The world according to 'Seinfeld' No hugging, no learning. No aging, commitment or obligation. We've laughed at such postmodern sentiments for nine years. Is there anything wrong with that?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's Thursday night on the seventh floor of Hagerstown Hall dorm, and there's a party going on.

Well, sort of a party.

In the lounge, there are three giant bags of potato chips, two huge platters of chocolate chip cookies and a couple of cases of soft drinks. There are also 15 or so University of Maryland, College Park students in cutoffs, sweats, jeans and gym shorts eating, drinking and waiting for the start of "Seinfeld."

Other dormies wander in and out. One woman dries her hair in preparation for a date that she says "will probably be totally Elainesque"; one guy slides in the door like Cosmo Kramer.

"Ignore him, he's a freshman," someone says of the Kramer imitator.

The freshman says he'd rather watch the show in his room with his "cool" friends, anyway - he just stopped by to get some food.

"What, no Snapple?" he asks, going through the soda.

As "Seinfeld" heads toward its final episode May 14, the NBC sitcom's legacy and its place in television history is being debated.

Some say "Seinfeld" is brilliant and refreshingly unsentimental, has changed the look and sound of TV in the '90s and enriched our lives, and will be sorely missed. Others see it as a celebration of narcissism, immaturity, exclusion and materialism whose popularity says something sad about our culture.

The debate is mainly among critics, cultural analysts and academics. We don't often hear from students in Hagerstown Hall or others in the audience. With "Seinfeld," that's a large group to ignore.

After nine seasons, "Seinfeld" will end its run as the most popular sitcom of the decade. The last four seasons, about 30 million of us have been watching each week as "Seinfeld" finished first among sitcoms in the Nielsen ratings.

Only three other sitcoms have managed four seasons atop the Nielsens: "I Love Lucy" in the 1950s, "All in the Family" in the 1970s and "The Cosby Show" in the '80s. That puts "Seinfeld" in pretty exclusive company, especially since television is vastly more competitive today than it was when three broadcast networks ruled.

And "Seinfeld" is almost as popular with college students as it is with their baby-boomer parents, despite the fact that its lead characters - Jerry, Kramer (Michael Richards), George Constanza (Jason Alexander) and Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) - are all 40-ish. No other current sitcom can lay claim to that kind of demographic reach.

It's safe to say that "Seinfeld" connects with our lives and times in some meaningful way.

No analysis of "Seinfeld" has been more repeated in recent weeks than the one made in 1989 by Brandon Tartikoff, the boy wonder NBC Entertainment president, who died last year of cancer at age 46.

"Too New York, too Jewish," Tartikoff is quoted as having said when he declined to give "The Seinfeld Chronicles," as the pilot was named, anything more than a four-episode order for the 1989-1990 television season.

"An order for six is considered a slap in the face," says Alan Horn, the head of Castle Rock, the production company that makes and actually owns "Seinfeld."

In an interview the year before he died, Tartikoff told The Sun that what he actually said was, "Who will want to see four Jews wandering around New York acting neurotic?"

But Tartikoff, who was Jewish, acknowledged that his own ethnicity had led to a kind of self-censorship about shows featuring Jewish characters. And he came to believe that that's what happened with "Seinfeld" initially.

Later he called the sitcom "one of the most important and appealing shows of the '90s for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is what it has to say about friendship, family and growing up."

"Friends as family and not growing up - that's the heart of 'Seinfeld,' " says Dr. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist from Washington who recently analyzed "Seinfeld" for the Journal of Popular Culture.

"The four of them formed an alternative family that is regularly compared in the show with the biological families of the Constanzas and the Seinfelds. Which would you pick to be part of - Jerry's or the parents'?" Brody asks.

"Jerry's group is one of perpetual youth - no aging, commitment or obligation. Sure, young people like it as much as the baby boomers who never want to grow up."

Not that there's anything wrong with that, Brody adds.

"That's what those of us who have difficult families do," he said. "We try to create our own family out of friends, or plug into a virtual family on TV. I see this with my patients all the time. In part, I think that's why there's so much hype about the end of the show: People are feeling separation anxiety, because, in a sense, they are losing their family."

Brody rates "Seinfeld" alongside "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in terms ofppeal. While that's a subjective call, the comparison highlights one of the more obvious ways "Seinfeld" changed prime time in the 1990s.

Before it, the central cast of sitcom characters generally lived together as a family or as roommates, went to school together as classmates or worked together, as in Mary Tyler Moore's show. "Seinfeld" was the first of the friends shows- followed quickly by such imitations as "Friends," "Ellen" and "Caroline in the City." The only thread connecting the four leading characters in "Seinfeld" is that they all know Jerry.

Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, says "Seinfeld" also changed the basic narrative structure of situation comedy. While that, too, might seem obvious, it has vast cultural implications.

"A decade ago, sitcoms consisted of seven scenes," Littlefield said. "Seinfeld turned each episode into a small film using 20 to 30 scenes and weaving five to seven story lines together simultaneously. It was one of the first comedies built for a contemporary audience who could keep up with the numerous stories and quick scenes. It's smart and respects the intelligence of the viewers."

Littlefield is seconded - and then some - by Amy McWilliams of Texas A&M; University in her article "Genre Expectations and Narrative Innovation in 'Seinfeld,'" one of a collection of academic essays on "Seinfeld" to be published in the forthcoming book "The Seinfeld Cosmos" (Syracuse University Press).

McWilliams chronicles several ways that "Seinfeld" takes the conventions of sitcom plotting and "toys" with them to parody the genre. She cites, as the most obvious example, last fall's "The Betrayal," an episode that ran backward like the Harold Pinter play of the same name.

But other new forms of TV storytelling could be found in "The Subway," in which the four friends take the subway to different destinations but never

intersect; and "The Chinese Restaurant," with Jerry, George and Elaine waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant, a table that never comes. And no, I didn't forget "Parking Garage" from 1991 - a brilliant episode spent in searching and trying to remember where the car was parked.

"Seinfeld" borrowed widely and wisely from other realms of popular culture for its narrative parody - even from Abraham Zapruder's 22-second home movie of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

While Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" from the 1950s and "M*A*S*H" in the 1970s rival "Seinfeld" when it comes to witty use of language, no other series has had as many of its wordplays become catch-phrases, from Soup Nazi to puffy shirt.

After the phrase "yada, yada, yada" was used on a show last season as a kind of verbal ellipses, the American Journalism Review counted 175 uses of it by journalists in major newspapers and magazines in just five weeks after the episode aired.

That kind of immediate cultural impact is impressive, but to be considered one of the greats, a television series has to plug into the deeper social currents of its time.

Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball), through her manic physical humor, gave comic expression to the frustration many women felt in America of the 1950s - what Betty Friedan termed "the problem that has no name" in her book "The Feminine Mystique."

With Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) and Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner), the resonance came in part from seeing the counterculture of the '60s banging heads with Richard Nixon's Silent Majority in a cramped living room in Queens. The same forces that threatened to tear America apart tested the Bunkers of "All in the Family" on a weekly basis.

"The Cosby Show," meanwhile, was about rebuilding families, as it reached back to an idealized 1950s - right down to the father in a sweater. That aspect of the series was a neat fit with the family-values rhetoric of the Reagan White House. But this family was African-American, and that was new for television - a black, middle-class family presented as not only normal but even ideal.

The legacy of "Seinfeld" is that, along with "The Simpsons" (both showsbecame weekly series in 1990), it was the first mainstream network sitcom with a full-blown postmodern sensibility.

Postmodernism is a big concept that has come to mean all kinds of things. But the basic premise stands in opposition to linear logic and the belief that mankind is on an automatic path of progress. Postmodernism tells the artist that all the originals have already been done and that he or she should find new ways to use those originals to startle, amuse or help us see the world in new ways.

With its postmodern sensibility, "Seinfeld" took a dying formula and reconnected it to the way millions of viewers were really feeling about their lives in the 1990s.

Whereas, say, "Roseanne" routinely ended on a sentimental, you're-the-greatest-babe hug between Dan and Rosie, "Seinfeld" consistently refused the phony finish that had been a sitcom staple for 40 years.

When Jerry messes up another relationship - this time because he can't remember his date's name - the episode doesn't end happily with him and the woman having a heart-to-heart. It ends with George and Jerry in Monk's restaurant comparing notes on women and coming up dry on how to relate.

"They're working on a whole other level from us," Jerry concludes.

Not much room for sentimentality here.

Postmodernism is sardonic; it's a dark view. But we can watch a postmodern sitcom like "Seinfeld" or "The Simpsons" and feel it connects with the truth of our experience. Viewers smile at the insight and find some comfort in the kinship they feel with Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer in the clean, well-lighted coffee shop.

But there's another way to read the darkness in "Seinfeld." Some critics see it as part of an emptiness - or, worse, a mean-spiritedness - at the heart of the series.

I watched "Seinfeld" as often as any sitcom during the '90s. I enjoyed the surreal lunacy of Kramer deciding he could live in his shower if only he could install a garbage disposal, or George saying he was a marine biologist and suddenly being confronted with a beached whale and a mob calling for a marine biologist to save it. There is even a kind of narrative genius at work when George saves the whale by pulling a golf ball from its blow hole - a ball hit there by Kramer.

But, in going back through many hours of "Seinfeld" tapes, I also was struck by what could be interpreted as an affirmation of materialism, narcissism, adolescence and exclusion.

In this reading, "Seinfeld" seems to be speaking to the haves by making have-nots the butt of some of the biggest jokes. Take the episode last month in which Kramer and Newman (Wayne Knight) decide to start a rickshaw business. When Jerry asks who will pull the rickshaws around Manhattan, the two knuckleheads are befuddled. Then inspiration strikes: They will use homeless people.

At first, I laughed - actually laughed out loud at the outrageousness of it. But then one of the homeless men who "auditions" for the job behaves as if he's some sort of crazed military veteran. He looks to be of Vietnam War age.

I stopped laughing and started to get mad - maybe about the possible depiction of a vet, or maybe about that war and what it did to some of those who couldn't afford to buy deferments.

And as for adolescent behavior, how about Jerry and his date making out in the movie theater during "Schindler's List"?

Satire should offend. And I wouldn't complain about the occasional excess if "Seinfeld" really was the "equal opportunity offender" Seinfeld and 50-year-old co-creator Larry David claim it to be. But in a Playboy interview in 1993, Seinfeld said the series did pull its punches with one group: African-Americans.

"We wanted to do a show in which Elaine would be stuck in a subway and miss her stop and be on her way to Harlem. Kind of explore her fear of having to get off the subway in Harlem. We couldn't find a way to do it without people getting the wrong impression," Seinfeld said.

" 'Seinfeld's' lasting contribution, if it has one, is that it has opened up so many possibilities for crassness," says David Lavery, professor at Middle Tennessee State University and editor of the "The Seinfeld Cosmos."

Lavery points to "The Junior Mints" episode from 1993, in which Jerry and the gang visit a hospital and decide to watch an operation. During it, a Junior Mint is inadvertently dropped into a patient's opened body cavity. It is played for laughs - just as the guy with the deficient immune system is played for laughs in "The Bubble Boy."

"My god, it's so cold and unfeeling - just like when George's fiancee dies from licking cheap glue on the wedding invitations. That coldness is at the heart of 'Seinfeld.'

"The whole show is narcissistic and puerile. If you and I met, and you turned out to be like any of these people, I'd never want to see you again. Yet, millions of people love this show," Lavery said.

I do love the show," says Seth Giller, one of the 13 Hagerstown Hall students who have stayed in the lounge to discuss "Seinfeld" after the episode ends.

"I love the writing. Larry David [co-creator of 'Seinfeld'] packs so much into it with all the twists and fast scenes. And the satire is so smart. It's funny and honest and true to life," he adds.

Giller and the other students in the lounge make for a diverse group: seven men and six women; three African-Americans, one Asian-American, two Jews, one Hispanic student. They all especially like the similarities between their living situations and that of the four television friends.

"Kramer lives on my floor," says one student.

"My boyfriend is just like George and Jerry - bitter like George and sarcastic like Jerry, but funny, too," says another.

"That could be Hagerstown Hall," says Rob Peters, 21, a junior in American studies. "People walking in your door like Kramer. People trying to get buzzed in by you downstairs. Jerry and Kramer could be living here. In fact, Jerry's whole life is just like ours, except he has money."

Eventually, the group dwindles to just Peters, Giller and Jennah Billeter, a 21-year-old junior. The three - each a top student involved in an array ofextracurricular activities - are great friends and serious "Seinfeld" fans.

"I know what you're saying - or asking - with questions about materialism and like the rickshaw episode, for example," Peters says. "But I think Seinfeld is satirizing the situation, not advocating it."

The discussion turns to a phrase that Larry David often uses about the show: "no hugging, no learning." How you interpret that core statement - the show is completely cold at heart or committed to a postmodern honesty even when it hurts - pretty much decides which side of the fence you come down on in the debate over "Seinfeld" and its legacy.

" 'No hugging, no learning' just means it won't be phony or take the easy, sentimental way out," Giller said.

Giller, Billeter and Peters - along with a fourth student who is not here because she had to work - have been watching the show religiously since they were 13 and 14 years old and are downright passionate in their belief that there is a real friendship and warmth among Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. In fact, Peters told me later, they model their friendship on that of the "Seinfeld" four - right down to meeting at a favorite coffee shop.

"That friendship is what makes the show special," says Billeter.

I got a glimpse of what they might have learned about friendship during those formative years late in the evening after we had just about talked the sitcom to death.

While Billeter and Peters have one more year at College Park, Giller isheaded to an internship in Congress and then law school next month. ("And then president of the United States with jobs for me and Jennah," Peters says.)

Giller is brimming with excitement about the future. But, when I ask him if he thinks he will miss the community he is leaving behind to live alone in an efficiency in Foggy Bottom, his voice sounds truly sad.

Billeter, who is standing off to the side, hears the sound in his voice, too. Instantly, she is standing next to him with a hand on his shoulder.

"Hey, we'll be here for you, you know that," she says. "We'll always be here for each other."

Jerry Seinfeld might disagree, but it's close enough to a hug for me.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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