May 15, 2023   5 mins

Long ago, in another age, young people gathered in sitting rooms to watch television. And these moments of fixed attention, and the TV shows that create them, define generations. A quarter of century ago last weekend — slacking on the sofa, surrounded by Kurt Cobain posters, and suffused with unyielding, cynical disaffection — a generation watched the finale of Seinfeld.

We young people do not do this anymore (television? sitting room?). The sodality of these collective experiences is lost to us, streaming alone in our bedroom-cells. But atomised as we are, generational mood is not completely lost to us. And over the past year, I realised we were all watching Seinfeld. It came around on the Netflix churn in late 2021, arriving like a fresh breeze across the plain of contemporary streaming. Its comic furniture was clearly old — the canned audience laughter, the answerphone messages, those airy flannel shirts tucked into belted jeans. But, in its essential pulse of irony and irreverence, it felt so fresh, so crisp. And, at a time of stultifying, hand-wringing sincerity, something as small as a nasty joke can feel like a punkish, even revolutionary act.

Seinfeld is a faulty sitcom. It doesn’t move properly; it’s missing key parts. It’s “about nothing”, goes the trite assertion. Its triumph is, therefore, one of absence, of refusal. Too incapable to act, Jerry Seinfeld plays himself: stand-up comedian, New Yorker, neat freak and mid-afternoon cereal-eater. But even as a lead he is not the wisecracking protagonist of too many American sitcoms. Instead, he and his apartment often just serve as a planetary centre for his three friends, George, Elaine and Kramer, to orbit. Between them, they exhibit all the vices of man: deceit, spite, narcissism, self-pity, sloth. “No hugging, no learning,” was the mission statement behind the show.

The emotional tenor is therefore pre-Darwinian, any possibility of human mutation, development or evolution flatly rejected. Characters only circle each other, pursued by a supporting cast of cranks, eccentrics and misfits. All motives are low; all manners undignified. Sex is a relentless yet elusive necessity to be pursued through any means, but romantic relationships are too complicated or just embarrassing to maintain. “Sex, that’s meaningless,” says Jerry. “But dinner — that’s heavy. That’s like an hour.” Girlfriends are always new; breakups always imminent. When George does get engaged, he spends the bulk of a season regretting it and trying to break it off.

Such paraphernalia of the predictable sitcom are aggressively boiled away to leave only the relentless imposition of irony: that crushing recognition of the gap between our perspective on things and their bald reality. Consequently, the world can be faced with a shrug or a cackle, too absurd and pointless to take seriously. Jerry can’t even take it seriously — often his mouth simply corpses into a leery smirk halfway through scenes.

The eyeroll, the irreverence, the irony, the stasis, the self-reference — all of this made Seinfeld into the great saga of popular postmodernism. But by the time of its finale, this was a cultural movement many lived in fear of. David Foster Wallace articulated a particularly terrified critique: television, he believed, had bred perilous levels of self-awareness into its viewing public, puncturing our sentimentality and leaving only “flatness, numbness and cynicism”. The critic James Wood agreed, identifying a literary fashion for long absurd novels full of irony, two-dimensional characters and conceptual play. He called it “hysterical realism”, and Seinfeld can be slotted into this genre, a “systems sitcom” in the vein of a Don DeLillo novel.

Between them, Wallace and Wood pointed the way toward the elevated, moralising path that culture has taken ever since. On television came Friends, immediately displacing Seinfeld as the popular chronicle of young America, and later becoming the great millennial sitcom. And, while imitating Seinfeld’s New York, group-of-mates setting, Friends is its irritating, naïve younger sibling, never escaping the frothy fountain of its opening credits. Its Manhattan is a brownstone dreamscape, where you live across the hall from your best friends, renting (where possible) from a monied family member.

And, like a particularly protracted and simplistic Austen novel, it submits tamely to the demands of romantic teleology. Essentially: hang around with your university mates for 10 seasons, and chances are you’ll end up marrying or having kids with at least one of them. Seinfeld’s singletons are achingly self-aware; the Friends friends don’t even know they’re in a TV show. They have shapely, winning flaws, not sordid neuroses. Optimistic, improving, they do silly things to cheer each other up like put turkeys on their head. They move to the suburbs to start families. There’s a lot of hugging.

Friends was symptomatic of the mood of sincerity which has since overcast much of the culture. For the past two decades, the cultural stock exchange has been led by a boom in conveyed emotion and self-conscious virtue. We listen to heart-baring, confessional-romantic anthems. We read novels about toxic love quadrilaterals. We watch Ted Lasso conquer English football by baking biscuits. But in more recent years, even this has calcified, slipping from the pure emotional sincerity of Friends to a more overbearing preoccupation with moral sincerity.

Irony has come to be seen as a dereliction of our human and political responsibilities. In fiction, the critic Becca Rothfeld gives a name to this millennial middlebrow: “sanctimony literature”. In these books and outside them, writers and their characters exhibit an inquisitorial obsession with “goodness”. They stress over structural racism and their carbon emissions. They mull over the power imbalances of BDSM. And they are attracted by wholesome, generous, unbelievable people, whose complications come in the form of redeemable scars and wounds, not profanities or sins.

Thanks to the politicisation of everyday life, which accelerated in the late 2010s, this is now representative of an entire sanctimony culture. It demands the iterative performance of goodness across everyday life. We do it on social media, striving to display virtues personal (wealth, sociability, romantic success) and political. We willingly upload and surrender our personal lives, commodifying the very emotions that we seek to display. We buy self-care and wellness, a new marketplace which serves this desire for authentic fulfilment. We inspect artists and writers for actionable wrongdoing.

When art and entertainment are run at such a hysterical temper, irony, detachment and withdrawal are an escape. And, therefore, so is Seinfeld, which makes no such gestures towards value or judgement. Its priorities are visible even at a structural level: for most of its run, each episode began and ended with a stand-up set by Jerry. All narrative momentum, any dramatic peril, dissolves and is then transformed into a framing device of pure humour. In this, Seinfeld is arguably the most straightforwardly comic comedy ever made. Morality is no consideration; politics are only ever an opportunity for social embarrassment. “You don’t have any black friends,” Jerry chides George, “Outside of us, you don’t have any white friends either.”

In this world of ethical grandstanding, where every word and gesture is freighted with political significance, a show about “nothing” is a little revelation. And there are other signs of this backlash. The one truly original form of digital-cultural expression, meme culture, is savagely ironic and two-dimensional, populated by wretched caricatures and vicious stereotypes designed to satirise and undermine the self-righteousness of society. Seinfeld has already become an integrated part of this universe, thoroughly pastiched through clipping and quotation, and it’s no surprise it fits so well. The style of online humour is pithy and generally dark, even existential. And there are a dozen such George lines per episode: “I’m depressed. I’m inadequate. I’ve got it all!”

If irony is back, it is a tool as well as a condition. Seinfeld came at the end of a long tail of postmodern art, which was interested in capturing and critiquing mass media. Our own transactional information age — far more intrusive and involving than even David Foster Wallace could pretend television is — has made a mockery of a generation which sought to use it sincerely, treating their personal lives with the cruelty of a reality TV show producer. The clarity of irony is its strength, burning through pretensions and leaving a behind a reality which is sometimes cold but always honest. This is the mood that is starting to circulate among Gen Z, a vibe shift still in inchoate infancy. And at the generationally-regenerative distance of 25 years, Seinfeld is part of our voice — and our rebellion.


Nicholas Harris is a Junior Commissioning Editor at UnHerd.

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