How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything
By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster
320 pp. $26
Reviewed by Colin Fleming
For a TV show to attain classic status, it has to do two things: capture crucial aspects of its period, and move beyond them and suggest what is coming next.
You'll get pelted with all sorts of insults if you suggest Seinfeld isn't worthy of classic status. This Jennifer Keishin Armstrong study/exposé reads like a grad paper on the subject, albeit one meant for a larger audience. Into the Seinfeld writers' room we go for a look at a show that, as everyone knows, was purported to be about nothing but was really about human foibles.
Fanboys and -girls are going to love a lot of the stuff here. There is talk of the writers' disappointment over the "Junior Mint" script, and the "magical effect" of strip-mining the real lives of real people in cocreator Larry David's life for comedic material. Triumph, then. And triumph that became enmeshed in formula: "All plotlines on Seinfeld, should the show continue, would dovetail into one explosive ending." The show was nearly canceled a number of times during its first two seasons, and with a possible end always near, there was no hesitation to shove envelopes as they'd go back across the table.
But that's where Seinfeld's relevance today comes from. It celebrates narcissism, and, doubling down, makes it something of a virtue, with characters always seeking to find offense, to find fault in others so as never to have to look at who they are, who they are becoming, who they might be.
In that way, Seinfeld is like a prelude in sitcom form to a lot of what we see today as we splinter apart from each other, and splinter apart even from ourselves, in ways we haven't before.
"No hugging, no learning" was a dictate of the writers' room. If you're a cooler-than-thou type, you probably dig that, but you probably also want warmth in your life that you don't have, and it's a dearth of warmth that makes Seinfeld suitable to some periods - like the one we're in right now - and less to others.
The others always come, though. It will be interesting to see what happens to Seinfeld then, if it's still a force in syndication. If you're a fan, you'll be well into the anecdotes contained herein. If you've always been noncommittal or felt something was off, take a walk in the park, hug a friend, read something with some warmth in it that you haven't read before. You already know what your navel looks like.
Colin Fleming is a book reviewer and author of "The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss."