It might not sound like hard work, but this week’s challenge has actually taken me the longest to accomplish. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pleasant, but I did it. I spent the last seven months watching every single episode of Seinfeld. That’s right, I worked my way through all nine seasons, thinking that maybe, just maybe I would begin to understand why it was one of the most popular shows on television.
I didn’t liked it when it was on in the 90’s so I never watched it. My in-laws really like it and refer to it often, so I thought maybe I just missed the point in the few episodes I had seen. I thought if I just gave it another try and really stuck with it from beginning to end like they did, I would begin to see its charms.
Midway through the second season, I realized maybe the mom jeans and bad hair might be contributing to my dislike of the show, and I couldn’t rationalize taking the time to actually sit down and watch that many episodes of a show I don’t even like, so I decided just to listen to it instead – kind of like a book on tape with a laugh track. I streamed the show on my phone and plugged the audio into my car stereo when I went on long drives or ran errands without kids, and little by little, month by month, made my way through all 171 episodes.
If I came across an episode I knew I had seen before, I skipped to the next. But I only skipped four episodes – that tells you how much I didn’t like it the first time it came around (or the second time in the ‘00’s when you couldn’t turn on the television without being saturated with Seinfeld reruns). And yet, even though I wasn’t a regular viewer, I wasn’t surprised at how many phrases from the show have worked their way into everyday conversation. Close talker, bro/manzier, regifter, yada yada… Even I often refer to double dipping or man-hands (because, let’s face it, I totally have man hands).
Watching from beginning to end showed me just how many of the jokes are self-referential, but also how many would not work today. I found myself increasingly annoyed by all the crazy miscommunications that happened just because there were no cell phones. And there were so many scenes involving video stores, it almost made me miss video stores. But most tiring to me was that so many situations involved Jerry and George doing something elaborate and ill-advised (Why do they even listen to Kramer’s advice? When will they ever learn?) just to reconcile with a woman. Again and again. And I kept thinking, why bother? They rotate through women so quickly, it’ll never last anyway.
The episodes that involve being stuck in a situation involving endless waiting (waiting to be seated at a Chinese restaurant, trying to find a car in a parking garage, getting stuck in traffic because of a parade), were the worst for me to endure. I guess they thought it would be funny, but being stuck somewhere with no end in sight is bad enough without having to endure it with annoying people. Those episodes made me crazy.
The real problem with the show, for me, was that I just didn’t find it funny. Out of the 167 episodes I watched, I laughed out loud exactly four times. Four. Once when George described sitting on a handicapped toilet like a perched gargoyle, and then these three other times:
I knew going into this that the thing that would stand in the way of me liking the show would be my intense dislike of every character. The sound of Jerry’s voice (especially when shouting), his habit of smiling at his own jokes, and the way he said, “this woman…” hundreds of times. I’ll never understand the appeal of Kramer, and I could just never warm up to Elaine, although she annoyed me the least. But of all the characters, George Costanza had to be the worst – slimy, smirky, shouty, whiny, squirrely, sneaky – just the sound of his voice made me want to throw my phone out the window onto the freeway. They have absolutely no redeeming qualities. And because I couldn’t stand any of the characters, I could never actually like the show.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to have these complaints, but the Seinfeld writers were smart. They knew the best way to fend off criticism is to preemptively criticize themselves. In the episodes about Jerry and George making a t.v. pilot, there are plenty of jokes about Jerry’s bad acting, the lack of plot lines (“a show about nothing”), and the annoying qualities of the characters. The finale episode is centered entirely around pointing out how the four main characters are just awful people with no moral compass. And it worked – anything I might have written to criticize, they’ve already beaten me to it. Genius.
The thing that struck me in the first few episodes was just how mellow and pleasant Jerry, George, and even Kramer were. They were warm and friendly, maybe even likable.
But as the show progressed, the characters became less like real people and more like caricatures. And as the exaggerated qualities became more entrenched, those qualities determined the character’s actions, which further cemented the caricature.
I thought about how this plays out in real life – the ways people tend to pick a personality trait to represent themselves, and then make decisions based on this representation. For instance, someone who openly (sometimes proudly) admits, “I’m terrible with names,” has give himself a ready-made excuse and finds little motivation to actually make an effort to learn names. Other examples include, “I’m not much of a reader,” “I just can’t seem to get out the door in time,” or “I’m just a stick-in-the-mud.” Each of those phrases seem to be followed by a silent, implied, “…so why should I even try?”
In a conversation with my family this weekend, I realized one of my personality traits I tend to caricature is my bossiness. “I’m just bossy,” is something I say often to myself and others. It sounds like I’m being self-deprecating, but I wonder if I don’t use it to serve a different purpose. If I tell people openly that I’m just bossy, then if I’m rude or overstep my bounds in some way, I have that ready-made excuse to spout as I shrug and go on my way. I worry that if I’m not careful, I may turn myself into a Seinfeld character – openly admitting my flaws and then reinforcing them with my behavior.
My one hope as I write this is that my husband’s family can forgive me for not liking the show. At the very least this allows me to have a little more shared background with them. I still probably won’t speak Seinfeld as fluently as they do, not that there’s anything wrong with that…