My roommates and I make up a foursome, which means we can do the “which TV show character are you?” thing a lot. We are not dissimilar, but we are each able to easily slide into a certain type, especially when relative to each other: the nerd, the snob, the diva, the baby; the talent, the management, the executive, and the help; the brains, the looks, the muscle, and the wildcard. (We are all the useless chick.)
We’ve hammered ourselves into almost every popular main cast: Sex and the City, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, GIRLS. The only rule is to dutifully accept whatever roles we are cast; we vote democratically, so even if you contend that you are a Lucy, or, at least you could be if you could only find the right hair curlers, but everyone else thinks you are an Ethel, you have to accept your fate. After a while, it’s tempting to stretch your persona to fit the wider margins of an inflated, dramatized “you”: a Liz Lemon “blerg” here, a Linda Belcher “awwwwlright!” there. Once the game becomes commonplace, as it has in our home, it’s easier to validate your actions, too: if you’re in the midst of an emotional, passive-aggressive, on-and-off relationship with a man, you can excuse yourself for not setting up a book pitch with his ex-wife or causing his current one to break her tooth.
Recently, my roommates and I decided to tackle another famous foursome: Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine. We hemmed and hawed, weighed aspirations versus reality, and then decreed. Mairin (Jim Halpert, Lucy Ricardo) was cast as Elaine, due to her recent incorporation into our group; often grumpy and confused Alex (Bob Belcher, Dee Reynolds) was George; and Meaghan (Shoshanna Shapiro, Buster Bluth), by process of elimination, got to be Jerry. “You are a Jerry in life,” Meaghan, who’s seen the show 10 times, concluded, “but you’re the Kramer of our house, because you have messy hair and are always looking for snacks.” I didn’t quite understand what she meant.
I’ve never seen Seinfeld. It’s my go-to fun fact. The best icebreaker I’ve ever found is to ask someone what TV shows they watch, but the best argument igniter I’ve ever used to announce what I’ve never watched. “I’ve never seen Friends.” “I couldn’t get in to Freaks and Geeks.” “I’ve only seen one episode of The Simpsons.” But nothing riles people like announcing that you know nothing about “the show about nothing.”
It’s fun to attack. “Seinfeld can’t be that good,” I tell people. “How could you have NEVER seen a single episode?” I’m always asked, incredulously. “It’s the best TV show of all time!” And it’s simple: in eighth grade, in a conversation about what TV shows were current, a classmate told me: “Don’t watch Friends. There’s no black people on it. Seinfeld too. It’s racist.” So I didn’t. The show in no way appealed to me; already in six years into syndication, it was washed out and bland juxtaposed to Disney Channel Original Movies and Fox Family. It was about adults in adult situations. There were no kids, no palpable fun, and no splashy theme song—it wasn’t for me.
I approach pop culture with fervor; it’s a need to be a part of the in-crowd, to be a part of the conversation, to get everybody’s jokes. My boyfriend caught me slogging through True Detective, trying to stay awake for a show I had little interest in, and asked me why I even bothered. “I need to know what everyone’s talking about!” I haven’t yet made it to the tracking shot.
After six months with an HBOGO password and, thusly, six months with access to previously unavailable quality television, I’ve declared 2014 to be my TV year. I have big plans: finishing the Sopranos, starting The Wire and The West Wing, continuing Broad City and Veep, getting back into Looking… I was going to dedicate a year to the television zeitgeist, so that I could finally get it, supplementing my foundations of the canon with more than just pilfered Twitter jokes and background knowledge culled from VH1 talking heads. But I realized I can’t tackle conversations about comedy and novelty and television and sitcoms du jour in good faith without finally giving in, giving up, and watching Seinfeld.
Here are the bits I do know: there is a Soup Nazi. There is standup. There is a contest somehow related to masturbation. George is the one with the glasses. But Seinfeld-isms have followed me even as its champion avoider. Even though I’ve eschewed it, it’s the type of show—maybe the foremost show—that has totally permeated a cultural landscape, even 16 years after it ended. There’s so much that I’ve absorbed without knowing it (“yada yada,” double dipping); I even celebrated Festivus as a college-sanctioned holiday party for four years without knowing its source, an embarrassment for myself and my alma mater. But there’s still so much I’m missing out on: when someone proclaims their snack food is making them thirsty, the humor in waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant, when Liz Lemon explains that her memory has “Seinfeld money” after Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays her in a flashback.
The show premiered two years before I was born, and reigned during a transitory time: it premiered in 1989, amidst shows like Baywatch and Doogie Howser, M.D., programs that are now cultural relics that we stopped talking about long ago, used only to date an anecdote or a person. Yet the lengthy series was bookended by the rise of the Internet, and the instant, endless communication it brought forth. A friend told me she remembers her father watching old episodes of Seinfeld recorded on VHS; years later, she said, he prepared for the finale on an internet chatroom, trading speculations with other avid fans. We gleefully talk about pre-internet shows, most often in the realm of avoiding spoilers and the maintenance of novelty, but imagine a show like Seinfeld in our technological, hyper-sharable age: jokes ruined for you by a Vine, episodes dissected on blogs moments after the episode airs (the parody Twitter account @Seinfeld2000 has done some magical things with this very obsession). In its third and least popular season, the show still garnered an average of 17.66 million viewers per episode, only three million fewer than primetime juggernaut The Big Bang Theory’s most popular episode, its season six premiere (20.66 million viewers). (The Simpsons, perhaps the only other show that rivals Seinfeld in terms of zeitgeist and comedic importance, premiered that same year.) Twitter would fail-whale weekly.
Anyway, the complete series was on sale, so we bought it.
It’s hard to picture the show in a pre-Seinfeld world: the barriers have already been broken, the heirs already named, and I’ve already caught the second wave. Accordingly, I’m worried that I’ll be underwhelmed and that the novelty and importance of the show won’t be as tangible as I want it to be, because it’s more groundbreaking in content rather than structure. I’ve never seen shows like Doctor Who or Twin Peaks, but what I glean from them is that they both fundamentally changed how shows are made: in presentation, in storyline, in what’s acceptable to put on TV. Still, I’m prepared to like it, or, even more, to dislike it and at least have an explanation. “I’m Jazmine, and I really didn’t like Seinfeld,” I’ll begin to introduce myself. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”