen until Kramer dresses like a Raymond Chandler character to get it back, and when George is overcome with joy over the possibility of redemption in the eyes of his parents, it shatters.  It breaks because it’s funnier than if it didn’t.  If it was funnier for Jerry to look bad rather than good, he’d look diabolical.  If it was funnier for him to fail than to succeed, he’d fall flat on his face.  What other TV show, for example, would have an episode all about hyping up the size and appeal of Teri Hatcher’s breasts (it’s called “The Implants” – itself a hilarious misnomer), only to end with the star not getting a chance to motorboat them?

New York City and Jewish culture are also given absolutely no quarter.  They are both portrayed as obnoxiously as comedy would have them be.  Both creators and all four of the actors are Jewish; the recurring cast is overwhelmingly Jewish from Jerry Stiller to Len Lesser (Uncle Leo).  Not only is there no Hanukkah episode, Seinfeld made fun of the Bris – an actual and very serious Jewish custom.  It had a subplot of Tim Whatley converting just so he can make jokes about Jews.  And of course, an enduring offspring of Seinfeld is “Festivus for the rest of us!”  That holiday is more authentic and widely discussed than Kwanzaa.  The opening theme of Full House had the family driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, and Danny Tanner was the host of a morning show called “Wake Up, San Francisco.”  The only kind of advertising New York City would get from Seinfeld, other than the Paisano’s restaurant and Soup Kitchen International, was the lie that you could get somewhere quickly by taking a cab or driving.  No big epic sweep of Manhattan or showoff of the skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, or anything else, and no epic theme that would be in any way associated with the city.  Just a bass slap that was funny entirely for its own effect.  New York?  What’s that?  A reboot of Old York?

The other thing Seinfeld wasn’t doing like every other show was concluding itself in a way that immortalized the virtue of its characters.

Being a lawyer myself, I understand why the ending is legally offensive.  No criminal (or civil) trial would ever happen that way, and if a prosecutor tried to keep a jury in a courtroom for days on end with a lineup of character witnesses telling stories about how horrible the defendants are, they’d be acquitted on general principle.  But put those Criminal Procedure books back on your shelf.  We’re talking about a TV show here.

As it turns out, the ending to a sitcom is almost just as formulaic as the general run of it.  If you had to describe them in one word, it would be “cute.”  M*A*S*H ended with the Korean War ceasefire and a big party replete with tearful goodbyes as everyone went on to their bright futures.  Fresh Prince ended with everyone leaving Bel-Air with bright futures ahead of them, built upon everything they learned in the time spent with each other.  Cheers ended with the bar being sold and a long-awaited romantic reconciliation between Sam and Diane.  Friends ended with Monica and Chandler moving out of the apartment to their new home with their new adopted twins, and a long-awaited romantic reconciliation between Ross and Rachel after her last-minute decision not to move to Paris.  How I Met Your Mother ended with the romantic reconciliation between Ted and… someone who was not the Mother.  And The Big Bang Theory ended with Sheldon’s redemptive “thank you” speech as a metaphor for the show thanking its audience for having watched it.

All of these endings are variations on an ideal – providing reassurances to loyal audiences that the time spent with them wasn’t wasted, that the characters have learned and improved from all of their experiences, and that everything they went through was worth something.  Seinfeld’s ending certainly has fond memories to share and a moral lesson to impart.  But it doesn’t have sentiment, and it would be impoverished for it if it did because none of these people deserve happy endings.

So let’s talk about that trial again.  This is all happening in a fictional Massachusetts town called “Latham.”  Assume no one in that town has anything better to do than to be a juror in a case like this, and that Latham is otherwise a crime-free utopia.  At least that’s what they signed up for by being citizens of Latham.  But that trial features over a dozen different witnesses traveling in (sometimes from overseas) just to testify.  As we know, and as they all make quite clear, all of them have something better to do instead of being in that courthouse.  But they’re there anyway because their grudges are so deeply held that it doesn’t matter what else they have going on.  It’s as if they were waiting all this time for any of the Seinfeld main cast to get pinched just so they could drop everything else they had and get revenge.

That’s one of the funniest and darkest stories any television show has ever aired in history.  Not everything makes perfect sense, and not all of the grudges are held for correct reasons, which itself is its own joke because of how Jerry & company respond.  Are they indignant or afraid?  Desperate or repentant?  Quite the opposite: they shrug it off or exhibit at most the mildest form of irritation.  They smirk, roll their eyes, stick their tongues out, and look at each other like they don’t know why they’re there.  They put up no fight whatsoever and their attorney sleeps with one of the witnesses.  When the verdict is read, Muriel Costanza faints, and the only reason Frank wants to wake her up is so they can beat the traffic.  And when it’s all over, they walk into that timeout cell like it’s just a trip to the coffee shop, rehashing the bit about buttons on a shirt.

They learned nothing.  They offended and abused the fragile fabrics of society for years and years, and all of the “here’s what they did that wasn’t kosher” stuff went in one ear and out the other.  Even before they arrive, they spend the episode giving everyone and everything – from other TV endings all the way down to the very concept of a “good Samaritan” (in and of itself a callback to an old episode) – a proverbial middle finger.  Meanwhile the audience is beaten over the head with the moral message – PSA: these are the worst, most parasitic people and you should never, ever try to be like them in any way – all in an episode that reminisces on the past by bringing back interesting characters who have come to punish Jerry & company in the present.

While every other TV show was finding tender and affectionate ways to celebrate its characters, Seinfeld was intentionally poisoning its audience against its own in very morally specific ways, and making light of their aloofness in the process.  We can quibble with whatever we want about the things that happen in that finale, but there has never been a more perfect encapsulation of “Nothing” than that.

Even if you can convince me that there are better shows out there than Seinfeld (and there are, probably),* television as a medium was never better than this, and probably never will be again.  Matt Zoller Seitz has already discussed how Seinfeld emboldened future writers of television by proving that your characters did not have to be likable or moral as long as they were interesting.  That is certainly one of its many artistic consequences for the medium of television.  But Matt’s piece bears a flaw from being written during that alleged “golden age” and reflecting on the beginning of it without the full benefit of hindsight.  He suggests Seinfeld to be an earlier beginning for TV’s golden age rather than a platinum age of its own for converting itself from being “not like everything else” into an organism of such natural comedy that cannot be described as anything but “Nothing” with a capital N.

And the “Nothing” of Seinfeld is a rare form of lightning no other bottle has managed to capture except Larry David’s own Curb Your EnthusiasmFriends always acted like it was the safe twin of Seinfeld, but it was more like every other sitcom than it was like that.  Louie enjoyed its popularity years later, but Louis C.K. was too much of a degenerate both on and off the stage to make laughs from the void.  It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia got by on a reputation for being similar, but it’s only like Seinfeld if everyone was Kramer.  A great show in its prime; yet both too filthy (literally) and too exaggerated to compare.

Add all of these admirable yet lesser hits up together and the medium of television can’t help but look like a slow regression in the 21st century.  There are plenty of good TV shows out there today, but none feel as effortless and obvious as the exposé of self obsession that Seinfeld mastered and performed hilariously for nine years.

It was never actually “about nothing.”  But “Nothing” it was all the same, and nothing is bigger than everything. It was greater and both more reflective of the past and prescient of the future than any other soap operatic show before or after it ever could be. As the quality of television further deteriorates before us through the desperate efforts of so many to top and surpass that which came before in that “golden age,” the peak on which Seinfeld sits grows ever higher.

– Vivek

Seinfeld sits comfortably in my unbreakable Top 6 – with the other five being Spartacus, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the bald-headed cop/criminal 21st century triumvirate (The Wire, The Shield, and Breaking Bad).

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