Twenty-five years ago this week, Seinfeld went off the air after 180 episodes. It was the rare show that was popular with both audiences and critics; in 2013, the Writers Guild of America voted it the No. 2 Best-Written TV Series of All Time, behind only The Sopranos.
The one-line description of the show was the innovative “A Show About Nothing.” But that isn’t accurate. It was actually a show about everything–everything that happens in the daily life of almost everyone. And that was its genius.
The primary cast involves four friends, all single and 30ish (and yes, all white), who get through life day by day. But unlike, say, I Love Lucy or MASH (also iconic and radical for their times), these were people with recognizable daily lives: battling an irresponsible dry cleaner; stubbornly competing for a parking space; getting a black-market showerhead after the landlord reduces the building’s water pressure.
A lot of the plot lines involved sex–sex the way a lot of people experience it. Elaine agonized about having sex with a really hot guy who is anti-choice; Jerry was wild about a large-breasted woman and couldn’t stop wondering if they were real or not; George dated his cousin to get his parents’ attention, and then couldn’t handle her unexpectedly high libido. And when Elaine’s form of contraception (the Today Sponge) is suddenly withdrawn from the market, she buys out the city’s dwindling supply, and then devises a questionnaire for each new lover to see if he’s “sponge-worthy.”
In addition to discussing contraception, the show was erotically innovative in other ways. It portrayed elderly people being frankly sexual (without that itself being a joke); mixed-race dating; a contest to see who could abstain from masturbation longest (they all lost); an obese person being asked for sex advice; a person with dwarfism dating; Elaine and a boyfriend rejecting the advice that they marry before having sex.
The plot of most episodes involved a character failing to keep a secret, or fibbing to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or desperately trying to get a simple piece of information but being inhibited by embarrassment. These people simply didn’t have the self-discipline, self-confidence, or self-awareness that grownup relationships need.
Of course, these are exactly the sort of people we all know. And these are exactly the qualities that make sex complicated for so many people. That’s a primary lesson that Seinfeld characters never learn: if you want to know, just ask; if you don’t want to do something, just say no; and if you’re confused or just don’t care, say so. These are far more important aspects of sexual satisfaction than the right toy, right position, or right new sexual orientation.
And maybe that’s why the show is having a renaissance among today’s young people (in addition to the fact that it’s hilarious). The show’s 30-somethings appear in no rush to grow up, couple up, or establish a household. They don’t generally challenge themselves, generally feeling content with their extended adolescence and sense of having all the time in the world. They don’t blame their frustrations on the economy, New York, or anything else. They just say a lot of unexpectedly funny things about ordinary situations and each other.
By the way, the episode’s large-breasted woman said, as she walked out on a dumbfounded Jerry, “by the way, they’re real. And magnificent. And you’ll never see them.” Just another ordinary day.