No Exit for Seinfeld: A Consideration of the Final Episode

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Seinfeld ended its nine-year run on television as bleakly as it began, in a world where humorous one-upmanship is our only possible form of satisfaction. It's a perfect message for the economically and culturally depressed final decade of our second millennium.

Written By Jerry Seinfeld for West/Shapiro Production

Reviewed by Annalee Newitz

Thursday, July 30 1998, 2:46 PM


In the haze of publicity surrounding The Final Hour and Fifteen Minutes of Seinfeld, one particular Hollywood gossip show's comment on the event caught my attention. Comparing Seinfeld to MASH (whose final episode received the highest ratings of any TV show in history), a reporter for Extra noted, "If Seinfeld was about nothing, then MASH was the opposite." The meaning was clear: MASH had been a social problem comedy about "everything" - women's rights, racism, homosexuality, the "new man," U.S. politics - Seinfeld dealt only with the mundanities of everyday life.

And yet the two shows seemed to share more than this nothing/everything distinction would allow. Both gave us memorable characters whose experiences mirrored the most common elements of a particular generation's life, and both used comedy to satirize (often quite bitterly) social conventions. What war and civil rights struggles were to the MASH generation, social nihilism and economic rootlessness are to the Seinfeld generation. And unlike wacky feel-good sitcoms like Cheers or The Cosby Show, neither MASH nor Seinfeld ever shied away from saying that life was anything but sweet.

Perhaps this explains why the Final Moments of Seinfeld felt more like a pop version of Jean-Paul Sartre's ultra-dark existentialist play No Exit than it did a tearful-but-loving kiss goodbye. No Exit, an ironic depiction of hell, consigns its three irresponsible, thoughtless characters to an afterlife with only each other, in a room they cannot leave. Similarly, the Seinfeld episode ends with Elaine, Jerry, Kramer and George trapped with each other in a jail cell, having the same aimless conversations about "nothing" that they've had for years. They've been sentenced to a year in jail under a new "Good Samaritan" law, which states that you must come to someone's aid if a crime is being committed against them. Instead of helping a man who is being robbed, Jerry and Co. have been videotaping it and making fun of the hapless victim. At their trial, we are treated to the testimony of witness after witness (all characters from past episodes) who argue that the Seinfeld gang are a bunch of cruel, self-absorbed creeps who adore causing misery and chaos in the lives of everyone around them.

The conclusion of the show, then, is in fact about "everything"--it reminds us that our everyday lives are littered with the bodies of the people we've wronged, dismissed, or even (in this comic exaggeration) maimed and killed. We are also reminded of a central but often subtle motivating premise of the show, which is simply that ordinary life for most individuals is like being in jail. You don't need to have been in a war and go mad afterwards as MASH's Hawkeye did to drive this point home. All you need to do is become a working stiff in a civilization where leisure is no more entertaining or fulfilling than your alienating daily labor.

Even your friends won't really save you, as the constant friction and irritations between the Seinfeld characters make clear. Companionship on Seinfeld is more a matter of proximity than anything: you talk to your cellmate because she's there, not because you have compassion for her. And thus Seinfeld ended its nine-year run on television as bleakly as it began, in a world where humorous one-upmanship is our only possible form of satisfaction. It's a perfect message for the economically and culturally depressed final decade of our second millennium. "Nothing" is indeed the meaning of "everything."

NBC Television 

Copyright © 1998 by Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.
 

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