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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

When Jerry messes up another relationship - this time because he can't remember his date's name - the episode doesn't end happily with him and the woman having a heart-to-heart. It ends with George and Jerry in Monk's restaurant comparing notes on women and coming up dry on how to relate.

"They're working on a whole other level from us," Jerry concludes.

Not much room for sentimentality here.

Postmodernism is sardonic; it's a dark view. But we can watch a postmodern sitcom like "Seinfeld" or "The Simpsons" and feel it connects with the truth of our experience. Viewers smile at the insight and find some comfort in the kinship they feel with Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer in the clean, well-lighted coffee shop.

But there's another way to read the darkness in "Seinfeld." Some critics see it as part of an emptiness - or, worse, a mean-spiritedness - at the heart of the series.

I watched "Seinfeld" as often as any sitcom during the '90s. I enjoyed the surreal lunacy of Kramer deciding he could live in his shower if only he could install a garbage disposal, or George saying he was a marine biologist and suddenly being confronted with a beached whale and a mob calling for a marine biologist to save it. There is even a kind of narrative genius at work when George saves the whale by pulling a golf ball from its blow hole - a ball hit there by Kramer.

But, in going back through many hours of "Seinfeld" tapes, I also was struck by what could be interpreted as an affirmation of materialism, narcissism, adolescence and exclusion.

In this reading, "Seinfeld" seems to be speaking to the haves by making have-nots the butt of some of the biggest jokes. Take the episode last month in which Kramer and Newman (Wayne Knight) decide to start a rickshaw business. When Jerry asks who will pull the rickshaws around Manhattan, the two knuckleheads are befuddled. Then inspiration strikes: They will use homeless people.

At first, I laughed - actually laughed out loud at the outrageousness of it. But then one of the homeless men who "auditions" for the job behaves as if he's some sort of crazed military veteran. He looks to be of Vietnam War age.

I stopped laughing and started to get mad - maybe about the possible depiction of a vet, or maybe about that war and what it did to some of those who couldn't afford to buy deferments.

And as for adolescent behavior, how about Jerry and his date making out in the movie theater during "Schindler's List"?

Satire should offend. And I wouldn't complain about the occasional excess if "Seinfeld" really was the "equal opportunity offender" Seinfeld and 50-year-old co-creator Larry David claim it to be. But in a Playboy interview in 1993, Seinfeld said the series did pull its punches with one group: African-Americans.

"We wanted to do a show in which Elaine would be stuck in a subway and miss her stop and be on her way to Harlem. Kind of explore her fear of having to get off the subway in Harlem. We couldn't find a way to do it without people getting the wrong impression," Seinfeld said.

" 'Seinfeld's' lasting contribution, if it has one, is that it has opened up so many possibilities for crassness," says David Lavery, professor at Middle Tennessee State University and editor of the "The Seinfeld Cosmos."

Lavery points to "The Junior Mints" episode from 1993, in which Jerry and the gang visit a hospital and decide to watch an operation. During it, a Junior Mint is inadvertently dropped into a patient's opened body cavity. It is played for laughs - just as the guy with the deficient immune system is played for laughs in "The Bubble Boy."

"My god, it's so cold and unfeeling - just like when George's fiancee dies from licking cheap glue on the wedding invitations. That coldness is at the heart of 'Seinfeld.'

"The whole show is narcissistic and puerile. If you and I met, and you turned out to be like any of these people, I'd never want to see you again. Yet, millions of people love this show," Lavery said.

I do love the show," says Seth Giller, one of the 13 Hagerstown Hall students who have stayed in the lounge to discuss "Seinfeld" after the episode ends.

"I love the writing. Larry David [co-creator of 'Seinfeld'] packs so much into it with all the twists and fast scenes. And the satire is so smart. It's funny and honest and true to life," he adds.

Giller and the other students in the lounge make for a diverse group: seven men and six women; three African-Americans, one Asian-American, two Jews, one Hispanic student. They all especially like the similarities between their living situations and that of the four television friends.

"Kramer lives on my floor," says one student.

"My boyfriend is just like George and Jerry - bitter like George and sarcastic like Jerry, but funny, too," says another.

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