Much Ado About Nothing
We like to label things in our culture. Those over the age of 65 are called senior citizens. Those under the age of 18 are called children. Anyone falling in between those ages are considered adults and there are certain expectations placed on that demographic. Adults are the backbone of society, responsible for basically just about everything. Television reflects that responsibility, as adults are usually portrayed as hard-working, career-oriented, and often married and raising children. With television reinforcing these expectations, many young people have probably felt that they need to grow into these roles and become responsible adults. A decade ago, however, NBC’s sitcom Seinfeld debuted challenging these social preconceptions of what an adult should be.
Seinfeld’s catch was that it was “a show about nothing.” But the only real truth in that statement was that it was a show about nothing in particular; it was a situation comedy without a specific situation. What made the show unique and revolutionary was that it focused on the lives of four adults who were anything but what television and society itself had taught us to expect adults to be. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer resembled more closely four children who never grew up, or never learned what it meant to be an adult. By the age of 40, none of them had spouses, children, or serious careers (I say ‘serious’ because Jerry did have a career, but it was very non-traditional—he was a standup comedian). Yet it can’t be said that they were unfulfilled or less happy in their situations.
There may never have been an overt proclamation endorsing the lifestyle of these characters, but a life devoid of responsibility is nevertheless promoted. The characters rarely showed remorse for anything or displayed a desire to change. For the most part, they showed little interest in following the pack and doing what was expected of them. For Jerry and the gang, the idea of getting married and having children was almost preposterous. To engage in that level of responsibility would seriously hinder the sense of personal freedom these characters enjoyed. The fact that these characters were, for the most part, happy with their lives and situations is important. Their contentment shows viewers that there is life outside of marriage and career, and it doesn’t have to be empty. I think this is especially important for younger viewers, such as teens and college students. Young adults are inundated with societal expectations through their teachers and parents (as well as television and other media), and may feel they have to achieve certain things in order to be considered successful. When we look at the number of adults who suffer from depression due to work related stress, marriage problems, and divorce, it seems evident that many, many adults are unhappy with their lives. It does not therefore, seem outlandish to ponder that perhaps the reason so many people are unfulfilled is because they felt they had to live a certain life in order to meet the expectations of others. All issues of entertainment aside, Seinfeld was important because it offered impressionable viewers an alternative to a life that may not be suited for them at all.
The characters of Seinfeld were not, of course, immune to the same pressures we all feel at one time or another. In the episode “The Pact”, Jerry and George question the validity of what they’ve accomplished in their first forty years, and come to the conclusion that their lives are lacking. “We’re not men, we’re children,” they agree. Though both were financially successful at the time, each was having relationship trouble, constantly going out with new women only to break up with them shortly thereafter. They felt that they should have settled down and started families by this point, and vowed to make changes that would lead them down that road. These feelings of failure and inadequacy reinforced the social expectations of adults; however, the reinforcement was fleeting. George immediately made good on his word, proposing to an ex-girlfriend and then moving in with her. Jerry, on the other hand, quickly realized that he was perfectly happy with his life the way it was, and to George’s dismay, disregarded the pact and resumed his playboy lifestyle. Concurrently, George realized the error of his decision, but in spite of Jerry, chose not to break off the engagement, and stuck with it until his fiancée’s unexpected demise. George’s rash decision (and stubbornness) was a perfect example of what so many people in our society do because they feel they have to. The show’s writers left little doubt that George was unhappy with his decision to marry Susan. Had that marriage come to fruition, it surely would have been among the 50% that fail. After all, upon later learning that Susan had died, George was more relieved than sad. Probably more than any other episode or plot line in the series, George’s failed engagement should serve as an example as to why doing things to satisfy the expectations of others is not a valid reason, and will only lead to trouble in the long run.
George’s joy at becoming single again is strong evidence of how much happier he was living on his own. For the duration of his engagement, he was constantly jealous of Jerry and the freedom he embodied, a freedom that George had always taken for granted. The freedom that they receive from their independence is what sustains these characters and provides them happiness. For whatever reason, they feel more comfortable on their own than in relationships, and that, more than any fear of commitment, is what drives their constant failure in dating. Most importantly, the characters never feel sad or depressed after break ups. So while their reactions are not very realistic, they do send the message that being independent is perfectly fine.
Aside from living the single life and bouncing between jobs, the characters continue to square off against the norm with their immaturity and irresponsibility. The characters had no qualms about lying (George once described himself as “the king of lies”), deception (Jerry and George drugged a woman so they could play with her toy collection), stealing (Jerry once mugged an old lady for a loaf of bread, and Elaine went on a shopping spree with company money), or cheating (George had Elaine took an IQ test for him to impress a woman). In the end, their callous and indifferent behavior landed the quartet in jail, and their exoneration was hard to defend.
In the final analysis, I would stress that the characters of Seinfeld are hardly role models, and their behavior or attitudes should in no way be emulated. While the characters’ ultimate fate could be seen as a reinforcement of social expectations, the lifestyle the characters live is portrayed in a positive context (after all, the callousness isn’t a function of their singleness), and that is what is important in a society where alternative lifestyles aren’t (or at least were not at the time) given equal time in entertainment and the media. The downside of Seinfeld is that its legacy has created an opposite, though equally negative situation in entertainment to that which it alleviated a decade ago: now the airwaves are dominated by shows about single people. Family sitcoms have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps one day there will be show that is equally appealing to all demographics. In the meantime, I suppose I can survive with reruns of a show about nothing.