Monthly Archives: June 1998
MUCH has been said and written about the hype before the final episode of Seinfeld, which aired two weeks ago in the United States. Seinfeld exits after nine years, but not without leaving some questions. Was the sitcom really that good? Will Kramer get his own spin-off? Was the show about nothing really about nothing? Has the hype itself been part of the hype, a hyper-hype conjured up by network executives interested only in nabbing one last, fat golden egg from the nest of a burnt-out goose?
Few laugh harder at such American hyperbole than do Australians. Yet Seinfeld is our number one imported sitcom. The final episode was the dominant subject matter on radio for weeks; tickets for Jerry Seinfeld’s tour of Australia sold within hours. “Nothing” matters as much here as in America. The tricky question is why?
Like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H and Cheers, Seinfeld has helped define an era in popular culture, not only in the US but around the world, thanks to American-led cultural globalisation. This reality rests uneasily (as it should) with many folks here, especially those wringing their hands over the decline of so-called Aussie cultural identity. Yet the four sitcoms have all masterfully articulated the generational changes of their time.
Mary Tyler Moore explored the fragility of feminine independence in the post-’60s afterglow; how a single woman could forge ahead positively and with humor, though still dependent at times on a paternalistic figure (Lou Grant) to bail her out of situations. With its often cloying doses of self-deprecation and peculiarly American goofiness the Mary Tyler Moore Show was romantic, but still true to the era’s key middle-class social concern: women struggling to make their own lives.
M*A*S*H arrived in the aftermath of Vietnam, a lost, morally untenable war. Australian Vietnam veterans had far less cause for self-loathing than American veterans; yet they were equally struck by the stupidity that had soiled their honor.
The sitcom became a forum for men everywhere, but especially Vietnam veterans, to open up to their experiences of war without the guilt, shame and self-righteousness they had faced in the ’60s. M*A*S*H was about men talking to men about their feelings – presaging the then-necessary, now-scorned “sensitive male” movement.
Cheers, like the generation that spawned it, was about the primacy of Me. It was no accident that the sitcom’s setting was a downstairs watering hole, whose patrons were largely middle and working-class stiffs, while upstairs was a rarely glimpsed restaurant for yuppies.
But the Cheers gang was no less self-enclosed. In Sam and the gang, we became privy to relationships governed by selfish motives. Tellingly, Woody, the only selfless, truly romantic character, was the object of constant ridicule, suggesting one had to be slow not to see how the world really worked.
Cheers moved television comedy towards something altogether darker. If everyone is a free agent, the sitcom suggested, then how do we maintain integrity in our dealings with others when faced with the natural impulse to selfishness? The answer often was: we don’t.
And then came Seinfeld’s Nothing. In our deconstructed era, when we can see the end of history and the far bang of the universe and soon clone ourselves into extinction, the meaning of human activity really does seem to add up to nothing. Beyond rage, beyond irony, Seinfeld moves television sitcoms into the realm of surreal self-referentiality, where all we have left are our sound-bite personalities, emotional insecurities, and the trivial events of our workaday worlds.
Set primarily in Jerry’s apartment, where Elaine, George and Kramer come and go as they please, the door being permanently unlocked, we watch as these four (and an assortment of oddball others) whinge and spin yarns about their nothing lives. Seemingly indifferent to intimacy, Jerry plays a stand-up comedian who deconstructs the world, but his perceptiveness does not reflect a heightened moral sensibility. When push comes to shove, Jerry is not averse to knocking down an old woman to steal her bread.
In these characters we see the amorality of baby boomers adrift in an absurd world. Imprisoned in cells of self-centredness, they bounce off each other and never truly connect. Yet like characters in Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz we find them charming and endearing. We even love them – just because they refuse to grow up in a dysfunctional world bullied by science and technology. Alone, but as one in their response to absurdity, they maintain some control, if rarely any dignity, in the face of the suspicion that nothing matters.
Does Seinfeld help to define our era? Will we be watching re-runs years from now? Certainly, the sitcom has helped many cope with the growing feeling that “we’re finished”, and far from being tragic, it’s pretty damned funny in a way.
John Hawkins is a Melbourne writer. E-mail: email@example.com