Some TV shows are classics because of all the followers they influenced. Seinfeld is one great that's never truly been imitated.
When Fox unveiled its 2014-15 schedule to advertisers in May, soon-to-be-former network head Kevin Reilly introduced one of its new sitcoms, Mulaney, as having “the makings of a Seinfeld for a new generation.” It was an eyebrow-raiser, partly because (1) talk about setting the bar high for the poor show and (2) how many shows over the past 25 years have even tried, let alone been able to legitimately claim, to be the next Seinfeld?
There’s a lot of talk around the show’s quarter-century anniversary (July 5) about its legacy, and sure, it has plenty, beyond its continuing ubiquity, quotability and popularity in reruns. You could argue that it allowed future sitcoms to assume a more sophisticated comedy audience (OK, though it’s not like Cheers was exactly Hee Haw). In New York magazine, Matt Zoller Seitz argues incisively that its influence was at least as much in drama as comedy, as its unlikeable-yet-much-loved characters “paved the way” for antiheroes like Tony Soprano.
And yet–as maybe befits a show that didn’t go soft and have its characters start families–Seinfeld doesn’t have nearly as many kids running around the neighborhood as its contemporaries or followers. Friends begat a zillion young-adult hangout comedies. The surrogate-family structure of Cheers is everywhere, as is the reality-TV influenced mock-realism of The Office and the machine-gun jokestream of The Simpsons. The X-Files, Lost, The Sopranos, American Idol have been relentlessly homaged and stolen from.
Seinfeld, on the other hand, is at best echoed, and only rarely well. Excepting Curb Your Enthusiasm–can Larry David be influenced by himself?–maybe the only current comedy that’s reproduced Seinfeld‘s gleeful mercenary approach to comedy is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For the most part, though, after 25 years, Seinfeld is like its quartet of incarcerated characters were at the end of its finale–alone in its world, sufficient unto itself.
That’s not a criticism of Seinfeld. It’s one more reason the show is great.
There’s a tendency in criticism, not just TV criticism, to define greatness by influence. Great artists don’t just paint canvases, they launch movements. Great musicians pass on their DNA–like The Velvet Underground, of whom it was said everyone who bought their first album started a band. Maybe it’s a way of quantifying what’s ultimately a subjective judgment: if you can point to a legacy, to followers, to a school, you’re saying that history agrees with your verdict.
Influence is one measure of greatness, but another, opposite one is inimitability. Some great art reproduces virally. And some is the product of a perspective (or in the case of Seinfeld and David, two) that nature can’t come up with twice. There will always be wild-eyed poets, but there was exactly one William Blake.
Which is why in many ways Seinfeld seems as different from anything on the air today as it did 25 years ago. (OK, 24 years ago–it took a while for Seinfeld to really become Seinfeld.) It has a comedian’s purity of focus on the sanctity of the joke above all–above sentiment, “relatability,” larger social meaning–that still feels bracingly we-don’t-give-a-damn. (Bryan Cranston’s dentist, who converted to Judaism out of no larger social agenda but simply “for the jokes” may have been the most echt-Seinfeldian of all Seinfeld bit characters.) Sex and the City mirrored its quartet structure and observed New York City minutely, but God help Seinfeld if it ever tapped out a what-it-all-means on its laptop. There are many sitcoms today of equal or greater ambition, but Louie and Girls, say, are still devoted to being about things: Jerry, George and company would sooner spend life in prison than wax philosophical about love or be the voice of anyone’s generation, even ironically.
And “no hugging, no learning”? Cosby-esque “learning” may be out of fashion but there’s plenty of hugging on the brilliant likes of Parks and Recreation. Arrested Development had a Seinfeldian darkness, but it still told you that family was more important than breakfast. (Jerry had a kitchen full of cereal to refute that argument.) Hell, even antihero dramas like Breaking Bad assume a moral universe of good and bad and judgment. George may not have poisoned his wedding envelopes, but his shrugging off Susan’s death was in its way colder and more gangster than anything Walter White did with Lily of the Valley.
People have had a lot of fun imagining how Seinfeld might be received today in the Outrage Dome of social media. College Humor, for instance, wondered what if would be like “If People Talked About Seinfeld Like They Talk About Girls.” It’s a funny bit, but in fact people did assail the show’s whiteness and privilege back then, its racial missteps like the Puerto Rican Day Parade episode and its alleged nihilism–there just weren’t as many platforms to do it from. The Twitter account Modern Seinfeld, likewise, imagines the show in the era of Instagram, but honestly, there’s no modernizing Seinfeld: it’s as audacious, timeless, and unparalleled as when it was made.
Which is why I don’t expect, or really want, ever to see a “Seinfeld for a new generation”: the show exists outside generations and time. Oh, and Mulaney? I’ve seen the pilot. It’s fine, and there are some superficial Seinfeld similarities (standup comedy segments, friends hanging out in the lead character’s apartment) but it probably needs time to find itself, just like a certain sitcom did 25 years ago. If it does–who knows?–it could become something that is like nothing else. This is the Zen koan of TV comedy: How do you become the next Seinfeld? By not being it.