Seinfeld is my all-time favorite television series. There are plenty of shows that are more profound, more touching or just plain well done (Friday Night Lights – check, check, check). But there are none that I am always in the mood to see and never tire of rewatching. TBS is something of a Godsend in that respect. I’m always discovering new aspects to love. Kramer was originally my favorite character, then George for a while, and for the past couple years, it’s been Elaine that I enjoy most. Not that there’s necessarily a “contest”… It’s remarkable, in fact, how little the humor has dated.
You probably know the operating philosophy of the show: what was originally conceived by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David as a show about how comedians get their material, soon morphed into a sitcom “about nothing.” The emphasis, from the get-go, was on the “situation” part of “situation-comedy” rather than elaborate plot devices, gags or one-liners – and the situations were intentionally banal. The humor, instead, was very much character-driven, and the characters were shaped by the infamous motto of “no hugging, no learning.” As it has been pointed out many times, this is a very nihilistic view of life. A low anthropology if ever there was one, in which human beings are helplessly self-obsessed, and very much their own worst enemies. Life cast as something of a circus, full of overgrown children who are trapped in patterns of cowardice and narcissism, and in a constant state of regression. A dark view, but one which clearly rang true for more than a few people. If there’s an upside here, it’s that life is entertaining in its absurdity, and that humor, particularly the ability to laugh at oneself, is a treasure and an ally and even a ray of sunshine in an otherwise indifferent world.
What else was Seinfeld saying? Well, clearly, it saw the bulk of life as consisting of personal relationships, not work or achievement. The search for intimacy and belonging as occupying us at our core, with true love or fulfillment always just out of reach. Indeed, its portrait of love, both the romantic and friendship variety, was utterly conditional (and non-sacrificial), comically so, and in every respect. Seinfeld also depicts the little things as the big things. How to thank someone, who pays the bill, what to give as a present, etc. The things that drive a good or bad day are the small things; they have the power to derail your relationships. That they do so because they signal to and trigger the larger, deeper issues – self-worth, fear of death, etc – goes without saying.
Theologically, one could say that Seinfeld, at its core, is about depravity. The idea that no aspect of our lives is unmarked by selfishness or sin comes through loud and clear. The dysfunction that ensues when our little agendas cause us to bump into other people with their little agendas – this is the core of who we are. Of course, on the show, no one personifies the human condition more than George Costanza. Do you remember the episode “The Opposite”? I defy you to find a more entertaining illustration of Romans 7:
One of the other classic Costanza moments in the series is the “It’s Not You It’s Me” routine, which hits another one of our favorite themes (hint: rhymes with “jaw”). The idea that there are “rules” to dating, universal standards in romantic relationships that are deeply ingrained somehow, and that failing to follow these rules results in rejection, is not foreign to the Christian understanding of life. Seinfeld is nothing if not a (brilliant) chronicle of people trying endlessly to meet one another’s standards of manners, appearance, hygiene, etc… and never quite pulling it off. The anti-growth policy was refreshingly adamant in this respect.
Or you could say Seinfeld depicts the hilariously complicated facades we erect to earn love – the whitewashing of tombs can get pretty extravagant, after all – and how they inevitably crack over time, the human wheels being what they are. As the clip shows, the break-up is not a matter of anything George does or doesn’t do, it is HIM, period. He is the problem. In the same way, the Law of God does more than just expose sinful acts, it exposes the sinner as such. It seeks out the condition, not the symptom, and in so doing, demolishes the “deadliness of doing,” leaving behind the reality of being. George doesn’t need a better strategy (or a toupee, as the case may be), he needs a substitute:
p.s. Parts of the above post were adapted from Mockingbird’s Good News for People with Big Problems course.