Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Heresy of Friends vs. the Orthodoxy of Seinfeld

Perhaps the two most enduring and popular sitcoms over the past twenty years have been Seinfeld and Friends. However, in spite of the fact that both of these shows enjoyed (and still enjoy) similar success, they are, in my view, at opposite ends of the spectrum. While the show Friends is built on a glamorous lie, Seinfeld, in stark contrast, is built on the exposure of that lie. Indeed, even while both shows frequently exhibit characters living immoral lives, of the two, only Seinfeld seems to be aware of this fact.

You might wonder why I choose to use theological terms for something that would generally be regarded as secular. The reason is simple: what a heresy is at its core is a spiritual shortcut, an alternate (and often easier) route to get to a desirous end. What orthodoxy represents (at least in this instance) is an attempt to expose a falsehood by demonstrating in reality the fate of those who actually live this lie.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the show Friends is not the only TV series that has made a living off of this kind of deceitful and misleading narrative. From Three's Company to Frasier to Cheers to Two and a Half Men, there is a longstanding tradition of promising a kind of "happily ever after" in spite of unscrupulous behavior.

But what exactly is the nature of this narrative? In essence it is the view (as perfected by the show Friends) that the goal of life is to maintain a kind of adolescent charm. The cult of cool demands that I be always fashionable, witty, attractive- and whether I have pets or children (which often amounts to the same thing), they must never become more than a projection of myself. If I do choose to have children it is preferable that they be the result of cohabitation, surrogacy, a sperm donor, or some other non-conventioal method (e.g. Phoebe and Ross). If they happen to be born in the context of marriage, so be it (sigh), but make sure that you make it look as arbitrary and as unintended as possible. Whatever happens, you mustn't let your audience think that you prefer children to be born in the context of a conventional marriage. If such a connection is unfortunately made, then make it clear that not one of these aforementioned circumstances is preferred to the other. In fact, go out of your way to make marriage seem the least desirable arrangement, lest people begin to judge the other characters on this basis.

As a favor to her brother Phoebe agrees to carry a child for him and his older wife. How's that for a clever way of introducing a weird incestuous plot line into a popular show? 

Speaking of sex, which is really the entire engine of this particular lie, make sure that the sex is always as sexless as possible. In other words, present the men as a race of testosterone-filled geldings with a side of sensitivity, and make the women seem perfectly content to play along with this godforsaken behavior (remember that hilarious episode where Chandler and Joey kept compulsively watching porn… a riot I tell you). And just for the fun of it, on occasion, you might want to make the women seem more sex-starved and exploitative than the men. This is the kind of equality we're after… equality of libido. Indeed, insofar as it is possible, make the men and women (in this way) morally indistinguishable, so that whomever they sleep with- and under what circumstances- it will matter very little. Now in order to appear somewhat responsible in such affairs, it may be necessary that every once in a while you have an episode about violence and/or sexual assault, but keep these few and far between, because if we seem to be too concerned about the right use of sexual behavior, people may begin to associate negative consequences with bedding complete, or at least relative, strangers.

What might also be useful in this project is to blur the lines between platonic friendships and romance. After all, it is not enough to create sexual tension among "friends" (like Three's Company used to do), we must regard such reckless bed-hopping as a form of hilarity. And furthermore, let this bed-hopping be so ubiquitous that one actually loses track of who has slept with who. Such "friendships" should seem inevitable. In fact, let the audience believe that one cannot be friends with someone unless that friendship ultimately culminates in some sort of "romantic interlude"- the only real question is, when will it occur?  SNL even quipped about this some years back in one of their satirical commercials; "Tonight on a very special episode of Friends, Chandler and Joey get together. Why? Because there's no one left…" Brilliant! But the question is, why is such a critique funny at all, when, as a general rule, we do not find their behavior problematic?

Isn't it great to know that over the nine years that this show was in primetime these lovable characters collectively slept with up to 140 people (some Friends enthusiast actually calculated it), and all this without any real consequences at all. So how does one end a show wherein no one is really capable of a stable relationship? Well, of course, you have them ride off into the sunset with a guarantee that they will live happily ever after with whomever they are last paired. This is one of the advantages of writing a last episode- you are not responsible for developing a story line around conjugal fidelity. Nevertheless, one might wonder why the virtue of sexual and moral fidelity would be the concluding mark of a show where the only real constant was inconstancy.

It is worth noting that most shows like this do end with some sort of romantic vow, even while spending the rest of the time on the air crapping on said vow. Yet in spite of this hypocrisy, people are willing to accept the lie that sex means everything and nothing at the same time, and that furthermore such promiscuity will not only not harm these individuals, but that it really is the key to their youth and charm.

In so many ways Seinfeld is a marvelous antidote to this. There is not a thing wrong with depicting immoral or evil characters on TV and in movies- what is shameful is pretending as if those characters (along with their behavior) are reputable and exemplary. The show Seinfeld basically existed to mock people that live like this, and better still in the end, to mock even those that would have sought to celebrate and/or emulate these figures.

In a stroke of genius, Jerry Seinfeld (along with the co-creator Larry David) sought, in the final episode, to offer a bit of perspective on just how shallow and narcissistic these characters were. In point of fact, Elaine, Jerry, George, and Kramer were in many ways not all that different from the cast members of Friends. They were all basically promiscuous, narcissistic, over-grown children who were more interested in being clever and fashionable than growing up. Yet in spite of these similarities, the two shows ended very differeently.

In the final episode of Seinfeld they all travel to Paris together on vacation, but due to Kramer's clumsiness the plane begins to take a nose dive. Such is the perfect set-up for a dramatic (and ironic) conclusion to the series. Most people look for the final episode to be heartwarming- and for there to be some sort of resolution to any relationship drama. But that's precisely where this show is honest in a way that most others are not. The point is these characters are completely narcissistic, so why would they all of sudden become models of virtue in the last episode. "We aren't men!" as Jerry once declared to George. Consequently, when the plane goes down and the various characters start to feel the need to express their true feelings to one another, they are unceremoniously interrupted by the fact that the pilot has gained control of the plane once again. It is almost as if the writers are mocking the idea that the show should end with some sort of sincere testimony, when these characters are practically incapable of such sincerity. Appropriately the plane, as well as the plot, is re-routed to Boston, where the passengers are able to get out and walk around the neighboring town of Latham until the problem is fixed.

While there, they are arrested for essentially watching (and laughing) as an obese man is robbed. Under the so called Good Samaritan law, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are arrested and brought to trial on account of the fact that they did "nothing" to help him. Many of the people they encountered and/or wronged over the years are brought in to testify against them. All four of the defendants are ultimately sentenced to one year in prison for their failure to assist a citizen in need. What is incredibly apropos about this trial is the fact that these characters are not convicted for murder or fraud, but rather for being awful human beings. Especially in an age where we regard "goodness" as tantamount to having a pleasant disposition, this conclusion reminds us that while we loved watching these characters, they are exactly where they belong.

Many critics and fans despised (and decried) this conclusion because they felt that it was an insult to the fans who had loved and followed these characters over the years. For my part, I felt that it was not only consistent with the spirit of the show, but in some ways a rather philosophically astute end to it. Indeed, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, and Dante could hardly have invented a more innovative modern hell for these Godot-like figures, who never get anywhere in their lives, feel nothing for their victims, and simply wind up repeating the same mistakes over and over again with no real sense of contrition (in the final moments of this episode the characters reenact the same dialogue that took place between George and Jerry in the very first episode). They never grow or change. They are like the tragic and pitiful ghosts from the famous C.S. Lewis' novel The Great Divorce. All of them are sitting in a holding cell together, either quipping about something, annoying someone, or brooding over the unjust fate that has befallen them. In truth if Friends were as honest as Seinfeld, the final episode would have ended with a least a few of the characters contracting some sort of venereal disease. This is why Jerry Seinfeld is a genius, and why the show Friends, while clever, is ultimately little more than a clever lie. For in case of the former, we are taught to laugh at the characters because they are complete and utter fools, while in the case of the latter, we are invited to laugh at them so that their behavior might seem to us progressively more palatable. If you are looking to cure yourself of this infernal malady, simply watch the below clip ten times in a row without pausing:




  1. interesting perspective. i’m a diehard fan of both, but prefer seinfeld to friends for the reason of craft alone. seinfeld’s premise and self-awareness are much stronger than friends’s, as you pointed out. in fact, friends doesn’t seem to be self-aware at all, except for in one instance when joey points out that none of the friends ever gets anywhere in life because they’re at the coffeehouse all the time—he says this, of course, while they’re all at the coffeehouse during working hours. the other friends immediately get up, presumably to head off to work. self-awareness is crucial because it’s the prerequisite for authenticity, which friends lacks and which seinfeld seems to burst of. but that’s all invisible ink. in terms of what we can see and hear, they’re pretty much neck and neck, with friends maybe getting the edge with more laugh-out-loud moments.

    i think both shows are a product of their time, but in very different ways. friends played to the young crowd that, as you put it in different terms, wants to be cool and fashionable. that means having to be a variety of things, including promiscuous, PC, left-leaning, materialistic, and beautiful (everyone’s good-looking, at least relative to seinfeld’s cast) to name a few. none of this is mocked. seinfeld, on the other hand, because of its self-awareness, ripped all these notions to shreds while speaking to a different crowd: a less glamorous, perhaps uglier, older crowd that identifies with the lack of direction and purpose life has given us an abundance of, despite what our parents promised when we were kids.

    your analysis of seinfeld is nice, but i can’t get on board with people saying the show is a satire. satire tends to mock and poke fun at… with the subtextual purpose of wanting to make change. were david and seinfeld really crusading to get people to start living morally and purposefully by showing the pitfalls of acting immorally and hedonistically? i doubt it. their characters are blown-up versions of who they are in real life, and this is most pronounced on david’s curb. i think instead, david and seinfeld are just so damn self-aware and comedic at heart that the show is one big giant self-deprecation joke (something david is notorious for), in which they’re essentially saying to the audience, “this is who we are, and we know it’s funny.” in their eyes, life is meaningless, and they’re acknowledging the humor in that premise by showing story after story of it on the show. also, the fact that many of george’s antics and stories come from david only further illustrate this point that the show can’t be satirical (david is never saying don’t be like george by showing george do ridiculous things; rather, he thinks those things are genuinely funny and wants the audience to enjoy in that).

    overall, great read. thanks.

  2. I agree with Frankfollie, it doesn't seem like a satire to me. Sure the last episode is moralistic, but the show as a whole celebrates the narcissism of the main characters. It seems to suggest that life is ultimately absurd and meaningless, so anything goes. Why not laugh about it?

    I wonder about the subtle effect of such a message on a whole generation of people.