Since this is going to be an essay about confession, I might as well start with an admission of my own. The headline—“Why Seinfeld is the Worst Sitcom of All Time”—is clickbait. Yet in a theological sense, it’s also true.
I say this as a diehard fan of the series, someone who watched back when it first aired on NBC and will watch again when it comes to Netflix in October. Seinfeld was part of my regular television diet in high school, alongside Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. I even ducked out early from a prom weekend at a cottage so that my date and I could catch Jerry Seinfeld performing live in Chicago. (It’s no wonder that date would become my wife.) In our early married years, it was a weekly ritual to gather and watch the show with friends—preceded, of course, by Friends. During those first quarantining months of the COVID-19 pandemic, our family worked our way through the entire DVD set of the series. I think my high-school daughter might consider Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine something of a patron saint (or, at the very least, she admires her as the “queen of confrontation.”)
It wasn’t until that most recent revisit that I finally, seriously asked myself something I had long avoided: Why did I like Seinfeld so much? Surely I’d matured since high school, both emotionally and spiritually. A crass show featuring four selfish, narcissistic New Yorkers—a show so averse to goodness and growth that Jerry Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David famously held a mantra that there would be “no hugging and no learning”—should now be beneath me, if not something to entirely avoid.
I could offer alibis, claiming that I only appreciated the show on a technical level. The scripts were beautifully designed comic blueprints—not a joke wasted or oversold. The cast—not only Seinfeld as a version of himself and Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine, but also Jason Alexander as George and Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer—could make any sort of comedy, be it one-liners or slapstick, sing, especially in concert together. The situations were endlessly relatable, as when an entire episode took place during the agonizing wait for a table at a restaurant. Yet they could just as easily launch into hilarious absurdism. (Remember Kramer’s head on a roasted turkey?) But none of that is really why I watched Seinfeld.
During that viewing marathon with my family, one of the things we kept debating was which of the four main characters was the worst human being. They each provide evidence that could be brought before a court. When Jerry wasn’t selecting women to date as if he were ordering items from Amazon (and returning them as easily), he was stealing a marble rye from a little old lady (“Shut up, ya old bag!”). George’s crimes are endless, but knocking over children to escape a small apartment fire might be both legally and morally criminal. Kramer had his bad-faith lawsuits and insensitive theory of handicapped parking, while Elaine (with Kramer’s help) wasn’t above kidnapping dogs.
All four fail spectacularly to love thy neighbor—including even each other. (I guess you could consider Elaine throwing George’s toupee out of Jerry’s window a form of tough love, but she really did it because she was repulsed by the thing.) Watching Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer wreak social havoc across New York City in the lives of everyone they meet, friends and strangers alike, year after year, it’s as if they’re stuck in some sort of shared purgatory of their own picky making, an existential restaurant lobby. Their self-contained universe, governed only by their prickliest personal preferences, has no room for the needs of another. Perhaps the episode that best captured this quality was the one in which Kramer recreates the set of The Merv Griffin Show in his apartment and traps the other three there for a “recording.” Confused at first, they soon fall into their usual routines, ensconced within a bubble that’s within the narcissistic bubble they had already created.
But here’s the truth about Seinfeld. I watch the series not only because it’s hilarious (Kramer pausing, zombie-like, for a commercial break during his fake show is an inspired piece of comedy), but because it’s darkly aspirational. The humor is relatable in ways I’d rather not admit. Left to my own devices, this is how I would treat others. If I gave my instincts free rein, I’d serve my most inconsequential needs first. I know I should share, listen, make room—the things we were taught in preschool—but I’d much rather dismiss someone as a low talker or gossip about potentially fake breasts. And so watching Seinfeld is cathartic, even if it’s also damning.
TC Podcast: Bad Samaritans (Seinfeld, The Eyes of Tammy Faye)
The four clowns on Seinfeld don’t commit atrocities, but their way of moving in the world stands in stark contrast to the Christian life. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul instructs the church to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” The notion of dying to one’s self is woven throughout the gospel, as seen in letters from Paul to Peter, and most clearly modeled by Christ on the cross. The Christian’s priority list is clear: God, others, ourselves. Yes, “others” even includes Uncle Leo.
Of course, this isn’t easy. Original sin and our own idiosyncratic proclivities mean we’ll never quite extinguish the selfishness within us. What a relief that by confessing this, we are welcomed into a community of grace where we’ll find forgiveness—and the spiritual fortitude to do what we can, in gratitude, to keep that selfishness at bay.
Is there any confession in Seinfeld? At one point Jerry finds himself in an actual confessional (though sitting, not kneeling, and nothing of substance is confessed). Similarly, George is never more honest than when he propositions a woman with this: “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” But that too is part of one of his larger schemes. Truer is the look of panic in Jerry’s eyes as he runs away with the rye or in George’s when he tries to explain his flight from the fire to a responding firefighter who asks, “How do you live with yourself?” Sometimes we live with ourselves by watching Seinfeld.
The show’s true confession is the two-part series finale, in which the four friends are arrested in a small town for failing to help a man while his car was being stolen. (Instead, they make jokes to each other about his weight.) Jailed under a “Good Samaritan” law and put on trial, where testimony is given by aggrieved characters from throughout the show’s history, they’re found guilty of “criminal indifference.” In their shared cell, little contrition is expressed; instead they fall back into their nattering, self-centered routine, trapped in another purgatorial bubble. Conviction isn’t the same as repentance, after all.
I suppose that in gobbling up Seinfeld on Netflix, I’ll be confessing yet again, admitting to the many ways that being a good Samaritan doesn’t come naturally to me. Is it too much to consider watching these episodes a spiritual practice, a way of spending 22 minutes or so inside a sitcom confessional? Perhaps Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are my patron saints of confession, fictional reminders of the dead-end, narcissistic life I’m called away from and the flourishing life of community I’m invited into. “Serenity now!” George’s father infamously demanded. Seinfeld reminds us that it’s in serving others—not ourselves—that we’ll find it.