Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review - Seinfeldia

For a show about nothing, Seinfeld left a huge mark on television and popular culture. Its most memorable lines have been woven into our lexicon, the show’s sarcastic worldview is now omnipresent, and reruns continue airing more than eighteen years since the series finale. The only surprising part of Seinfeldia, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s love letter to Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer is that it took so long for someone to write a book about what remains one of television’s defining comedies. Armstrong writes with the passion of a super fan and the granularity of a Talmudic scholar. The book is littered with nuggets of trivia and an insider’s description of how television shows are made.

What began as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s meditation on the daily annoyances we experience and the quirks and idiosyncrasies we all share blossomed into a cultural juggernaut. The show’s brilliance goes without saying and any fan will smile inwardly as Armstrong tees up descriptions of beloved characters or episodes. But at the same time, the darker underbelly is also exposed. Writers were mined for personal stories that were turned into plot points only to be jettisoned at the end of each season like discarded pods from The Matrix, the production schedule was grueling and oftentimes chaotic, and, as the show grew in popularity, the coziness it began with gave way to a more corporate feel. 

David’s departure after the show’s seventh season left Seinfeld and a room full of twenty-something graduates of Harvard’s Lampoon to fill out the show’s last two seasons with uneven material. In its waning days, Seinfeld suffered controversy from a ham-handed plot line involving the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City and contract disputes that made cast members look rapacious or saintly (depending on your point of view). David returned to pen the show’s finale, but it was widely mocked, even though it hewed closely to the characters’ venality and the show’s mantra of “no hugging, no learning.” 

But in its zeal to cover the forest and the trees, Seinfeldia suffers from editorial drift. While it is interesting to note the cottage industry that has sprung up in the show’s aftermath, be it in the autograph/photo appearances still being made by bit players or the where-are-they-know types like the actress who posed as Rochelle for an eponymous movie poster, that type of ephemera is not what separates Seinfeld from other parts of our culture. After all, from Comic-Con to Lebowski Fest, passionate fan bases blend the fictional worlds of beloved characters with their real-time experiences. Far more could have been said about David’s brilliantly conceived Seinfeld reunion within the context of his own show Curb Your Enthusiasm, but instead, that decision is given about the same amount of book space as a wholly uninteresting anecdote about a beef between the purveyors of dueling Seinfeld parody Twitter accounts.

As befits a show obsessed with comic books, Seinfeldia is at its strongest when telling the show’s origin story. There, a mix of luck, fate, and talent turned an idea hatched in a New York City diner into one of the defining television shows of its era. And while we now think of the iconic “Fab Four,” Seinfeld had its own Pete Best, the drummer before The Beatles hit it big. That would be Lee Garlington, originally cast as the lead female character, but written out in favor of Julia Louis-Dreyfus when the show got a miniscule four-episode order. Actors playing both Jerry and George’s fathers were replaced as well and the real Kramer signed away the rights to use his name for practically nothing. The show also benefitted from being shepherded through the development process in NBC’s late night/specials division, which was free from many of the constraints of the prime-time programming shop. And had NBC canceled the show in its early days (executives fretted it was “too Jewish”), Fox stood ready to swoop in and pick it up. As Armstrong notes, a great what if of TV history – Seinfeld and The Simpsons could have incubated together under the Fox banner.

Armstrong’s passion for her subject is clear and she gives a wonderful behind the velvet rope peek into the show and its stars, but ultimately, Seinfeldia does not know what it wants to be. Is it a straight-forward chronology and history of the show or a meditation on its impact on popular culture? It succeeds as the former, but falls short as the latter. To take one example, Dylanologists is a book Seinfeldia aspires to be – focusing on the passion of Bob Dylan fans. It is a book in full that allows the author to stretch and weave together Dylan’s story with those of his most ardent loyalists. Here, we only get a Cliff Notes version of that phenomenon.

None of this should take away from a person’s enjoyment of this book and reliving the Junior Mint episode, Sue Ellen Mischke (the braless wonder), or the Little Kicks. Of course, if you set your DVR, you can also just watch them for yourself.

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