Although my sons repeatedly tried to get me interested in Seinfeld, I never could. I guess I want shows to be about something. I did watch the last episodes, though, and I remember that my dear friend Bill Strauss was very encouraged by it. He didn't like Xer-oriented tv much, for various reasons, and he disliked the utter irresponsibility of the Seinfeld characters. He felt vindicated when they wound up in jail. This was 1998, well into what we called the Third Turning or Unraveling and three years before 9/11, and perhaps their fate suggested that the nation was ready to move back towards greater responsibility at every level and put aside the excesses of the last few decades.
This all came back to me when I read this article on the 25th anniversary of the last episode in the New York Times. In those 25 years we have experienced 9/11, the financial crisis, the election of Donald Trump (who made the Seinfeld characters look like model citizens), and the pandemic without rediscovering the national consensus that got us through previous great crises. All that has left the nation with a very uncertain future. The author of the article, Maya Salam--who is apparently about 35 years old, that is, a Millennial--takes a very different view. I am going to quote the three key paragraphs for non-commercial use only.
"[Seinfeld] has consistently been framed as a comedy about four terrible people, with good reason. Jerry and his fellow misfits lied, cheated and stole. They were petty and shallow. They created a framework for “bad” sitcom characters that shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” would embrace with great relish and success.
"But they also presented an irreverent version of adulthood that I had never seen on TV or in life: a playful yet sophisticated world where grown-ups joked and laughed together and didn’t take themselves too seriously, even when everyone around them was being very serious indeed.
"Most important, they openly mocked the notion that professional success, marriage and parenthood were the cornerstones of existence. For me, a serious child surrounded by serious adults — a child who was ostracized by those unable to categorize me, and who knew early that established paths to fulfillment would not apply — this revealed loads of possibilities."
The show, she continues, openly mocked marriage, family, and careers as traps or prisons. This contrasted it, she says, not only to "The Cosby Show" and "Growing Pains" (she says nothing about "Father Knows Best" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show"), with with "Friends," "Living Single," and "Will & Grace." And she goes on:
"Despite the nihilism suggested by its “no hugging, no learning” motto (and by much of the characters’ behavior), “Seinfeld” did exhibit a worldview and priorities that were refreshing and, for me, far more aspirational and inspirational. Not despite the fact that these were flawed people uninterested in perfection, but because of it. Even with their abundant neuroses, they lived in the present, sought fun and were loyal to the tightknit, pretense-free friendships at the show’s heart, the kind where your people know your bad parts and love you anyway.
"Today — as cracks in the facade of hustle culture continue to spread; as a growing library of books and articles promote the value of rest and fun; as more people delay or forgo marriage or children — real life seems to be catching up with “Seinfeld.” "
Let's try to put all this in an historical perspective. How did the traditional, disciplined view of life develop? It developed, I would argue, as a necessity to survive, first in an agricultural world and then in an industrial one. Agricultural life moved according to natural rhythms that people had to respect. If they did not plant, fertilize, weed and harvest at the proper times, they starved. Industrial life required even tougher self-discipline. In every era, some men and women refused to play by these rules and some of them managed to find a way to live, and literature often featured such people. They were however escapes, more than role models. The huge Boom generation--and Jerry Seinfeld and his co-creator Larry David are Boomers, born in 1954 and 1947--openly rebelled against all society's rules in the late 1960s, partly under the impact of the Vietnam draft. That rebellion has continued in subsequent decades. The idea of intellectual authority has been discredited in academia while artistic authority vanished in the arts. Scientific authority has been drastically challenged as well. Meanwhile, the authority of the market has grown. We are talking about "Seinfeld" because it was a great success.
Many I am sure would agree with Maya Salam that the proclaimed freedom to live however one wants is a great thing. Many younger people have never really known any other view. Evidently the structured society and values of the mid-20th century were indeed too strict to last. That is why the rebellion occurred. What we do not yet know for sure is whether most of those values were necessary to keep our society together and functioning. That question will be answered, I think, in the next few decades.