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18 ways to watch 'Seinfeld' without laughing.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By MAX WATMAN
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Seinfeld, Master of Its Domain

Revisiting Television's Greatest Sitcom

Edited by David Lavery and Sara Lewis Dunne

Continuum, 282 pp., $19.95

TELEVISION ENCOURAGES A SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE, and is an unimaginative medium rife with cliché, but the same could be said for books or politics, so that critique, as it were, rather withers on the vine. TV offers football and the Kentucky Derby. I have nothing against television. It's just a mindless pastime and a way to get a grip on all sorts of valuable info about what new kinds of toothpaste are for sale. It's not as if it's being taught in our schools or taken seriously. It's not as if my son could get through college by writing essays about Seinfeld.

Alas.

David Lavery and Sarah Lewis Dunne have put together a compendium titled Seinfeld, Master of Its Domain. In their preface, Lavery and Dunne write, "If future Seinfeld DVDs are comparable to those so far released, by the time all are available--all nine seasons, all 180 episodes--we should have at our disposable [sic] a superb resource for examining not only the much neglected sitcom genre but television creativity itself."

I couldn't make up "disposable" if I tried. Even the fingers at the keyboard knew better than to celebrate the permanent enshrinement of something so disposable.

The premise that television is somehow neglected is bizarre. According to Nielsen Media (and they would know), the average household watched eight hours and eleven minutes of television a day through the course of the September 2004-September 2005 "Broadcast Year." (Television is so powerful that it's got its own calendar, like Caesar.) Even within the very covers of this book, in a chapter titled "Reflections on Seinfeld," the editors excerpt chunks of 18 articles written about the show from sources as disparate as Commonweal, Esquire, TV Guide, National Review, and the New Yorker.

Attention, I'd say, is paid. Of course, TV Guide is not a periodical typically lauded for its incisive commentary or deep thinking. Media journalism, no matter how fine the publication in which it appears, is more about reflecting than it is about studying. If America is going to spend the equivalent of an entire second workday's worth of man hours per household with the television, perhaps our scholars should turn their beacons to the tube. Perhaps David Lavery and Sarah Lewis Dunne have a point. The elements of our cultural life, especially those elements holding the interest of many, deserve examination.

But what we get in these pages is not sharp examination or brilliant scholarship, but hack rereadings, complicated explanations of the obvious, and cripplingly dull academy-speak. Half the time, the writers don't even seem to get the very jokes under consideration.

Joanna L. Di Mattia of Monash University contributed "Male Anxiety and the Buddy System on Seinfeld," in which we read that George "explains to Jerry that he has a problem sleeping with a woman who beats him at chess. With one word--checkmate--she has emasculated George, and the only way to immediately reassert his manhood is to remove this assertive and superior woman from his life. His manhood requires the absence of this model of femininity."

I'd be interested to see this author repeat herself a couple more times just to see how opaque she can make the language with which she tells you exactly what the show told you. That George was emasculated wasn't a meaning hidden deep within the symbolism of the telescript; emasculation wasn't a subtext. That's what the episode was about. Unlike the poetry of Wallace Stevens, say, close reading does not enhance Seinfeld. On Seinfeld, the message was on the surface.

"Seinfeld as Intertextual Comedy," by Michael Dunne of Middle Tennessee State University begins, "In the discursive field surrounding the concept of postmodernism debate has raged about many issues, including whether there even is such a phenomenon. It seems to me, however, that a recurrent element of arguments on all sides of these issues is an assumption that allusion, quotation, referencing, or what I have been calling 'intertextual encounters' abound in the texts of various kinds on which some might be willing to bestow . . . "

Not only is "discursive field surrounding the concept of postmodernism" exactly the opposite of a snappy lead, I'm not really sure it makes sense. I'm not confident that a "field" can "surround a concept," no matter how discursive it is.