“Seinfeld”

Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David's TV show wasn't just a sitcom -- it was one of the most complex and troubling art works of our time.

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"Seinfeld"

Walk through the great museums or churches of Rome or Paris and marvel at a curious thing. You don’t have to be a cultural nostalgist to admit that, if nothing else, the artists of the past seemed technical masters of their media in a way that almost nothing today approaches. The degree of precision in sculpture and painting — the breathtaking emotions and the almost hallucinatory details — seem to have no counterpart in the present age.

In the mechanical or structural sense, the modern era has its areas of precision. But these are most often hidden with a patina of sparseness or repetition, as in our great skyscrapers. There are technicians, sometimes acclaimed, at work in film (Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott) but they are emotionally crude and too often manipulative. Indeed, the modern age has come to make us view technical brilliance in the arts a bit suspiciously. Why? Are our artists today just not detail-minded? Do they lack the patience, the imagination, to work on such a precise level? Is detail on that level just not part of contemporary culture?

On the other hand, it’s possible that the people in previous eras looked at Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, or gazed on a Bernini statue, and simply took it for granted.

Perhaps today we take things for granted as well? What if the true cultural brilliance of our time existed right under our noses?

It might be something that was well liked and even respected, but might not be recognized for its mastery.

It might be something that we’d not even suspect of such artistry, precision and meticulous attention to detail. It might be a TV show. It might even be a sitcom.

It might be … “Seinfeld.”

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I didn’t watch “Seinfeld” for most of its run. I sneered at broadcast television. Friends met every Thursday to hoot over it, but I never deigned to join them.

It wasn’t until its last year on the air, sometime in 1999, that I happened to catch a scene — a rerun, as it turned out — that brought me up short.

George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Jerry Seinfeld’s schlub friend, is sitting in a car with a woman, outside her apartment, late at night. The dynamic was appreciable in an instant: A tubby bald guy with a nice looking woman, the date winding down.

You could see the emotional accounting of the moment trip through the woman’s mind, and you could see her all-but-perceptibly shrug when, in the end, the bottom line appeared, and it favored the schlub.

Sitting next to her was George, enduring the calculations; he was at an age, 30-ish, by which such moments were familiar. Indeed, he could recite the thoughts going through his date’s mind: He’s a schlub but he’s obviously willing to please; I don’t have to get up that early in the a.m.; it’s been months since I’ve been laid; I don’t have to go out with him again; my friend downstairs is out of town so there’s no chance of her busting me with him; it may be just that I had two glasses of wine but he’s not that bad looking …

The shrug. “Would you like to come up for a cup of coffee?” she asked.

This seconds-long moment was already an exquisitely brutal and compressed masterpiece of conception and acting. And here we, the viewers, sighed with amused sympathetic relief for the schlub (this is how guys like George get lucky, after all; it’s not pretty, but it works for them) when George broke into our reverie.

“Coffee?” he scowled. “No! It keeps me up all night!”

The woman looked at him with a burst of disbelief, and then the quick realization that she’d lucked out — been given an inadvertent reprieve by someone who was a bigger loser than she’d appreciated. “OK,” she said, and got out of the car.

George remained in his seat, stunned at what he’d just said and marveling savagely at the urges that moved him.

That scene was my introduction to the show, and I quickly saw how a significant part of it was created along those lines: tableaux of human fecklessness imagined and presented with an adamantine clarity no less intoxicating than the smooth stone of “Apollo and Daphne,” the riotous imagery on the dominant wall of the Sistine Chapel.

There are great movies released every year, great rock albums, great TV shows. “The Simpsons” is as dense as — even denser than — “Seinfeld,” but its deliberate cartooniness and shotgun approach to humor, however devilish, limit its timelessness. “Will & Grace” and “Frasier” are both scintillatingly written and mischievously themed, but both have a too-small worldview. Only “Seinfeld” combined extraordinary writing with incredible acting and lucid direction.

“Seinfeld” was not really about how evil humanity is, though it’s about that to some extent. The show is really about the joy of charting, in exquisite, unrelenting, almost celebratory detail, the infinitely variegated human interactions that, closely watched, will ultimately tell the story of the disintegration of our species.

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The show, for those who are unfamiliar with it, features a guy named Jerry, who makes a decent living as a stand-up comic. (I’m using the present tense because it’s still viewable on a daily basis in many markets.) We never see him practice, and his interest in his work seems deliberately casual. He has some unspoken code of his art — he looks down at certain other comedians — but he’s not too edgy himself.

He doesn’t run with a fast showbiz crowd; rather, the great part of his existence is spent in the company of a loser friend of his from high school, an ex-girlfriend and an unconventional mooch across the hall.

The friend is George Costanza, who can’t keep a job and is devoid of talents or ambition in an almost systematic way — which is to say, he determinedly devotes more time and effort to avoiding work than he does actually working. He is so amoral as sometimes to seem almost a monster, ready to lie, cheat or steal to give himself a slight edge up in a world he firmly believes dealt him the worst of hands.

The ex is Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a not-unattractive woman whose laudable penchant for confrontation is taken to almost sociopath levels and who in this way functions as the closest thing the show has to a traditional male figure.

And the mooch is Kramer (Michael Richards), a gangling elf across the way who doesn’t work but seems blessed with a cosmic guardian angel, though he, like the others, is most often taunted by fate than rewarded by it. (And in the “Seinfeld” worldview, fate is nothing more than the world the characters make for themselves.)

The show’s lore has it that Costanza is a stand-in for the show’s executive producer, Larry David, a stand-up comic like Seinfeld who is generally given credit for providing the show’s mordant worldview. (David left before the last season but came back to write the final episode.) George may be the show’s most precise realization — born a white male in the most fabulously wealthy country in the history of the world, George uses nothing of what nature gave him in a resentful, infantilizing war against reality. To him, life is a very long line to get some necessity, and he views virtually everyone around him with the suspicion and hostility of a Soviet housewife waiting all day for a loaf of bread.

George is capable of eating an iclair he finds in a garbage can; pushing children and the elderly out of the way if he thinks he’s in danger; smiling when he learns his dreaded fiancie has died, taking advantage of — even physically combating — the infirm or physically handicapped; and lying and then sticking to the lie even though everyone in his immediate vicinity knows he’s prevaricating. He’s selfish and self-pitying, cheap and reflexively untruthful, and lives in a world of such flattened ambition that even his fantasies are pathetic. “I always wanted,” he says elegantly, in an early episode, “to pretend I was an architect.”

(The gaunt, acerbic David has since gone on to star in his own odd sitcom, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” While invariably amusing, the show strikes me as problematic, from its forced title on down. Most particularly, what makes George tolerable — even, in a slightly twisted way, noble — is that we all know that in the brutal calculus of the modern urban environment, he is a loser; life isn’t fair, and there are a lot of nice fat bald guys out there who aren’t getting a break.

(“Seinfeld’s” uncompromising take on him, of course, is that George has a largely unattractive personality in addition to his genetic complaints; this gives his character its almost unwatchable pathos. David, by contrast, plays himself in his new show — it’s about the wacky situations the co-creator of “Seinfeld” gets into in the celebrity-driven world of Los Angeles. David jousts against many of the same dragons George did, but the difference is that, in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” David is an unthinkably wealthy guy, who spends his time hobnobbing with actors and studio execs. Too much of the humor is merely illustrative of the fact that rich and famous guys can get away with a lot.)

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Anyway, “Seinfeld” watches the four cast members go about their lives, debating the tiniest of life’s details: The first lines between Jerry and George in the show’s very first episode are a fabulously reductionist sample of Jerry’s stand-up humor, as he takes aim at a new dress shirt George is wearing: “To me, that button is in the worst possible spot. The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it, it’s too high, it’s in no man’s land. You look like you live with your mother.”

What followed was eight seasons of this stuff. Jerry and George pitch a sitcom about nothing to NBC. Elaine plots to rid herself of her reputation as the office skank. Jerry and George plot to help Jerry break up with a girlfriend and date her roommate. Some episodes are now legendary for the existential punch — the four spend an entire episode waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant, or looking for a car in a parking garage. In perhaps the slyest of these, George tells the merciless parents of his late fiancie that he has a house in the Hamptons and then finds himself driving the implacable pair out there to see it, even though both he and they know that it doesn’t exist.

As in the set piece with George and his date, over and over again we saw modern man agonistes, swept up by banal urges about the most minor of comforts as they solidly trump once-stronger and more atavistic ones. Jerry, relentlessly chary of germs, tosses clothing items that touch bathroom fixtures and could never again kiss a woman whose toothbrush he saw fall into the toilet.

Nothing was too small-minded for Seinfeld and David to tackle, from discussions of the most minute of human behaviors to … well, to other minute behaviors. Constipation and masturbation, evasion and prevarication; the pettiest envies and the most banal euphemisms. George tries to give Elaine a sweater he got cheap because it had a spot on it; Jerry forgets the name of the woman he’s dating; another he drugs, not to rape her but to play with her toys — her real toys, not metaphorical ones.

The emotional relations between friends and lovers are a bottomless abyss of ontological inquiry. What defines a male friend (going to the airport? helping them move? being a “come with” guy who goes to the laundromat?) and what doesn’t (calling him to say thank-you for hockey tickets and washing your underwear together, among other things).

In a remarkable scene early on, Jerry and Elaine, determined to sleep together again, rationalize it in a hysterical discussion about “this” (i.e., their friendship) and “that” (i.e., sex). Foreplay is reduced to a ballet of sophistry.

In the late 20th century, Seinfeld and David argue, man is unmanned and woman unwomanned by these new urges. Once rampant and fecund, we are now epicene and unwanted, not only solitary but increasingly genetically forced into solitariness.

We don’t make war, we shove for position; we don’t mate, we bump around in the dark. And in place of the big pictures and magnificent vistas seen by those who built our society, we are obsessed with the small and the trivial, even the microscopic. We are at once appalled by procreation and strangely drawn to the act that produces it.

You don’t have to agree or disagree with this thesis to enjoy the show; but you must marvel at the Herculean ingenuity that created the set pieces that follow the characters’ moral prestidigitation.

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After a while it’s hard not to see virtually everything the show did leveraged against this worldview: The characters seem to operate almost as characters in a hellish, upside-down version of a miracle play, the saints replaced by sinners, their deeds endlessly examined.

We see them doing everything they can to do anything but break out of their characters. But in “Seinfeld” we knew that the group never would succeed. For one, it was obvious that the sensibilities behind the show were much too rigorous to allow any “Friends”-like shenanigans: Elaine would not get back together with Jerry; George would never marry; Kramer would never see a brilliant idea come to fruition; and Jerry, well, Jerry would continue to hang out with his friends, eat cereal, and identify an infinite number of character flaws that would rule out one vivacious, shapely, attractive woman after another.

And time and time again, their own behavior came back to bite them on the ass. In perhaps the show’s most slicing scene, Seinfeld meets the perfect mate — Janeane Garofalo, the perfect girl, who’s exactly like him — only to discover how quickly observational humor wears thin. A woman, breaking up with George, says, “It’s not you, it’s me.” This is a line George has heard before, coming out of his own mouth. He bursts into a rage — an unattractive rage, not a mock sitcom rage — and tells her: “That’s my line. Don’t tell me it’s not me; it is me. It’s me!” She concedes the point; it’s another small Pyrrhic victory for Costanza, in a life full of them.

You can look at Seinfeld, of course, as the Ur-sitcom — a bunch of people sitting around and doing, famously, nothing. This setup was a joke from the start, and course parodied in a later story line that saw Jerry and George attempt to get a sitcom on NBC, one that would be about nothing. And the idea of “nothing” would be a sly recurring motif as the show went on.

“Nothing” is also a nice way of describing star Seinfeld’s innocuous brand of comedy. And “nothing,” too, is that vast wasteland of most broadcast TV, which was assertively supposed to be about something but most often amounted to nothing.

But even joking about how “Seinfeld” is about nothing, few actually spent time examining what the show was really about. What that something was was obvious but nonetheless disturbing. Could the show have been made — or could two characters in an actual sitcom have gotten away with designing a new show — about what “Seinfeld” is really about? Something that bleak, that uncompromising? And, once proposed, could its creators have been allowed to drive home that thesis with the densest underpinning in the history of the medium, something almost play-like in its attention to details, thematic denseness and near poetic devotion to the theme?

Could they have said, that is, We’d like to do a situation comedy about man’s inhumanity to man? The petty desires, the arrant cruelties? The lack of perspective, the meaningless hostility? The lack of commitment, of sympathy; the confusion, the hostility, the isolation; the impossibility of love; the futility of even attempting to break out of the molds we’d stuffed ourselves into?

The creators quit at the top of their game and departed with one of the most widely misunderstood works of art of our time, the final episode of “Seinfeld.”

In that now infamous episode, you will remember, the group scores a free trip to Paris on an NBC jet. A bumbling Kramer nearly causes a plane crash — a nice feint at those rumors that the show would kill off the characters. The foursome is forced down at a New England town (the cradle of spiritual individualism) and watch amusedly, as they would in New York, as a fat guy is robbed.

But they’re caught in a local Good Samaritan law, and put on trial, at which local prosecutors call in a good chunk of the supporting players of the show’s eight-year run to act as character assassins; Teri Hatcher testifies that Seinfeld just wanted to know whether her breasts were real; a virgin testifies about the group’s masturbation contest; a woman in a wheelchair tells how George gave her a cut-rate wheelchair; a woman relates how Seinfeld stole a loaf of bread out of her hand; a Pakistani immigrant tells how he was deported after Jerry carelessly didn’t give him his mail with his immigration papers in it.

And on and on. The four are convicted with dispatch and sent off to a cell together.

Jerry looks at George: “That button, it’s in the worse possible spot … ”

The group had come full circle, adding a new level of existential desperation to their predicament. They’d been in the same vicious circle already but didn’t recognize it; in an insular, uncaring world, they’d acted alone in it, as if they didn’t need or want to relate to others, and then in the end found themselves in a spot where they got their wish — and then continued on as if nothing had happened.

A downer! cried the critics. Well, duh. Scriptwriter David’s semiotic coup in this episode was to try, in a last parting burst, to get the audience to consider the implications of a show about nothing that dominated the most powerful medium of its time. Finally, almost in desperation, he criminalized the act. Sometimes, he was insisting, nothing is something.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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