Once More, With Feeling

Watching Seinfeld six days a week makes one long for the golden age of syndication

The prime text here, though, is Seinfeld. Consider the famous Keith Hernandez-spitting episode that parodies the "back-and-to-the-left" courtroom summation from Oliver Stone's JFK. Sure it's hilarious, but what exactly is being parodied? To what end? The whole sequence can't gain in meaning with the passage of time--it didn't have any to start with. That's a loss, and ironize as we might, Greg Brady's one-episode hippie phase at least reached out to 1973 kids rather than reveling in its own insularity.

Reruns are the primal scene of viewing, distilling what media scholars call TV's "flow" into its simplest component. They trap you in an endless yet ever-changing present, where it's always 1956 or 1967 or 1982, with each universe seamlessly melding into the next yet remaining coherent unto itself. With contemporary syndicated programs, by contrast, you float free from history, untied from all those nagging referents that make even bad TV a useful compass.

Consider a literary analogy: The presiding genius of old syndicated programs was like Borges's Pierre Menard, who imagined Don Quixote whole, all by himself, without ever reading or even hearing of the original. Whose creative effort is the greater, Borges asked--that of Cervantes in the 16th Century or that of Menard today, throwing his mind back to create as though that world were his? Similarly, impulses nurtured by bad syndicated TV made for defining art in the most basic modernist sense: Be that QT tossing Kubrick gangster angst into HK gunplay, then hitting liquefy; or Cobain mainlining Black Sabbath and the Pixies. (Admittedly, we need to blame Puffy Combs and Hollywood muggings like Dragnet, McHale's Navy, and My Favorite Martian on this aesthetic, too, so the account isn't exactly clear.) Seinfeld art, in contrast, is a Mark Leyner novel--maniacally referential, winking so self-consciously that you'd think you were in a staring contest against someone with a facial tic.

Corey Anderson

Jerry et al. weren't of their time in 1992 and they won't be any more relevant or informative in 2002, either. I recognized and resented the badness of the Bradys and Munsters when I fell captive to them at age 12, but in retrospect the lameness of these shows gave birth to surprisingly fertile impulses. Can their descendants--the Wings, Friends, and friends of Friends--achieve anywhere near as much? Joyce famously wrote that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake; watching the new crop of syndicated shows makes me wish for sleep again.

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