Thursday, May 8, 2008

Must-See TV, Indeed

Wow, time goes fast.

I hadn't realized until seeing related stories at EW and Newsweek that Seinfeld yada-yada-yadad its last a decade ago this week. In some ways it seems possible; my life is a lot different now than when I cozied up to Jason on the couch in our tiny Falmouth apartment to watch that finale 1o years ago. But then again...10 years! I never wanted to believe my mom when she used to tell me that time goes by faster the older you get, but like most other things, she was right. I am going to turn around one day and be an old woman and have no idea how or when it happened.


Until I started reading these articles about Seinfeld and how it has or has not stayed relevant, I hadn't really thought about how different TV is now. Thursday night is still my big TV-watching night, the only night of the week where I put Ainsley in bed and surrender completely to the entire prime-time block. I don't stay on NBC the whole night anymore; I switch over to Lost at 10. But even on NBC, that former Must-See TV monopoly has changed. Scrubs, The Office, and 30 Rock are three of my favorite shows, but they are worlds different from Friends, Seinfeld, and Frasier. And I am not even going to talk about ER, seeing as how most people agree it should have taken a bow around the same time they killed of Dr. Greene.

My three favorite current "sitcoms", Scrubs, The Office, and 30 Rock, look and sound nothing like the old Thursday night block. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm just saying it's different. These current shows follow Seinfeld's lead in many ways; all three get at least some of their humor from absurd situations that exaggerate, if not defy, reality. All three are smart and require some degree of intelligence and education to fully appreciate (two weeks ago 30 Rock did a spoof of the movie Amadeus in a storyline linking that high-brow Academy-Award nominee and porn.) But I don't know if these three shows are as "escapist" as Seinfeld.

When Seinfeld aired its last episode, I was in what would be my last year as a high-school English teacher. At that time in my life more than any other, Thursday-night TV was the relaxing, couch-coma-inducing goal for the week. If I could make it until 8pm on Thursday night without strangling a kid, or cussing out a parent, or calling my principal a mouth-breathing moron, I would get enough R and R during Must-See TV to make it through Friday and further decompress over the weekend. I even had an assistant principal tell me once, after she and I had had a pow-wow over a student of mine who we were both at the end of our ropes about, "At least it's Thursday. Go home and watch some good TV tonight and we'll feel better about this tomorrow." I didn't really have to think too much, or care about the characters, to appreciate the humor and get a few good belly laughs.

Each of my new favorite comedy TV-shows with the exception of 30 Rock have made me cry at some point or other. (Not to say Tina Fey and Co. won't have a serious moment down the road, though so far it's sticking to the Seinfeld formula of making the central characters self-centered enough that you don't get too emotionally attached to them.) In the middle of all the craziness of any episode of Scrubs or The Office, they sometimes throw a very real moment at you. Like when Dr. Cox had an emotional breakdown following the death of a patient due to an infected transplant organ he had authorized. Or when Jim tearfully told Pam, "Don't do that," after he had opened his heart to her only to have her call him her best friend in The Office. Sitcoms are much different than they were ten years ago when Seinfeld was king. There's a lot more heart, but I'm not sure there's more laughter.

Yes, all three of my new Thursday-night staples make me laugh out loud. But sometimes, on The Office in particular, the source of the humor is awkwardness that makes me laugh a little but then hide my eyes because I just can't watch people embarrass themselves. All three are serialized in the sense that there are storylines that continue for multiple episodes or seasons; if you haven't been with the show from the beginning, you might be lost or sit there wondering what all the fuss is about. The new breed of sitcom is very cathartic; on any given Thursday, I am going to experience a wide range of emotions. It's no longer just about making you laugh.

Time will tell if these new breeds translate well ten years past their runs. My guess is that they will still hold their charm for the same group of people who watch them now, because we will be the ones to run across a previously-aired episode on cable and know, "Oh, this is the one where Jim leaves Karen stranded in New York and finally gets Pam to go out with him--hooray!" We'll have the context to enjoy the re-run. It's probably not going to win new fans, though.

And that's probably the enduring genius of Seinfeld.

I didn't watch Seinfeld with any regularity until its 8th season. I was too busy being a student for most of its run. I caught a show here and a show there during breaks from school, but I didn't get hooked until my first year teaching when I so badly needed that escapism. The episode that really sealed the deal for me? Elaine's dancing. I will never forget watching TV with my mother (I lived at home that first year on the job) and both of us laughing until we cried as Elaine did her "full-body dry heave." You do not need to have seen other episodes to get your funny bone ticked by that one.

Just yesterday as I was flipping through channels up at the gym I caught the opening scene of that same episode. Just like when I first saw it, I got the giggles.

More days than not, either Jason or me will make a reference to some moment from Seinfeld. When Ainsley mumbles, I've told her to stop being a "low talker." When I can't open a jar, I wish out loud to have "man hands." If I smell something foul, I channel Kramer and blame it on "Rusty" and the Beef-a-rino. At least once in the 95-degree temperatures we suffered through on the Disney World trip I cried out, "The heat! My God, the heat!" just like Elaine did when Puddy told her she was going to hell. Just last week, when the Japanese restaurant I had made a reservation at to celebrate Jason's and my mom's birthday told us we would still have to wait for a table to open up, I turned to Jason and said in my best Jerry imitation, "You know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation. And that's really the most important part of the reservation." And the list goes on.

Ten years later, how do you think the show about nothing holds up? Were you a fan back in the day? If so, chime in below with your favorite moments.

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