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.
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.
The ingredients of popular culture rely on a toolbox full of easy reference points. Television is a referential medium, like westerns, and while Seinfeld made a show of flouting typical sitcom underpinnings such as ending shows with a moral, it couldn't have operated as a television show without what Dunne is calling the "intertextual." The thesis that Seinfeld is intertextual (it's worth noting, of course, that a show isn't even textual) is supported by evidence such as: "Timeliness is also a key factor in the episode called 'The Checks,' when Elaine hooked up with Bret, a potential new boyfriend who thinks of the Eagles' hit 'Desperado' as 'his' song. Because this song dates back to the mid-seventies, this precise allusion effectively situates Bret as a classic-rock-listening Yuppie."
Not to put too fine a point on it, but no, it doesn't. The precision of the allusion was funny. He was a dork with a starry look in his eyes and an absurd, utterly invented, habit of shushing people when a schlocky, melodramatic song came over the speakers. In the show, to the strains of "Desperado," Bret would gaze off into the distance, imagining himself, perhaps, riding the plains.
This misinterpretation of the joke, or just plain not getting it, is endemic to these "scholarly" essays. Amy McWilliams writes: "The language of Seinfeld is certainly at the center of its appeal, and has given us wonderful new words to describe the annoying people around us (close talker)."
"Close talker" is a reference to one of the many types of annoying people invented on Seinfeld, and the point of it was, always, that there's no such thing as "close talkers" or "man hands" or "high talkers." Or not exactly that there is no such thing, but rather that the classification of previously unobserved, or underobserved, daily minutiae is Jerry Seinfeld's act. The shtick is all about the magnification of something very petty.
It is telling that the two most insightful and spirited pieces in the book were not written in the academy. Salon posted an excellent piece written by Bill Wyman in 2002, and it's printed here (one flickering screen regarding another--perfect). Geoffrey O'Brien originally published "The Republic of Seinfeld" under a different title in the New York Review of Books. While calling into question the title of that periodical, he points out that the ennui that is the operating mood of Seinfeld is precisely that of a TV watcher, which is about the sharpest observation in the whole book.
Those two essays demonstrate clearly that insight tends to be more profound outside of the academy than inside it; the scholarship represented here is shoddy. One author points out that the show has inspired "everything from the coffee shop banter in Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction to a knock-off porno film, Hindfeld."
What kind of student would opt for the thin gruel of television scholarship? Wouldn't a scholar ambitious enough to put words to paper rather be writing about something with some teeth? It's like digging a hole in a flower pot: The boundaries are obvious from the start. The only thing these essayists manage to do is to simplify their explication to such a stupefying degree that even their elucidation of the most obvious is like a flash of light. Certainly that's not the reason anyone went to graduate school? For whom does the dull flicker of the television suffice?
Clearly, the scholars here suffer from the same ennui pointed out by O'Brien: They have become sadly inured to the tedium of television, and with their minds dulled by it, have taken up the only topic they grasp. But since they have only television, they aren't bright enough to illuminate anything. And it dawns on the reader that the existence of this book is proof that they ought not to teach television at our universities.
Max Watman is the author of Race Day: A Spot on the Rail with Max Watman.