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‘Seinfeld’ – Sitcom or Modern Horror Story?

tumblr_lzpddinbem1qza49co1_1280Why does everyone seem to call Seinfeld is a sitcom? I mean, other than the laugh track and the fact that it was sold as a comedy. If you take a good look at the show, and the bones and the underlying message,  there’s a good case to be made that Seinfeld is actually a horror story.

Seriously.

Sitcoms and horror stories both stand as particularly effective examples of modern social parables. That might sound weird, as they are very different creatures, but both horror stories and sitcoms are structuralist creations (aside – meta-horror films like Scream, Cabin in the Woods, and The Final Girls do a great job of examining the horror structure) but key to both sitcoms and horror stories – is that they must deliver a lesson. Sometimes that lesson is “don’t go on crash diets to impress a boy” and others it is “if you find irradiated people living in the hills, it’s best to just leave them alone” and sometimes, as in the case of Seinfeld, that lesson is much, much darker.

The structure of the sitcom, of every sitcom, follows three very specific rules.

First – sitcom characters are always drawn arch. The characters on the show are much less people are and more representatives of types of people. The archetypes often draw inspiration from the types originating in ancient Greece – the Four Temperaments – or from 16th century Italian theater (Commedia dell’arte). This allowed the audience to slide into a sitcom without that messy need for backstory or character development. Or, for that matter, the need for character arc and growth.

Second – each episode of the sitcom needs to present a plausible problem that the audience might encounter. The problem needn’t be realistic – I can’t ever recall having to compete in a dance off, I’ve never been part of a barbershop quartet, and I’ve certainly never been trapped in a bottle episode. But sitcoms use these tropey scenarios to teach the audience that overcoming adversities is not only possible, but something we should expect and something we must learn from.

Finally – all of the characters on a sitcom actually like each other. They might not always show it. With Ralph Cramden constantly threatening hyperbolized domestic assault, or Earl Winslow barely tolerating Steve Urkel, deep down, they all actually cared about each other. This is important is the central theme of the sitcom. Above the individual episodic lessons, the sitcom teaches us that our strength, security, and success in overcoming adversities is possible because the people around us really care. The sitcom is a vehicle that says other people are important, valuable.

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Which brings us around to Seinfeld. Considered by many to be the pinnacle of the sitcom, and frequently ranked alongside The Wire as one of the greatest television show ever – how well does Seinfeld do in accomplishing the three rules of the sitcom?

Not very well. If you ask people what Seinfeld is about, most (myself included) will smirk and say “Nothing.” And creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David are both attributed with saying the show had two rules: “Nobody hugs, and nobody learns.”

The two rules seem to ensure that Seinfeld can’t be considered a sitcom. After all, ‘nobody learns’ is a direct refutation of rule two – though the characters undoubtedly encounter obstacles in each episode, there is no guarantee that they will overcome the obstacles.

And nobody hugs? Well, while characters on Seinfeld frequently trade barbs in much the same manner as characters on a true sitcom, without scenes of genuine and sincere emotion, we’re left to wonder – do these characters actually like each other? If Kramer upped and vanished, would Jerry know if someone didn’t ask where Kramer was? Worse, would Jerry enjoy being able to finish a book without insanity bursting through the door without so much as knocking?

But not being a sitcom does not make Seinfeld into a horror story. No, that comes from one simple word, “nothing.”

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While Seinfeld is often described as postmodern for its rejection of grand narratives, ironic detachment, and insane amounts of referential humor, those are mere hints of the disguise. Seinfeld is an example of a rather bloodless Nihilistic Horror story.

Nihilism is often closely entwined with postmodernism, as both reject grand narratives. The difference is that while postmodernism uses irony to reject all narratives without offering a suitable replacement, nihilism rejects the grandest narrative – that life is sacred – and replaces it with another – “life is inherently meaningless.”

That is – when you ask a Nihilist what the meaning of life is, the answer is nothing. There isn’t one. The hollow mindset spirals outwards, dragging things like rules, ethics, morals, even life and death into the equation. The proper Nihilist understands that nothing really matters. But the lone Nihilist can’t do much on his own. Rather, the Nihilist needs a substantial group to also understand that nothing really matters.

David Chapman – an AI researcher and rather prolific writer on the subject of meaningness – uses the phrase “Nihilist Apocalypse” to describe a society where a substantial number of people have rejected meaning in favor of nothing. Chapman envisions such a place like any other man made apocalypse – a world where every individual has total license and we as a governed wholesale by our base instincts.

The trick is that Seinfeld takes place at the start of this apocalypse, where our four central characters have embraced the nothing and are still shocked that the rest of the world hasn’t caught on. We are viewing their horror movie, but we are witnessing things from the killers’ points of view.

First – Rules are meaningless

The core group on Seinfeld all seem to agree that rules are arbitrary. Rules are made up on a whim, and enforced simply to be enforced. Failing to abide by these rules seldom has consequences. The two most popular examples of this seem to be double dipping.

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When Costanza is caught revisiting dip for a second scoop with the same chip, he is accosted by  Timmy, who views the act as heresy akin to “putting your whole mouth in the dip.” George, as an enlightened agent of nothing, rejects this rule. Timmy doesn’t react well, but that doesn’t mean that George wasn’t right, merely that society will fight to enforce made-up rules for made-up reasons.

The better known example of the how rules are made up and applied for arbitrary reasons, though, has to be the Soup Nazi.

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The very name – itself a declaration of life’s meaning as it equates a group responsible for the brutal death of millions with a guy who won’t give you soup – instantly draws to mind the infamous catch phrase “No soup for you.” Here, a man who simply makes good (okay, great, the most amazing soup in the world) soup, is able to put forth rules that seem to serve no purpose, yet everyone abides. Questioning the rules uncovers only new rules, and those new rules have consequences. Yet, the rationality – the cause and effect and sense of purpose – never materializes. The rules are arbitrary. They are unimportant and interchangable. They merely serve to amuse one person but cause confusion and pain for untold others. So, after being banned, Elaine ruins the Soup Nazi.

Second – Death is Meaningless

It’s not just rules that Seinfeld rejects as frivolous and absurd, but death itself. “The Invitation” is an episode oft used to paint Seinfeld’s central characters as unfeeling, even monstrous, for their lack of reaction to Susan’s death.  The death itself causes not sorry or mourning or even reflection, but only irritation – with George now mad that Jerry engaged and ruining the group dynamic. The lack of either sympathy or empathy in what any other television show (or real life) would treat as a genuine personal tragedy, could be considered the most emblematic horror element of the show. But that’d be wrong.

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Seinfeld gets much darker with it’s death. And for that we need to go “The Trip (Part 2)”. In this two parter that kicked off the show’s fourth season, we find George, Jerry, and Kramer in Los Angeles. There, in what could be a tried and true sitcom trope, Kramer is the victim of a case of mistaken identity. However, in this instance the police believe that Kramer is a serial killer known as the Smog Strangler. Try as they might, Jerry and George can’t get Kramer off. His eventual exoneration only comes when someone is brutally murdered by the real Smog Strangler.

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Finally – if rules are meaningless, and death is meaningless, killing is permissible

When we remove meaning from life and agree that rules are pointless, then we take the societal shackles off of people. And Seinfeld’s central characters seem to understand this, causing at least one accidental death without consequence or concern.

Again, we’re overlooking Susan – who’s death could arguably be laid at George’s stingy feet. And we’re not talking about “The Junior Mint” in which Kramer and Jerry accidentally poison an artist and then George uses the resulting near-fatal condition to try and speculate on art. No, for this we have to look at “The Bubble Boy.”

This episode in question sees George playing Trivial Pursuit with a boy forced to live in a hermetically sealed environment for medical reasons. Here, a typo on a question card, leads to a tussle and the breaking of the seal.  That is – a game whose name is literally translated as a unimportant endeavor – causes a misunderstanding that ends in an angry mob and an ambulance ride.

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And at the end of it, there’s not a shred of empathy showed on either side. For George – the adherence to an arbitrary rule that he favors (in this instance those of a board game) is more important than showing human decency (being nice to a sick person) or morality (not engaging in even accidental attempted manslaughter).

And that’s the central crux of Seinfeld – that when nothing is meaningful, then anything is really permitted. When you throw off the shackles of what society deems to be good or right, you can cast yourself as the hero of your own story, you can claim to be the one that is actually wronged despite what anyone else says.

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Seinfeld took perhaps the most horrific and terrifying lesson in the world – that the universe lacks inherent meaning and, frankly, does not care about us – and taught it to us in a safe way. Though it might lack an ax murdered – Seinfeld is no less a horror story.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it…

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