Seinfeld as Elegant Social Commentary

The much-ballyhooed and very-expensive-to-sponsor finale of the television phenomenon Seinfeld has come and gone. It didnít generate the audience NBC had hoped. It was apparently a dud of an episode ó USA Today gave it a rating of one and a half out of a possible four stars.

Iím in no position to comment on the showís merit to be included with I Love Lucy and Cosby as a "classic." I saw very few episodes during its nine-year run. And I wasnít in front of the tube last Thursday to witness its death throes. So whatís the point of writing anything about it?

I am not a TV critic. I am a Christian theologian. Yet I have the sense that the show that has now died only to enter televisionís heaven of re-runs has been something of a social commentary on a generation.

Seinfeld could be incredibly funny. Plots were very complex at times. Visual gags ó particularly when they involved Kramer ó could be hilarious. The writing was often brilliant. Ultimately, however, the show was about four characters who stumbled through life with no moral sensibilities and completely devoid of emotional commitments.

The characters on Seinfeld never grew up. They learned nothing from the experiences of their lives. The only questions they wrestled with were utterly trivial ones. It took events ranging from the appropriateness of making a get-well call on a cell phone to the amount of milk to put in breakfast cereal to sitting backward (i.e., is it effeminate to do so?) and filled a half hour of TV time each week.

Jerry Seinfeld said it was simply a show "about nothing." He, Elaine, Kramer, and George simply went through the motions of self-absorbed, anti-social, narcissistic human life. And that begins to point to the "social commentary" that was the show.

Robert Bianco looked back over Seinfeldís history and observed that it "helped set the dominant comic tone of the decade: an adolescent version of ironic distance, detached, insincere and emotion-free. . . . Ultimately, Seinfeld was never a show about nothing; it was a show where nothing mattered. The characters took nothing seriously except themselves." (USA Today, "This is it? The joke was on ĎSeiní fans," 15 May 1998, p.1E).

Please donít miss my point: I am not putting down the show, only wondering if its thesis is correct. Is it true that we are so anti-social? So selfish? So distant and uncaring from one another?

The finale episode had the four characters witness a carjacking in a small Massachusetts town. Instead of helping, they make fun of the victim and get put in jail for violating the townís Good Samaritan law.

Iíve seen that show! But not as TV parody. Iíve seen it years ago in the murder of Kitty Genovese and more recently in the looting of businesses and homes after tornadoes struck Nashville. Iíve seen it in the Holocaust, in Cambodia, and in Rwanda. Iíve witnessed it in the way we treat homeless people and unwanted babies in the womb. Iíve seen it in the treatment of families going through a teenagerís out-of-wedlock pregnancy or a divorce.

Only last Saturday, May 16, a 15-year-old boy who had been playing basketball bled to death in a Chicago alley as emergency room personnel ó only a few steps away ó refused to treat him. It was, they said, "against hospital policy" to go outside the building to treat patients. Friends, neighbors, and police officers pleaded with the ER staff to come outside and treat Christopher Sercye. He was an innocent bystander who had been shot when gunfire started among some teens in the area. A police officer finally picked the boy up and took him inside the hospital. Is stupidity so institutionalized that it cannot be thwarted by compassion and common sense?

Violations of the Good Samaritan law ultimately donít make riveting TV sitcom finales or inspiring life commentaries. Maybe Seinfeld serves ultimately to rebuke a detached lifestyle that makes benevolence, decency, and spiritual growth impossible.

Now the clincher: Did anybody get the message?

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