On chilly winter nights I get in bed earlier than usual to keep warm and I watch a bit of TV before I nod off. From 11 to midnight one local station has Seinfeld reruns and that’s what I usually watch. I don’t have cable to my tiny bedroom TV and so I’m limited to the three or four stations that come in well with rabbit-ears. If I had cable in the bedroom I might be tempted by something on the History Channel, A & E or MSNBC, but Jerry and his loopy friends are the best choice by far in that time slot. Consequently, I’ve watched as reruns most of the episodes I missed when it was the most popular show in prime time.
For my money Seinfeld is one of the two or three most consistently funny sitcoms in the history of television. I almost always laugh out loud at some point during a typical episode and to me these hearty guffaws are sweet respite from life’s tension and tedium. But at times that laughter has been tinged with a mild feeling of guilt, and that puzzled me until I happened upon a quote from a critic who described the show as “refreshingly unsentimental.”
That comment got me to thinking about what Seinfeld is really about. It is unsentimental for sure. But beyond that, there are no really very likeable, honorable or unselfish characters in the show. No virtues are portrayed and there are no redeeming messages. There’s no Gloria or Meathead to play off of Archie Bunker, and no Amos to contrast with the treacherous Kingfish or the dimwitted Andy. Every character is a caricature of evil-lite. Each is self-absorbed and manipulative. Their friendship seems almost as the result of no one else choosing them as friends.
Jerry is the most benign in this cast of grotesques. He’s mostly a witty but sharp-tongued, manipulative womanizer. He is more or less the straightman the action pivots on. Elaine, his ex-girlfriend, is truly pathetic. She doesn’t get the shallow nature of either herself or her potential partners in her interminable search for a relationship. She’s a loser and she seems to vaguely understand that she’s a loser and that lends some poignancy to her role.
The other hysterical principals, Kramer and George, are totally clueless when it comes to their irrelevance as human beings. Peripheral players like Elaine’s boss, Mr. Peterman, and Newman the other irritating neighbor, are also gross caricatures. All in all the whole cast are poster children for the seven deadly sins--greed, pride, sloth, vengeance--you name it.
Seinfeld once described his creation as “a show about nothing.” The term “nothing” only applies to the existential emptiness in the lives of its characters. What the show is really about is Hell Lite. No one feeds, nurtures or loves anyone else. No one exists in the world except them. That self-absorbed loneliness and lack of love is surely what Hell is about.
I think this black comedy became so popular because we’ve all known folks like the Seinfeld cast and they’re people we unconsciously feel morally superior to. Also, the characters and their escapades resonate with a very “unsentimental” contemporary view of humanity
On the other hand, there is Daniel Plainview, as brilliantly acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, in There Will Be Blood. Plainview, the early 20th Century oil prospector is the most thoroughly evil, yet believable character that I can recall portrayed on the big screen in recent memory. Hannibal Lecter and villains of that ilk are merely fantastic creations for the drama and don’t glow with the gritty patina of reality.
Plainview’s flinty visage and character reflect an adamantine pride combined with an unrelenting lust for money and power. At various points in the movie he states that he hates most people and that he hates to see anyone else succeed. He’s a lonely and driven individual, but early in the movie he does seem to have a glimmer of humane feelings. He displays occasional tenderness toward his adopted son, but by the time the movie reaches its violent climax he has callously rejected his son and is a portrait of thorough, unrepentant evil.
At times I felt as though I was watching a very, very dark comedy, as there were several ironic twists in the plot that elicited nervous chuckles from the audience. But any comedic value is totally submersed by the sulfuric stench of Hell.
By describing Seinfeld as Hell lite I don’t men to imply that the show is somehow evil in itself. It brings too many belly-laughs into our lives to be unrepentantly evil. Hopefully, even the most literal and infantile amongst us can see that its characters are completely dysfunctional and represent nothing to emulate. However, it is followed by the reruns of a show that for my money is truly evil: Sex and the City. That is a show truly about nothing--nothing but titillation, and yet it seems to takes itself seriously, and the writer and actors probably self-righteously believe they are providing insight into relationships.
Surely, Hell will be populated by the Daniel Plainviews of this world and not the Georges and Kramers. Hopefully, those who will be found there are the willfully evil, and not folks who are just selfish and clueless as you and I often are.