Seinfeld is not, as it is often claimed to be, ‘a show about nothing’. There is a definite subject-matter to the show. I aim to describe what this subject-matter is and to offer insight into how the show works.
The show is about certain kinds of judgments that we make about others. Specifically, judgments we make in evaluating the behaviour of others and when are unsure of whether we are being too critical or whether what the person is doing is simply weird. We can see this best by looking at the characters.
George is the ultimate neurotic. He judges every aspect of himself to the point where he paralyses his own ambition. Worse, he judges others by an even higher standard than he judges himself. The slightest odd trait is enough for George to dismiss somebody. And he regularly does – every episode another new character enters the show only to be dismissed by the end for some bizarre offence. George is always in favour of dismissing the new characters.
There is also an ambiguity that keeps the audience wondering whether George is as neurotic as this makes him seem. Perhaps George is neurotic but maybe these characters really are weirdos. The world is, afterall, full of weirdos. Kramer is living proof of this saying. His main function in the show is to prove how weird an apparently-normal human being can be. In fact, he is so weird that George, Jerry and Elaine do not take him seriously.
Jerry might at first glance appear to be the voice of reason – the character that the audience can identify with. Jerry is successful and possesses the social skills that George lacks. More importantly for the audience, he is also the title character of the show. However, Jerry is a neurotic too. He regularly dismisses girlfriends for the slightest of odd habits. Further, whenever a new character displays any odd trait, he and George almost always agree on just how weird this character is.
The closest thing to a voice of reason that the show has is Elaine. In many episodes Elaine tries to defend the new character from Jerry and George’s dismissal, only to fail so that the episode ends with just the original group of four. Another common line of development is that Elaine describes something that a new character has done to Jerry and George and they then persuade her of how weird this character is. Elaine’s good instincts are to be blissfully unaware of other people’s small failings. Jerry and George corrupt her to their way of blowing small failings out of all proportion.
In episodes where Elaine is corrupted, the role of voice of reason is transferred solely onto the new character. This ‘external’ character (i.e. external to the main four) is generally the centre of the episode. The discussion of the characters will revolve around the external character. But the external character is actually given very little exposure. The audience thus finds it hard to identify with them and gets sucked (along with Elaine) into George and Jerry’s neurotic world.
The writers are very aware that their characters have deep failings. Because of their failings, the characters make no progress in their lives. Indeed, George positively revels in his failings. As the ultimate expression of narcissism, George and Jerry write a TV show about their own lives. The self-reference here is obvious – the writers are saying that this is what they did with Seinfeld. George and Jerry proclaim that they are writing a ‘show about nothing’. It is for this reason that Seinfeld is taken as being ‘a show about nothing’.
There is a sense in which the show can be called a show about nothing. This is because the neurotic tendencies of George and Jerry are so widespread as to be almost unnoticeable. In this sense the show is about something so everyday that you can almost call it nothing. But there is something quite deep working within the everyday and it is this depth that the show exploits.
Back to Bigger Than Jesus