The ‘Seinfeld’ syndrome – negative aspects of situation comedies on television – Culture – Column
Am I the only left-leaning U.S. citizen who has not joined the cult of Seinfeld? I know it’s hard to remain cult-less in these days of mass social anxiety and instability, when each day brings new waves of terror to our fast-shrinking global village: mad rightwing bombers; out-of-control viruses; contracts on America; the Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the White House; the sudden, nerve-wracking reappearance of the word “socialist” as a political swear word in public discourse.
It’s all very stressful. And for those of us who can’t quite get with the culture of crystals, or twelve steps, or cyberspace intimacy, or psychic healing, Seinfeld does seem a harmless enough way of getting our minds off our troubles. He and his costars are certainly funny, often hilarious. They’re certainly intelligent and hip. They even hang out on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one of the last bastions of intellectual, left-liberal culture.
But at the risk of alienating everyone I know, I must say that I find the show, and its fast multiplying gaggle of clones–Mad About You, Ellen, Friends–almost as scary as the social and political nightmares they serve to momentarily mask.
Call me a hopeless Puritan. But I see, in this airwave invasion of sitcoms about young Manhattanites with no real family or work responsibilities and nothing to do but hang out and talk about it, an insidious message about the future of Western civilization. It’s not that I’m such a big fan of the way industrialism has structured our work and family lives. But these new sitcoms–which seem to be functioning as cheering squads for the end of work and family life as we, and the media heretofore, have known it–don’t offer much in the way of replacement. In fact, what I see as I watch them is a scary commercial message on behalf of the new economic system, in which most of us will have little if any paid (never mind meaningful) work to do, and the family ties (remember that old show?) that used to bind us, at least as economic units dependent on the wage of a bread-winner (remember that old term?), have become untenable.
“What, me worry?” ask these clever series, as mantras to get us through our pointless postindustrial days. To which I answer, under my breath, “But I do, I do.”
These shows function as an entirely new, yet logical–even inevitable–media development. On the one hand, they do indeed diverge radically from the classic professional career/family-based sitcom we have come to know and love/hate.
On the other hand, the TV sitcom, with its rigid work and gender patterns, was always, at heart, propaganda for a radical and in many ways terrifying new economic order. For these were the years when the new corporate-driven economic order shepherded us, en masse, into suburban bedroom communities, where we learned to watch sitcoms and commercials–the classic genres–to find out how to adapt. Dad’s job–so said the guys on the small screen–was to commute to an office-based job “in the city,” while Mom’s was to stay home with the new goodies prosperity had brought.
But even back then, when TV Dads were Dads and Moms were Moms and their job descriptions were clear and unambiguous, the role of work in Sitcom Land was already problematic. After all, it was Mom who did most of the actual “work” upon which the system seemed to rest–the yearning for, purchasing, caring for, and replacing the consumer products that made the brave new world go round.
On The Donna Reed Show–where Dad rarely even appeared–and even Father Knows Best, there was little attention paid to what Dad actually did to earn the (always invisible) paycheck upon which the whole structure stood. Up in the morning, dressed in business attire and that ubiquitous briefcase within which “work” was apparently brought home but never attended to, Mr. Gray Flannel Suit was the titular head of a household which, in truth, functioned almost entirely without his interference. His real (and generally marginal) role was dealing with household matters as a sort of assistant Mom.
Work itself, then, was already, even in the fifties, diminishing in the representational world of mass culture, as the things men did for money became less and less dignified, less and less interesting, less and less autonomous, meaningful, and fulfilling. Nonetheless, the idea of work as a daily ritual was maintained as a central element in the structures and plots of these shows.
Even in those early days, an unusual number of Dads seemed to hang around the house a lot and to make their livings not by dragging briefcases to out-of-frame urban offices, but–like Seinfeld himself–within the entertainment industry. Ozzie and Harriet and The Danny Thomas Show were the first in a long tradition of family-business-as-show-business series in which Dad, and sometimes Mom and even the kids, got their paychecks from the media itself, doing work whose only product was laughter. Nonetheless, these happy-go-lucky Dads still were seen as breadwinners. In I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, they even went off to work each day, leaving Mom at home while they slaved away writing jokes or rehearsing songs at their show-biz offices.
And that has continued to be the work of choice for sitcom producers and writers, from The Partridge Family to WKRP in Cincinnati to Home Improvement to Blossom to Frasier to Murphy Brown to this season’s new hits, News Radio and Hope and Gloria. Even thirtysomething, while not a sitcom, was a family show in which the Dads went off to work producing fantasies with which to sell products, while the Moms raised the kids, kept the men in line, bought great stuff, and tried to figure out what to do with themselves.
Indeed, it is hard to think of a sitcom, except MASH and the Norman Lear oeuvre–both produced in the wake of profound unrest and leftist protest–in which anyone does any work at all that actually resembles what most of us do each day, and in a way that resembles the way most of us do it. (The remarkable Roseanne and her imitators are also dramatic exceptions.)
Today, what passes on Friends and Seinfeld for an alternative–free at last from the oppression of corporate work and the father-dominated nuclear family–is a flat and empty vision indeed. In these shows we see a vision of daily life in which neither work nor parenting nor human relationships in general have much meaning or even staying power.
On Seinfeld, on Mad About You, on Ellen, on Friends, most of what fills the plot line and focuses the action, such as it is, are trivial “McGuffins” of small talk and mixed messages. What is the funny smell in the back of Seinfeld’s car? How can we make a Thanksgiving dinner to suit each of our mismatched, variously weird, friends and relations? Who is right about the pronunciation of that polysyllabic word we heard on Jeopardy! or tried to get away with in Scrabble?
Characters do a lot of fussing about minor errands that turn out to be more time-consuming than you would imagine. Often the characters end up spending the entire show dealing with mishaps encountered in their endless errand-hopping hours. The cleaning dropped off last week gets mixed up with someone else’s, for example, and the poor hero must attend a formal dinner in a tux five inches too long or short in the sleeves and pants. That sort of thing can go on for a whole segment, or even longer, as “…To Be Continued” becomes an ever more common way to drag out the trivia of daily life into ever further threads of “you-know-the-feeling” humor.
The actual characters and relationships around which all these trivial pursuits revolve depart even more radically from the days of I Love Lucy and Family Ties. Unlike even the wacky Ricardos and Mertzes (or the Bundys of Married With Children, for that matter), these people rarely worry about deadlines and never have disciplinary problems–except with their pets, perhaps. None of these characters has anyone who depends upon them to come home. The Mad About You couple is married, but they have about as much stability as any college couple sharing an off-campus apartment for the term. Nothing in their lives is any more serious or future-oriented than the lives of the misfits and strays they hang out with.
People share apartments well into their thirties and hope their invisible jobs will hold up so they can pay their share of the rent for the next month. Date partners come and go with the speed and confusion of a Madonna video. Problems arise, get wittily chatted to death, and are offhandedly resolved and disposed of, like last night’s Burger King wrappers to make way for tomorrow’s pizza.
These people have the problems and attention spans of junior-high-school kids, and about the same amount of responsibility and maturity. “Who forgot to vacuum last week?” asks one roommate to the rest, and I feel I am back in an earlier age, when my own kids were in junior high and chores and homework and bringing dates home to meet the folks were the issues we argued about. Except that those issues were, even then, even for my white, middle-class kids, the easy ones. There were also worries about college boards, about whether someone, or someone’s girlfriend, was pregnant, about drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and–even in middle-class neighborhoods–the occasional hassle with racist, bullying police officers who were always particularly nasty to racially mixed groups of teenagers, no matter where they bought their shirts or what their parents did for a living. Nor were kids, then or now, oblivious to the issues–social, political, cultural–that kids have always had to worry about and plan for, as they hope the roof stays on for one more generation so they can look forward to some kind of meaningful work and personal life “when they grow up.”
None of this ever comes up on these shows. What they present is a vision of the world and its future that I, for one, find terrifying. Forget education, forget long-term career plans, forget families and the responsibilities and stability they bring. Forget about growing up, period. It’s not a good idea. There won’t be any jobs worth having, you see. So there won’t be any point in planning to buy anything; to have kids that you see regularly and have some kind of influence on; to even count on long-term relationships of any kind with the people you do live with and see regularly.
Needless to say, politics is a nonexistent concept in the worldview that informs this scattershot existence. Indeed, the most offensive aspect of the trend may well be its adolescent way of mocking everything that has any meaning whatever. These shows make anyone who takes politics–or anything else–seriously seem like a schmuck.
On a recent episode of Seinfeld, for example, the topics that arose to fill the empty hours ranged from cancer to Congressional whips to a misunderstanding with an African-American cop, in which Kramer apparently called him a “pig.” In each case, the idea that anything meaningful or tragic could possibly accrue to any of these topics was quickly bludgeoned to death. The Congressional reference became a “Stupid American History” joke. The cancer schtick involved a guy who pretended to be having chemotherapy so that he could acquire a toupee without embarrassment. And the cop plot was reduced to a silly riff in which Kramer affects an eyepatch and stumbles around in an effort to adjust his vision.
And these were just the serious topics. The rest of the twenty-two minutes was spent worrying about eyeglass frames, wondering whether a “hi” would be misunderstood, and trying to pick up a woman in a coffee shop. (The toupee, it turned out, was the turnon.)
When Seinfeld and Ellen and the gang of Friends do the silly things they do to compensate for this big empty abyss in the middle of their lives, it looks like great fun. After all, they have simply taken a lot of truly funny things we really do think about and talk about and laugh about–in our spare time–when we are finished with our real problems and responsibilities. But a world in which all time is spare and empty and free, in which all relationships and problems are trivial and transient and disposable, in which days and nights spread out before us in an endless line of pointless, silly, slap-happy conversations and activities–that, it seems to me, is anything but amusing or charming to contemplate.
Sure, it would be nice to think we could all just hang out in comfortable apartments (the Seinfeld and Mad About You pads, with their bicycles hung on walls and lines of breakfast cereals visible from the living room, are a far cry from the plush homes of the Cleavers and Huxtables, but they aren’t refrigerator cartons under a bridge, either).
Sure, it would be nice to spend our days planning to go out to dinner or to ball games, or running around doing errands and then talking about them for hours with our equally leisured friends.
But that’s not how most of us live. It’s a fantasy. And after a short stretch, it’s a fantasy that grates. The yuppie narcissisms, the shirking of responsibilities, the sneering at politics all get to be a bit much.
Yes, these shows are smarter and generally funnier than their white-bread, suburban predecessors. But do remind yourself every once in a while of how different these people really are from you and your real neighbors. I should know: I live just a block from the building in which Mad About You is supposed to take place.
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