Vicarious living


A STUDENT, a career-changer who appears to be in her 40s, raises her hand. From the distraught, twisted look on her face, I can tell she has a disturbing question to raise. When called on, she stammers, "What are we going to do about class next Thursday? It's the last 'Seinfeld' episode."

The woman in my class lives a fragmented life, as do most Americans. She holds down a part-time job, attends school part-time, has kids whom she sees only on a part-time basis, and a husband who probably falls at the bottom rung of the part-time ladder. And yet she and millions of other Americans make a conscious effort to tune into their "must-see" TV shows on a regular basis.

For many people I know, it's "Seinfeld" or "Homicide." The fixation with these shows originates from separate camps. Those parked in front of the tube every Friday night at 10 comprise admirers of the synergy and raw energy that emanate from, and among, convincing actors who appear to "work" as a true team, hunting down bad guys to bring some semblance of justice to the mean streets of Baltimore.

In camp two, a night earlier, sit admirers of another sort of synergy, that which sparks from infectiously humorous conversations, unending wit, plus reels and reels of ridiculous situations that only a couple of close friends can ponder endlessly in each other's company -- preferably in a local diner.

What do the characters of these addictive shows provide for fragmented Americans that they themselves lack? My guess is something pretty simple, yet elusive: people spending time together.

In reality, few of us have the luxury of talking about a lot of nothing all day with a few close friends, as those on "Seinfeld" seem to. Nor do too many of our lives revolve around life-saving, crime-solving jobs in which we are partnered with colleagues to see us through thick and thin, buoying us in times of stress. But we have the power to live vicariously through characters who do.

And yet, I don't think many viewers aspire to fill the shoes of any individual character on their beloved shows. In all sincerity, how many people wish they walked in "Seinfeld's" George Castanza's shoes? Or "Homicide's" Giardello's for that matter?

But in "Homicide," as in "Seinfeld," a sense of community among the characters lures viewers back week after week. In both programs, the lines dividing the tenuous segments of life have been erased, replacing fragmentation with one-dimensional lives.

In "Seinfeld," scenes in Jerry's apartment and the diner lend cohesion to the characters' lives, minimizing intrusions like jobs and family. There they meet -- to regroup, to rehash, to vent. In "Homicide," it's in the unit, or the bar across the street, that characters break momentarily from their grueling work -- to regroup, to rehash, to vent. The homicide cops are rarely seen seeking solace from their family members. Essentially, their co-workers are their family members.

Jerry's apartment, the diner, the unit and the bar serve the same purpose that a household's dining room table once held. As family members regrouped, rehashed and vented, they were buoyed by their kin and prepared to meet the challenges of the outside world.

At the rate things are going, the term "dining room" will soon vanish from architectural plans altogether. In its place, I suppose an extended TV room will be erected.

Elizabeth Heubeck writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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