George: You have no idea of the magnitude of this thing. If she is allowed to infiltrate this world then George Costanza as you know him ceases to exist. You see, right now, I have Relationship George but there is also Independent George. That’s the George you know, the George you grew up with — Movie George, Coffee Shop George, Liar George… Bawdy George!
Jerry: I love that George.
George: Me too and he’s dying, Jerry. If Relationship George walks through this door, he will kill Independent George. A George divided against itself cannot stand!
I wasn’t much of a fan during Seinfeld‘s original run. It was a little too cutesy for me; too many of the episodes had their various narrative strands tied up in too neat a manner for my taste. It was too contrived and too obvious; the fact that so many people claimed to be surprised by the outcomes of the episodes simply confirmed in my mind that people watch television with only half of their mind. My brother and plenty of my friends, however, loved it. And the point that they and other fans hammered into me during various conversations was that — you know what’s coming — “it’s a show about nothing”.
This argument was founded upon the assumption that other shows were about something. People, of course, referred to the episodes in which Jerry and George attempt to sell their idea for a show to NBC: waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant is an episode, and so on. The show highlighted everyday moments that became exaggerated and so, it was therefore about nothing –just like nearly every other sitcom (let’s say Roseanne for example or The Odd Couple). I was told that I missed the point. This show doesn’t focus on a family unit. Well, neither did Cheers.
When pressed, some defenders would harangue me on the virtues of the show’s lack of virtue, insisting that in this show no one ever learned their lessons. This seemed unconvincing to me as well; in the sit-com format, it is of the utmost importance that at least certain recurrent characters emphatically not learn their lesson. If they did, the comedic aspect of that character would be threatened with total collapse. Imagine Barney Fife learning his lesson and becoming less fanatical in the execution of his duties, or Lucy learning her lesson and staying the hell away from Ricky’s nightclub. Sit-com characters (aside from young kids) do not learn lessons, ever! If by some chance they do learn a lesson, they immediately forget it.
Even those involved in the series disagree about the show’s intent. In one commentary, Seinfeld insists that critics were mistaken when they asserted that it was a show about four friends that cared about each other, while in another commentary, the writers of the episode “The Gum” incessantly harp on the idea that Jerry and the gang (aside perhaps, from George) are caring people who go out of their way to good-naturedly humor others. That the series could employ creative figures holding such divergent views as to the very premise of the show speaks to the futility of pinpointing what made Seinfeld radically different from other sitcoms.
One can certainly imagine how the notion of a “show about nothing” came to pass. It must have appealed to the strange mixture of rampant egotism and eviscerating self-deprecation that somehow came together in the person of writer / co-creator Larry David to have his characters attempt to sell a network his show while vaingloriously proclaiming it to be a totally empty exercise in purposeful meaninglessness. It is a nice joke: get people excited about something, then tell them that there is nothing to be excited about, all the while assuring them that this is precisely the reason that they are excited about it.
The question is: why did this notion gain such currency? The answer might be that the moniker, “show about nothing”, worked in the same manner as all of the catch phrases proffered by Seinfeld such as “sponge-worthy” or “close-talker”. They were only incidentally meaningful. Their main purpose was to keep the conversation going while infusing it with just enough odd terminology to construct a mild idiolect. This is the language of exclusion as becomes apparent in George’s outrage that his fiancée should have learned the phrase “in the vault” from Elaine (in the episode titled “The Pool Guy”); such phrases are not inherently meaningful, but rather gain meaning through their circumscribed repetition. Perhaps the problem with the “show about nothing” bit is that it wasn’t circumscribed enough.
Then there was the reversal of the usual argument: it is not a show about nothing, these geniuses would aver, it’s a show about everything — an equally facetious assertion and just about as helpful when it comes to ascertaining what made Seinfeld such a great television show. And it was a great show, as I discovered later when I finally succumbed to its ubiquitous presence in syndication. But its greatness had nothing to do with its supposedly being about nothing.
Indeed, as disappointing as it may seem, Seinfeld was a great show because it did what other shows did, only better. This becomes most evident in Season 7, not because this season was the most surreal or quirky, but rather because this season was, in many ways, the most conventional. The season employed that most typical of devices: the arc that served to give a basic theme to the season’s episodes, tying them together into one large narrative movement. The arc here involved George’s engagement to Susan, the NBC executive that he had met in an earlier season when he and Jerry were pitching their series to the network. Season 7 documents their engagement from his decision to marry her, through the postponements, doubts, and hesitations, right up to the untimely end of the betrothed.
However in their handling of this convention, the writers of Seinfeld set themselves apart from other sitcoms. But again, this season stood out from others not because of the vaunted surreality of the series, but rather because its delved into its topic with an obsession for fine detail unmatched elsewhere. After two brief vignettes featuring George suffering a humiliating loss at chess at the hands of a girlfriend and Elaine enduring a sleepless night because of a barking dog, the season opens (appropriately enough) with a conversation between George and Jerry in the diner. After chiding each other for their inability to maintain a relationship, they begin to examine the lack of direction in their lives — “We’re like children; we’re not men”. They vow to make changes, to learn to care about someone. George’s thoughts turn to Susan and Jerry decides to go back to his latest girlfriend. George goes through with it and asks Susan to marry him.
Jerry, however, is intercepted by Kramer. Jerry relates what he thinks to be the epiphany of his diner conversation to Kramer. Kramer responds, “And so you asked yourselves, isn’t there something more to life?” Jerry enthusiastically agrees to which Kramer rejoins, “Yeah, well let me clue you in on something; there isn’t.” At this point, exposition of the plot essentially stops and prepares the stage for a set piece, a monologue by Kramer concerning the stagnancy of marriage. He launches into a tirade, insisting that marriage and family are man-made prisons, designed to ensnare the unsuspecting: “And you can forget about watching TV while you’re eating . . . You know why? Because it’s dinnertime. And do you know what you do at dinner? You talk about your day. ‘How was your day today? Did you have a good day today or a bad day today? Well, what kind of day was it?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. How was your day?’ It’s sad, Jerry. It’s a sad state of affairs”. It is a brilliant moment.
This, it seems to me, is the key to the show’s success. All of the plot contrivances are purely secondary as seems evident when viewing the final two seasons of the series in which such contrivances outweigh everything else, eroding the essential component of the show: the carefully etched characterizations of the four friends and their insistent need to communicate with each other through the highly differentiated and yet easily identifiable cadences of their speech patterns. For all of the wonderful physical comedy and the plethora of zany secondary characters, the best moments of the series are those that focus on the conversations and monologues, the telling and re-telling of events and plans.
We get the same basic themes — relationship foibles, the proper level of secrecy among friends, the importance of distance between family members — but always filtered through the consciousness of one of the four main characters at a specific point in time. It is this specificity, the preciousness of that precise moment within the (at times, muted) emotive life of a character that grounds the surreal in the recognizable and draws out the comedy in the mundane. Indeed, the producers of this DVD set would seem to agree with this point of view inasmuch as they isolate two such monologues for their animated reimaginings of the scenes (what they call “Sein-Imation”) in the DVD extras. These animated shorts are insipid exercises in redundancy (no animated refiguring of Michael Richards as Kramer can compare to the sheer élan that he brings to that monologue), but their presence underscores the centrality of these moments of narration within the series.
The crux of the season is contained in the monologue that serves as the epigram to this review. George fears that his worlds will collide. Perhaps they were destined to collide all along. After all, the real impetus behind his engagement was the conversation with Jerry; George feels betrayed when he discovers that Jerry did not commit himself to a serious relationship, thus breaking their “pact” to change their lives. What at first may strike the viewer as ludicrous in actuality identifies a crucial difficulty for people who marry after they have left their young adulthood. George defines himself based upon his friendship with Jerry; he gauges his success based on Jerry’s view of him. Once Susan re-enters his life as the fiancée, George becomes split between the man about to get married and the man-child dependent upon his friend for validation. The split could only last so long before eventuating in some radical change. Instead, the writers famously decided to kill off the cause of the split, Susan. This, it seems to me, is a sad state of affairs, albeit a fitting end to a season that charts George’s infantile desire for change that almost immediately transmutes into an obsessive need to maintain the status quo.
It should come as no surprise that this solution was devised by Larry David as the proper close to his seven-year tenure as head writer for the show. As revealed in various interviews, David was the obsessive force behind the series whose fixation on the details produced the neurotic world occupied by the characters. But such obsession is a double-edged sword. His inability to allow for real change threatened to turn precision into preciosity, and the violent end to which he consigned Susan continues to be a central object for consternation that seems to demand comment from the various interviewees within the “Inside Looks” component of the DVD extras. David himself remains ambivalent while the actors attempt to assuage the viewer’s concern by repeatedly insisting that it was the “best” solution.
The compulsion of the fictional world of Seinfeld seems to have infected the DVD as a product. It is a beautiful remastering of the television shows and the producers have lavished extras upon purchasers, including multiple interviews with writers and cast members, two animated versions of monologues, a prolonged look at Larry David’s departure, a feature on the character of Elaine and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s portrayal of her, commentaries, bloopers, and the “Notes about Nothing”.
This last special feature is designed particularly for the obsessive fan. It consists of various blurbs of text that, when activated, appear during the playback of any episode. These blurbs provide the viewer with a variety of largely useless information, including a precise count of the number of times Kramer has barged into Jerry’s apartment over the course of the series, the date that Southeby’s opened, the definition of “rabbi”, the dates of the table readings for each episode, and various lines of dialogue that were cut from the script. Who wants this information? The commentaries are also largely redundant. Much of the same material is covered in the interviews and the commentaries featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander contain little more than their repeated declarations of admiration for each other’s performances and their bursts of laughter as they watch along with us.
Perhaps it is unfair to criticize the extras inasmuch as there are so many in comparison to other DVD collections of television shows. The interviews are interesting but the rest just seems like padding. But this points to the compulsive nature of the show itself. It involves its more dedicated viewers in an elaborate game of connect-the-dots, tying every extraneous idea to the rest, weaving a tapestry of empty detail and making something of nothing.