I was flipping through the channels the other day and stumbled upon a rerun of Seinfeld. While the show went off the air 13 years ago, you still can faithfully catch reruns most any time you want. The episode was “The Blood” and was not a particularly good episode, dealing with Jerry getting a blood transfusion from Kramer, George trying to combine sex, food, and tv, and Elaine having a issue about babysitting. As I was watching it, I slowly realized that this was a show from another time and place, specifically the 1990’s. While I could enjoy watching it now, it seemed off in some way, and the laughs seemed forced and stale.
I think I enjoyed the memory of Seinfeld much more than actually watching it. I remembered how new and ground breaking it had been in the 90’s, how much I had watched it over and over again, and how it seemed better than any other sitcom by a large margin. However, looking at it more than a decade later that cultural relevance had faded dramatically, and there are so many new shows that are smarter and funnier. Even hearing the laugh track made me cringe a bit, as it seemed dated and from another time. It had become a cultural artifact, a statement about a moment in time, but something one would only voluntarily watch out of nostalgia now.
I think the sitcom format is particularly prone to this type of fading from the culture. All the great sitcoms of the past seem to only resonate with people that remember watching them, and future generations don’t seem to attach much meaning to them. While I Love Lucy or the The Honeymooners are groundbreaking television comedies, no one under the age of 50 cares or thinks much about them. They are from another time, and while they might have been great in that time, they don’t hold up. The same can be said of sitcoms through subsequent decades. Groundbreaking sitcoms like All in the Family and M*A*S*H are irrelevant to younger generations that did not watch them when they originally aired. While people who did watch them still will defend them as great comedies and better than anything on television now, it is mainly nostalgia, and even they don’t rewatch them anymore. The few that do most likely enjoy the memory of originally watching them, rather than the actual episodes.
Seinfeld over the last decade has fallen into this same pattern of slowly becoming irrelevant. I think more modern comedies such as The Office, Arrested Development, and even Curb Your Enthusiasm have taken over people’s minds and are part of the current zeitgeist of the culture. Curb Your Enthusiasm is an interesting case, because it stars the co-creator of Seinfeld, and treads on similar territory, yet does it in a more modern and edgy way than Seinfeld ever attempted. Seinfeld seems tame by today’s standards.
In 2002 TV Guide picked Seinfeld as the greatest television show ever, followed by I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and All in the Family. At the time Seinfeld hadn’t been off the air that long, and seemed like the greatest thing ever created. However, I think since then it has fallen into the same category as these other formally great shows. They will remain on these lists, maybe with changing positions, but remain artifacts, frozen in their specific time and place. In twenty years no one not alive in the 90’s will care much about Seinfeld, and it will be relegated to the memories of people that remember watching it. It will continue to be considered a ‘great’ show, but will never have the same cultural influence if once possessed. The show about nothing, will eventually fade into nothing…