From the archive
“Neurotic narcissists prove unable to help each other.” – October Hare‘s seven-word summary of Seinfeld
In each episode of Seinfeld, Jerry, George and Elaine become entangled a progressively deeper web of obligations until one of them angers someone, then a righteous chain reaction punishes all. Among the show’s many fatalist morals, one is that social conflict is unavoidable because people are universally selfish and easily angered. This suspiciousness toward human nature is a Larry David trademark: everybody is working some angle, they’re all trying to get one over on the next guy, and their great weapon is social custom. The other end of the dialectic is Seinfeld’s nonchalance about it all; he endures the disaster endings stoically and jokes about them in the reprise.
The easy read, then, is that Seinfeld trafficks in some species of cynicism; in truth, Seinfeld is something more like a critique of cynicism. Its central character (that is, George) is a classic cynic who lives by his rejection of custom and consequently endures social and moral humiliation on an epic scale. Meanwhile, Seinfeld’s stoic excels professionally and, for the most part, romantically. “Society is mostly bullshit,” Seinfeld says. “But do what you’re supposed to anyway, or you’re going to be sorry.”
Perhaps this reflects on New York, where real cynics freeze to death while company men live to bitch again. However, it also reflects the television in the early 90s, which was still colored by the Cold War program of ideas, including the anodyne kitsch and the less optimistic ones that grew up in its corpse (e.g. the liberal imperialism of Star Trek, the neoconservatism of The A-Team and Super Force). Seinfeld‘s uptight irony became what Simon Reynolds calls a “line of flight”; its half-cheer for frivolity in the face of disapproval would become a collective sigh of relief by mid-decade, when other ironic shows took up the crusade against the moral seriousness of the Cold War era.