The Consumer Republic: The Long Sein-Off

What was I thinking? About four years ago, Seinfeld became Might-See TV in our household. As we lost interest, we began exploring other nooks and crannies in the cable universe on Thursday nights. At the time, I thought I was merely exercising the inalienable right to choose, which belongs to every viewer with a channel zapper. Little did I know I was forfeiting my citizenship in TV Nation.
The finale of Seinfeld is one of the increasingly rare–and thus more hysterically hyped–moments of TV-mediated national unity. It’s kind of like the JFK assassination, except funnier and with higher ad rates. Missing it is like not being invited to the end of Western civilization. While a skittish New York City Parks Department foiled Fuji Film’s plan to host a public Sein-In, other cities are staging mass viewings, giving fans an opportunity to experience a piece of the awe-inspiring, 79-million-strong Seinfeld phenomenon.
Having flunked every Seinfeld trivia test, I find myself in the unusual situation of identifying with Ethan Hawke, just one of many stars asked by TV Guide to share their favorite Seinfeld moment. (Seinfeld is one of those great unifying forces that brings us closer to our celebrities.)
Hawke, however, publicly admitted he’d never seen the show. “I’m like the wolf boy,” he said. Ethan, soul buddy, I know where you’re coming from. Amid an avalanche of faux final episodes, an epidemic of “master of my domain” jokes and enough references to nothingness to fill a Jean-Paul Sartre tome, I, like you, stand outcast and alone.
Frankly, I don’t understand what everyone is so upset about. It’s not as if Seinfeld is going away. To the contrary, the sitcom, already in lucrative syndication, is destined to roll on like the Yule log, a continuously running loop of Jerry forgetting–and forgetting and forgetting–a name that rhymes with a female body part. So long as TV satellites circle the earth, Jerry and company will be in our living rooms, doing whatever they’ve been doing for the last nine seasons: “Yada, yada, yada” unto eternity.
What is special about Seinfeld is that it has attained folk-myth status while still in its first run. Seinfeld has yet to air its last episode and yet it feels like we’ve already lived through a century’s worth of reruns. Maybe NBC should skip the final episode and go straight to the 10-year reunion. As is, I can write a column filled with knowing references to episodes I’ve never even seen. After all, repetition is how TV myths are made.
For years, an independent New York station now enfolded into the bosom of the WB network aired The Honeymooners after the late news. It was a beacon in the sparsely populated eight-channel landscape, a reliable refuge from a tired Carson monologue, always funny, always there. Over the decades of reruns, certain Honeymooner-isms cut furrows into the collective consciousness, much like a river carves a valley from a rock: “To the moon, Alice. Chef of the Future. Baby, you’re the greatest.”
Which is why, Seinfeld-trivia washout that I am, I can play Honeymooners with the best of them. (What did Norton do when Ralph, giving a golf lesson, told him to address the ball? He answered, “Hello, ball.”) If you’ve seen an episode 10 or 20 times, you remember. Of course, this was before the days when every two-bit series that eked out three seasons of airplay was granted eternal life on TV Land.
It took years before Honeymooner devotees thought to meet at conventions. Seinfeld’s cult was up and running long before the cast exchanged goodbye hugs. There are entertainment channels that follow the careers of the cast and magazines eager to declare it the best sitcom in TV history. On the Internet, you can find scripts of individual episodes and numbered lists of shows, complete with synopses and quotes. (Knowing the numbers of the episodes is apparently the non plus ultra of Seinfeld connoisseurship.)
It’s often said–everything about Seinfeld is often said–that this show about nothing captured a certain ’90s sensibility. But the most ’90s thing about Seinfeld is its status as a hit show in an age when networks can barely muster an average rating of 10. As an increasingly rare object of mass attention, it earned a 30-ish share–and won more mass attention.
Everyone talks about Seinfeld because everyone talks about it at a time when there are very few things that everyone talks about. The show itself is not about nothing. It’s the phenomenon that surrounds it that’s about nothing, like a booming echo in an empty chamber. Still, in our fragmented media environment, nothings like Seinfeld are the stuff of which $1.7 million ad rates are made. That’s something.