The world according to 'Seinfeld' No hugging, no learning. No aging, commitment or obligation. We've laughed at such postmodern sentiments for nine years. Is there anything wrong with that?

May 03, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It's Thursday night on the seventh floor of Hagerstown Hall dorm, and there's a party going on.

Well, sort of a party.

In the lounge, there are three giant bags of potato chips, two huge platters of chocolate chip cookies and a couple of cases of soft drinks. There are also 15 or so University of Maryland, College Park students in cutoffs, sweats, jeans and gym shorts eating, drinking and waiting for the start of "Seinfeld."

Other dormies wander in and out. One woman dries her hair in preparation for a date that she says "will probably be totally Elainesque"; one guy slides in the door like Cosmo Kramer.

"Ignore him, he's a freshman," someone says of the Kramer imitator.

The freshman says he'd rather watch the show in his room with his "cool" friends, anyway - he just stopped by to get some food.

"What, no Snapple?" he asks, going through the soda.

As "Seinfeld" heads toward its final episode May 14, the NBC sitcom's legacy and its place in television history is being debated.

Some say "Seinfeld" is brilliant and refreshingly unsentimental, has changed the look and sound of TV in the '90s and enriched our lives, and will be sorely missed. Others see it as a celebration of narcissism, immaturity, exclusion and materialism whose popularity says something sad about our culture.

The debate is mainly among critics, cultural analysts and academics. We don't often hear from students in Hagerstown Hall or others in the audience. With "Seinfeld," that's a large group to ignore.

After nine seasons, "Seinfeld" will end its run as the most popular sitcom of the decade. The last four seasons, about 30 million of us have been watching each week as "Seinfeld" finished first among sitcoms in the Nielsen ratings.

Only three other sitcoms have managed four seasons atop the Nielsens: "I Love Lucy" in the 1950s, "All in the Family" in the 1970s and "The Cosby Show" in the '80s. That puts "Seinfeld" in pretty exclusive company, especially since television is vastly more competitive today than it was when three broadcast networks ruled.

And "Seinfeld" is almost as popular with college students as it is with their baby-boomer parents, despite the fact that its lead characters - Jerry, Kramer (Michael Richards), George Constanza (Jason Alexander) and Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) - are all 40-ish. No other current sitcom can lay claim to that kind of demographic reach.

It's safe to say that "Seinfeld" connects with our lives and times in some meaningful way.

No analysis of "Seinfeld" has been more repeated in recent weeks than the one made in 1989 by Brandon Tartikoff, the boy wonder NBC Entertainment president, who died last year of cancer at age 46.

"Too New York, too Jewish," Tartikoff is quoted as having said when he declined to give "The Seinfeld Chronicles," as the pilot was named, anything more than a four-episode order for the 1989-1990 television season.

"An order for six is considered a slap in the face," says Alan Horn, the head of Castle Rock, the production company that makes and actually owns "Seinfeld."

In an interview the year before he died, Tartikoff told The Sun that what he actually said was, "Who will want to see four Jews wandering around New York acting neurotic?"

But Tartikoff, who was Jewish, acknowledged that his own ethnicity had led to a kind of self-censorship about shows featuring Jewish characters. And he came to believe that that's what happened with "Seinfeld" initially.

Later he called the sitcom "one of the most important and appealing shows of the '90s for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is what it has to say about friendship, family and growing up."

"Friends as family and not growing up - that's the heart of 'Seinfeld,' " says Dr. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist from Washington who recently analyzed "Seinfeld" for the Journal of Popular Culture.

"The four of them formed an alternative family that is regularly compared in the show with the biological families of the Constanzas and the Seinfelds. Which would you pick to be part of - Jerry's or the parents'?" Brody asks.

"Jerry's group is one of perpetual youth - no aging, commitment or obligation. Sure, young people like it as much as the baby boomers who never want to grow up."

Not that there's anything wrong with that, Brody adds.

"That's what those of us who have difficult families do," he said. "We try to create our own family out of friends, or plug into a virtual family on TV. I see this with my patients all the time. In part, I think that's why there's so much hype about the end of the show: People are feeling separation anxiety, because, in a sense, they are losing their family."

Brody rates "Seinfeld" alongside "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in terms ofppeal. While that's a subjective call, the comparison highlights one of the more obvious ways "Seinfeld" changed prime time in the 1990s.

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