Jason Sudeikis et al may be poised to take home a truckload of Emmys this season for the brilliant sitcom Ted Lasso, but that program seems more like an anomaly of our times, not the epitome. After all, Sudeikis’ title character is courteous, thoughtful, paternal, and morally good, leading his so-so soccer team to enlightenment, if not winning scoreboards. If one did want to identify a television show that seems to be a perfect commentary on our contemporary world, the one that strikes me as most fitting is one whose heyday was in the 1990s.
That’s right, it’s Seinfeld.
Any scribe would like to write a piece that speaks to the moment, but who’d have thought that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, the creators of Seinfeld in 1989, would create a series that would come to foreshadow all the worst impulses and instincts evident in “the American experiment” in 2021?
During its nine years on NBC, Seinfeld was demonstrably ahead of the curve. Its showcasing of four supremely immoral, childish, and selfish New Yorkers went against the grain of lovable sitcom characters. The motto of those making the show was “no hugging, no learning.” Seinfeld and David didn’t want the series to become treacly or maudlin, instead striving to be hilarious in its bold showcasing of utterly ridiculous people.
Consider the core personalities of their quartet of main characters:
Jerry Seinfeld (played by Seinfeld himself) was an aloof stand-up who kept his distance from most everyone, cynically jibing his way through life and running through girlfriends the way most people change socks. Jerry was not above dropping a woman over what he regarded as deal-breaking flaws, be it “man hands,” too much wardrobe repetition, or an unwillingness to share dessert.
His best friend, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), was a ball of neuroses—jaded, insecure, and quick to temper at the merest slight. He was bitter and vicious, the kind of guy who’d obsess for days over finding the right put-down for a co-worker, even traveling thousands of miles to another state to put his retort into action.
Jerry’s one-time lover, and only female friend, Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was conceited and hedonistic—the kind of gal who’d stop to get Jujyfruits to fill her gullet on the way to comfort her boyfriend who was just taken to the hospital. She would use any tool in her arsenal to get her way, be it her sexuality, her sneakiness, or a penchant to lie at a moment’s notice.
Then there was next-door neighbor Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), a doofus so in his own world, he could go down the rabbit hole over everything from government conspiracies to The Merv Griffin Show to his need for cigars (or crepes) to be rolled just so.
We laughed at their antics as these four besties couldn’t find where they parked, complained about lines at the movie theater, kvetched about friend’s newborns, deceived employers, ruined relationships over nothing, and even plotted to kidnap a barking dog. It all made for uproarious human-centric comedy that has stood the test of time, as hilarious today as it was three decades ago. Now, these characters that we loved laughing at, who sometimes represented thoughts that we all had but were afraid to air, have not only stood the test of time, but they have become wholly representative of our modern times.
Indeed, the Seinfeld four have virtually become a shorthand portrait of 2021 America.
Let’s start with George. The man was all about grievances. He had a chip on his shoulder a mile wide, loathing his parents, co-workers, and strangers with equal vitriol. George was so blinded by his rage, he even wanted Elaine to sleep with him as “reparations” upon discovering that Jerry had once had sex with the woman he was now dating. Virtually everyone was George’s enemy. Is such consuming vindictiveness not evident in every “Karen” or Fox News host after 7 PM or troll ranting and raving on social media?
Next, there’s Elaine’s narcissism. It would fit right in with all the “Thirsty Thursdays” and hedonistic posts on social media, wouldn’t it? Be it a travel writer or a fitness model or an 18-year-old screaming for attention, their posts are always postures, dripping with self-absorption. Elaine craved attention constantly: starting dances at parties, smoking cigars at the office, or trying to convert a gorgeous gay man to the other team. Her famished snarfing down of her boss’ piece of $29,000 wedding cake showcased just how easily she made everything about her. Elaine would have been all over Instagram, boasting about living her ‘best life’ to thousands, giving any Kardashian a run for their money.
Does anyone doubt that Kramer was the type of guy who would be believing in all the extravagant conspiracy crap running rampant on the Internet? He’d find scandal in everything, doubt any authority, likely refuse to be vaccinated, and probably be inspired by the Marjorie Taylor Greene’s of the world to run for office. (If Kramer had stayed in Hollywood, don’t you think he’d be giving the unqualified Larry Elder a run for his money to usurp Governor Newsom?) When I first saw the QAnon shaman gallivanting around the Capital on January 6th, I thought that it almost could’ve been Kramer in that buffalo headdress and war paint.
And then there is Jerry—the arms-length observer, smart enough to know better, but too cynical to do anything about it. He reminds me of those in elected office today, or even too many in the press as well, blinded by self-preservation or oblivious to the genuine hurt being felt by others. Jerry always was quick with a quip but did little to help anyone, even his friends. (He laughed off Elaine’s troubles in coach on a plane while he drank up first class as to the manor born.) In many ways, Jerry was great at making flippant asides while watching the world burn, but never rushing into help stop the fire.
Which brings me to the controversial finale that Larry David wrote for the Seinfeld series. You’ll recall that Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer all went to jail for laughing at a man being carjacked. They didn’t know about the “Good Samaritan” rule on the law books, but they certainly would never be accused of looking out for their fellow man in any instance. Many fans of the series complained that the ending was too dark and critical of the four, condemning them to a trial that shamed them so publicly and sent them to prison for a few years. But, in retrospect, David’s take on his creation was not only precisely right, but prescient to our future.
As all the testimony from those whose lives they ruined proved in that two-part finale, the “Seinfeld four” needed to be held accountable for their sins. David was, in his way, laughing at us, for viewing and loving such characters wholeheartedly. He wanted to remind us that these were terrible people. Today, it’s even more evident why he was attempting to do that. He saw what America was becoming, and sadly, it was variations on those four.
David’s last blast across the bow was to call us on it.
For certain, Seinfeld and David have joined those rare television writers whose commentary on the foibles of humanity has had a resounding effect, right up there with Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry. Their show is as meaningful today as it was in the 90s.
As for any lessons our society might have learned then or now, it’s a lot more doubtful. At least we’ve taken the “no hugging” concept to heart. But that’s due mostly to the necessity of social distancing during this pandemic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
*Feature Image: Seinfeld by Jeff York