Once More, With Feeling

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

For anyone who grew up in the Seventies, bad syndicated TV amounted to a generational inheritance: They're our modernist texts, classic narratives examined so minutely that the actual image has become grainy: Marcia gets nailed by the football and her nose swells up, then she's dumped by that cute jock who made her dump the nerd, and the jock says, "something suddenly came up," just like she did and it's really Alanis ironic. Or think of the Dostoyevskian sense of dashed redemption in Gilligan's Island, like when the Soviet Cosmonauts splash down in the lagoon and scheme communistically against the castaways, only to be repelled by Gilligan's implacable stupidity, and everybody could have escaped but then maybe they're kind of happier where they are.

Even such weak wisdom as this has achieved its own version of cultural syndication, going from zines to Reality Bites to the TV commercial, where all cultural artifacts meet their end in the grinder of commerce. Whether you love or hate the fact that reheating has proven this decade's defining cultural metaphor, its truth is inescapable. "Make it new," Ezra Pound famously cried, outlining the modernist project to tear down the old. "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you!" go NBC's teasers for series rehashes, suggesting that more of the same will do you just fine. It bears mention that we leave the Nineties poised to elect as president a man whose central qualification is that Dad kind of had good ratings, at least for a while there, so why not catch the sequel?

But now the canonical syndicated program, the bad Seventies sitcom cycling endlessly before our glazed stares like some horribly apposite sentence from Greek mythology, is passing from the scene. Fenced off in secured areas like Nick at Nite's block schedules, these shows have already done their evil. And there's nothing to replace them: With viewers free to roam to cable or the Web, no one will be chained to the rock of Home Improvement or Kate & Allie except by choice. What's arisen is a leaner, self-aware species. The new syndicated program has had to make its way in a world where predators threaten from all sides. While the original crew of the Enterprise were famously paid Tribbles for their ceaseless syndicated voyages around the dial, today even the stars are savvier: David Duchovny has sued Fox for selling off rights to The X-Files to its own affiliates for what, he charged, was an unconscionably low price.

The new rulers of the syndicated universe dismantle themselves before your eyes; they look as fully two-dimensional as the cutouts they were in the first place. Those famous Seinfeld precepts--no learning, no growth, no change--reveal themselves to be perfect tenets for contemporary syndication. Withering himself with his own hate, George will always be irreducibly George, now and forever. Frasier, too, with its short-story intertitles, pours itself out quickly enough for you to catch two good bits between the end of that HBO movie and the news. Cops, all sensation, provides a perfect hit or two when The Practice takes a commercial break.

But something has been lost here. Classic reruns found history in a grain of humor. The sitcom blossomed and the nuclear family fissured: from Ricardos and Petries to Partridges and Bundys. Teens gained zits; lost innocence: Rick and David Nelson, Sweathogs, Angela, Buffy. Professionals suffered more, did the job less reliably: Dragnet, Emergency, St. Elsewhere, ER. Our American dilemma scampered into the open, then disappeared: Archie, Jeffersons, Good Times, Huxtables.

Old syndicated shows exhilarate with their stoic devotion to what once seemed normal: Picture Laura Petrie dusting the house in pearls. On Dragnet, Joe Friday and Bill Gannon always got their man, spreading police and tough love across hippie-era L.A. See Joe's privates? You never even glimpsed his private life. Mary Richards dated around back when Calista Flockhart was spitting up baby food.

Sometimes you even stumble across some reassuringly modern figure, grinning out across the decades. Archie Bunker, his ethnicity a puzzle, retains his power to outrage in these touchy days. In the Nineties he would sling insults Howard Stern-style, not to mention publish best-selling do-for-yourself rants. (Inaugural volume: That's My Chair, Meathead!) Eddie Haskell's slackerdom puts putative beatnik Dobie Gillis to shame. You can imagine him slipping June a lid or two to lighten up her vacuuming, then heading back home to slouch, guilt-free, until dinner. And Lucy, poor Lucy, so obviously oppressed by a husband terrified of her supreme gifts, always launches and then abandons her own self-rescue projects--inaugurating a self-abnegating model of charmed/damned womanhood that rules television to this day.

These shows can still be found, of course: Every one of them is probably screening right now, be it in a veterans' hospital in Boston or a mud hut in Borneo. But gone is the obligation to watch them--the involuntary viewings brought on by sick days from school or long afternoons in grandpa's condo in Arizona. Most of what has made it to syndicated heaven these days is aggressively ahistorical, evading contemporary reference with a doggedness that feels intentional. (When was the determinedly retro Nanny made--1880? 1956?)

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.

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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