(TV series, NBC, 1989-1998)


Secrets of Seinfeld


The Australian cultural commentator Sylvia Lawson [1932-2017] once turned the usual critical assumptions about mass media on their head when she remarked that Woody Allen’s films were not really comedies or dramas or anything in-between those two poles of fiction – rather, they were documentaries. Documentaries on a very particular lifestyle or social stratum – Allen’s own Manhattan turf – offering an almost ethnographical account of the manners, morals, crises and self-justifying behaviour of its denizens.


This is precisely the quality that some choose to damn in Allen’s work – its navel-gazing insularity. Stern critics demand to know: where are the blacks, the Latinos, the gays, the working class, the homeless in Allen’s protected, jewel-like world? Again, Lawson inverted the usual line: what is wrong with a gaze, half-loving and half-ironic, trained upon a privileged, self-satisfied milieu? Aren’t we all free to make of that portrait whatever we will?


Seinfeld is a pop culture phenomenon that brings out a similar array of conflicting responses. For devoted fans of the show, it is something like a mirror to everyday life: a celebration of everything that is small, niggly, embarrassing and finally rather wonderful in our quotidian interactions with friends, family members, neighbours, shopkeepers, parking inspectors, and everyone around us at work or the gym.


Seinfeld (as conceived by Larry David and its titular star) focuses on the private, neurotic, little fears that are only discussed within our most intimate conversations. The series takes to a new height the age-old optic of the comedy of manners. For Jerry Seinfeld (playing himself), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander) and Kramer (Michael Richards), the tiniest decisions or observations relating to eating habits, toiletry arrangements and clothing tastes are life-or-death matters.


The show itself famously joked that it was “about nothing”. But much great art and philosophy is about nothing in exactly the way Seinfeld is: digging deep to find the magic, humour, intrigue and thought-provoking element in what at first seems banal and unremarkable. Think of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, for instance.


Seinfeld has a special place within the illustrious history of the American TV situation comedy – and particularly within what John C. Murray [1932-2019] once called the “comedies of companionship”. This genre has evolved from family-centered situations (Father Knows Best [1954-1960]) to work-centred situations (The Mary Tyler Moore Show [1970-1977], Murphy Brown [1988-1998, revived 2018]) to arrive at the loose, shifting milieu of a bunch of friends in Seinfeld. The show is thus about the idea of family – about bonds, commitments and sometimes strained allegiances – in a very modern way, detached from the strictly biological lineage of blood ties.


The tone of Seinfeld is unique. In keeping with its debt to the comedy of manners, the show militantly keeps everything light: even death is rendered as a weightless joke. This odd, flip approach to daily dramas can initially be disconcerting to new viewers of the show, but soon works its magic. It is part and parcel of the show’s air of freedom and its childlike quality – nothing is so grave as to distract, for more than a moment, from the characters’ pursuit of gossip and amusement.


But what about that insular, Jewish-New Yorker self-absorption? Woody Allen passed this baton to Seinfeld, which in turn passed it to a small army of post-Seinfeldian situation comedies about friendship in everyday life, including Ellen [1994-1998] Caroline in the City [1995-1999] and especially Friends [1994-2004].


Seinfeld is sometimes damned – and sometimes praised – for being narcissistic. It holds up a mirror (as in Allen’s movies, both a mocking and affectionate mirror) to audiences who, in some broad, general sense, identify with the characters. Moreover, Jerry and his friends form, between themselves, a mutually reinforcing and homogenous social group. So what? The downside of this narcissism – for those viewers alienated by it – is a certain smugness, complacency and exclusivity.


It is unquestionable that a particularly wicked vein of humour is reserved by Seinfeld (and by Friends) for any passing stranger who is somehow outside the favoured milieu of the show. Other cultures, manners, lifestyles, tastes – this evidence of a wider social reality, or subcultures beyond the charmed circle of Jerry & co., produces only a reflex derision, thus strengthening the chummy ritual of group bonding. At these sometimes uncomfortable moments, one can feel that the much-vaunted democracy of Seinfeld goes only so far. It’s the old suspicious, defensive, paranoid posture of much popular culture: us against them.


For me, the real secret of Seinfeld’s success lies in the way it seizes upon friendship as a fundamental site of contemporary living. Unlike a sit-com such as Mad About You [1992-1999], Seinfeld is not about the dreams or the difficulties of love, marriage, having children – everything associated with the ideal of the couple. Seinfeld accepts the peculiarly modern condition of friendship as its primary subject. Friendships are less defined, less rule-bound  – if sometimes no less intense – than romantic relationships: they allow for a certain floating state, a childlike play of possibilities. They can bend and not break.


Again, some viewers and critics can find themselves disturbed by the veritable cult of friendship inaugurated in pop culture by Seinfeld. The legacy of this trend is now clear in movies including My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and In & Out (1997) – films which flirt with the possibility of romantic love but then shove it into the too-hard basket, taking the easy out of their dilemmas by extolling the superior joy of sexless, undemanding friendship.


Yet, in the final analysis, what has made Seinfeld work so well for all its years – and what puts it above Friends – is that it does not really police or rigidly enforce this strange, postmodern ideal of the perfect friendship. Yes, the show is full of delightful con-fabs and ritualised gatherings between friends. Nonetheless, each character is still allowed his or her own room to move – wandering off to pursue their own relationships, their own stories, their solitude and personal space.


Of course, they will always re-gather to relate their tales and compare notes, to laugh and groan at each other’s mishaps and miracles. But that kind of bonding remains fun – light, leisurely and open to all future possibilities.



A later reflection: Families and Friends (1999/2009)

© Adrian Martin 31 December 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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