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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

Before it, the central cast of sitcom characters generally lived together as a family or as roommates, went to school together as classmates or worked together, as in Mary Tyler Moore's show. "Seinfeld" was the first of the friends shows- followed quickly by such imitations as "Friends," "Ellen" and "Caroline in the City." The only thread connecting the four leading characters in "Seinfeld" is that they all know Jerry.

Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, says "Seinfeld" also changed the basic narrative structure of situation comedy. While that, too, might seem obvious, it has vast cultural implications.

"A decade ago, sitcoms consisted of seven scenes," Littlefield said. "Seinfeld turned each episode into a small film using 20 to 30 scenes and weaving five to seven story lines together simultaneously. It was one of the first comedies built for a contemporary audience who could keep up with the numerous stories and quick scenes. It's smart and respects the intelligence of the viewers."

Littlefield is seconded - and then some - by Amy McWilliams of Texas A&M University in her article "Genre Expectations and Narrative Innovation in 'Seinfeld,'" one of a collection of academic essays on "Seinfeld" to be published in the forthcoming book "The Seinfeld Cosmos" (Syracuse University Press).

McWilliams chronicles several ways that "Seinfeld" takes the conventions of sitcom plotting and "toys" with them to parody the genre. She cites, as the most obvious example, last fall's "The Betrayal," an episode that ran backward like the Harold Pinter play of the same name.

But other new forms of TV storytelling could be found in "The Subway," in which the four friends take the subway to different destinations but never

intersect; and "The Chinese Restaurant," with Jerry, George and Elaine waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant, a table that never comes. And no, I didn't forget "Parking Garage" from 1991 - a brilliant episode spent in searching and trying to remember where the car was parked.

"Seinfeld" borrowed widely and wisely from other realms of popular culture for its narrative parody - even from Abraham Zapruder's 22-second home movie of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

While Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" from the 1950s and "M*A*S*H" in the 1970s rival "Seinfeld" when it comes to witty use of language, no other series has had as many of its wordplays become catch-phrases, from Soup Nazi to puffy shirt.

After the phrase "yada, yada, yada" was used on a show last season as a kind of verbal ellipses, the American Journalism Review counted 175 uses of it by journalists in major newspapers and magazines in just five weeks after the episode aired.

That kind of immediate cultural impact is impressive, but to be considered one of the greats, a television series has to plug into the deeper social currents of its time.

Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball), through her manic physical humor, gave comic expression to the frustration many women felt in America of the 1950s - what Betty Friedan termed "the problem that has no name" in her book "The Feminine Mystique."

With Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) and Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner), the resonance came in part from seeing the counterculture of the '60s banging heads with Richard Nixon's Silent Majority in a cramped living room in Queens. The same forces that threatened to tear America apart tested the Bunkers of "All in the Family" on a weekly basis.

"The Cosby Show," meanwhile, was about rebuilding families, as it reached back to an idealized 1950s - right down to the father in a sweater. That aspect of the series was a neat fit with the family-values rhetoric of the Reagan White House. But this family was African-American, and that was new for television - a black, middle-class family presented as not only normal but even ideal.

The legacy of "Seinfeld" is that, along with "The Simpsons" (both showsbecame weekly series in 1990), it was the first mainstream network sitcom with a full-blown postmodern sensibility.

Postmodernism is a big concept that has come to mean all kinds of things. But the basic premise stands in opposition to linear logic and the belief that mankind is on an automatic path of progress. Postmodernism tells the artist that all the originals have already been done and that he or she should find new ways to use those originals to startle, amuse or help us see the world in new ways.

With its postmodern sensibility, "Seinfeld" took a dying formula and reconnected it to the way millions of viewers were really feeling about their lives in the 1990s.

Whereas, say, "Roseanne" routinely ended on a sentimental, you're-the-greatest-babe hug between Dan and Rosie, "Seinfeld" consistently refused the phony finish that had been a sitcom staple for 40 years.

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