Sunday, August 28, 2016

Seinfeld and the Harmony of The Contest

The other night our channel surfing led us to a rerun of a particularly well remembered episode of Seinfeld – The Contest (I have since looked it up and it has been rated the best sitcom episode ever by TV Guide).  We did not see it from the beginning – and, despite three passes, I have never seen it from the beginning.  The first pass – in the old days – happened when we waited to see Seinfeld on Thursday nights.  I somehow missed the week it originally aired, but heard about the episode from many people.  A few years later, Seinfeld went into nightly reruns and there was a second wave of watching, and the current occasional watching is the third wave.  In the last two waves, I have caught the last two thirds or so of the episode.

When it was in its first run, NBC called the Thursday night line-up “must see TV”, and it, along with Friends, was the most popular television series in the US.  With the proliferation of channels and programming, no show will likely ever again match the simultaneous audience that it commanded.  That said, not everyone was a fan.   When we recently went to my Mother-in-law’s house, and I mentioned having seen the episode, she commented that she did not like watching the show because she didn’t like any of the characters.

There are four central characters.  Jerry Seinfeld plays a version of himself – a snarky single comedian who finds everyone else somewhat lacking and therefore has a kind of arch humor.  He is living in an apartment in Manhattan across the hall from Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) – a lanky, tall, scattered and apparently unemployed guy who mooches off of Jerry – using his food, clothing, and apartment with impunity; Jerry’s best friend from childhood, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), a perennial loser, and one of Jerry’s many ex-girlfriends, Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) round out the weekly cast, though there are various additional recurring roles, including George’s mother and father.

Frankly, I think one reason so many people like Seinfeld is that the central characters are so unlikeable.  This is because I think the characters present themselves in a bad – mostly self-interested – light.  They function in public the way that most of us experience ourselves functioning privately. The socially inappropriate comments they make are oddly familiar – they sound like the inaudibly articulated thoughts that we have and then quickly squelch, edit or discard so that they don’t get expressed out loud. I think that we fear that, if we were to express these thoughts, they would alienate others.  I think we even fear that to hear them ourselves would make us feel uncomfortable with who it is that we “really are”.

On Seinfeld, these thoughts that can’t be said are not just expressed and heard, but celebrated.  Despite their closest friends knowing just how despicable they are – knowing things that we fear that if others knew them about us they would beat a hasty retreat from us – this band of characters is able to maintain their social network – indeed, their casual and consistent contact is enviable.  Vicariously, then, we get to join their gang as another self-interested person who has thoughts that shouldn’t be spoken aloud and here, as we watch and, in so far as we identify with the characters, participate in the episodes, we are able to express our forbidden thoughts and to be accepted in spite of that.

Now I think my mother-in-law has a valid objection.  As an actual social group, the Seinfeld bunch leaves a great deal to be desired.  We would like a group like this to rein each other in – to raise the moral questions that they never seem to raise – or, when they do raise them, to not ignore them as quickly as they so consistently do.  They function more like the fraternity boys that Ryan Lachte was accused of emulating at the recent Olympics than “decent” human beings.  It is not always clear, but I think the self-conscious smirks at what they are doing (pitching a TV show to NBC about their lives – which will be a show about nothing) indicate it to be the case that they realize that this is morally reprehensible territory.  Certainly the final episode, where they are all thrown in jail for their manifold crimes against humanity across the course of the many seasons indicates an awareness of this.  And I think, then, that this is a representation of a fantasy – not a representation of reality.

If we accept that this is intended to be a fantasy rather than a representation of reality as lived (though I think we live in ways that are consistent with the show – probably more consistently in the wake of it because it has implicitly given us permission to do that), it is possible to imagine that this is not just a representation a social group, but also of a single person – with each character playing the part of an aspect of that person.  If we entertain this crazy idea for just a moment, we realize that the conglomeration is one that is less in tension with itself – the way that Freud posits humans are – and more in cahoots – egging itself on to do more and more outrageous stuff.  This, I think, feels freeing.  This group somehow has figured out how to avoid the frustration of constantly having to run into impediments to what they actually want to do – they have approached Freud’s jaundiced view that the only happy person is the one who can kill and get sexual gratification at will (a view that is, I think, naïve and at odds with the reality of what brings happiness to people – an example of carrying a theory to its logical, but clearly impossible, conclusion).

The irony, in so far as the show is suggesting that unbridled and unchecked/unedited reacting to things is the way to go, is that the show is so well crafted that it clearly required a great deal of effort on the part of the writers, actors and crew to create it.  This does not come about without discipline – which tamps down desires – and creates conflict – both between the members of the creative team and within the individuals.  George Costanza personifies this “neurotic” functioning most clearly.  He wants to do things but can’t quite bring himself to – he is hung up on some aspect of it.  He is all but bursting to do things, but also is aware of how people will perceive him if they catch him at it, so he is forever concocting feints about what he is doing, or lies to cover up what he has done.

One result of their craft is that we get to see aspects of our own tortured actual existences – as well as the idealized gratifying activities.  And part of what is gratifying about the way that the players engage in those activities is not just that the players are doing things – but they are expressing powerful emotions as they play– they are cathecting.  In one episode, George’s father demands, at the top of his lungs, “Serenity Now!”  The actors say the things that can’t be said and express them with such force that, at least for this Midwestern boy who was taught to always be polite – there is a feeling of liberation.  Furthermore, instead of alienating others, they, like Donald Trump within his circle of supporters, are loved because of the expression of their emotion.  Furthermore, the strength of the expression of their emotion is met by similar strength of emotion coming from the other players – there is a level of emotional attunement between them that feels balanced – even while they are careening off on some zany pursuit.

And the craft is also gratifying on another level.  Most comedy is linear.  There is a story, a couple of things happen, and then we are surprised – things go off in a novel (frequently) liberating direction and the tension that was built up in the story is released.  We experience the catharsis that these players demonstrate in their daily living.  Ancient sitcoms generally had one story line that resolved by the end: satisfying, but somewhat dull.  M*A*S*H was the first sitcom to have two story lines that were related – two of the main characters would become involved in situations that were variations on a theme – and they would each resolve – double the complexity and double the satisfactory resolution.

Seinfeld often had four plot lines – or five or six – in a single episode – each related to the others but separate.  The best episodes took on a musical quality with a series of melodies that nicely harmonized with each other and then would resolve – like a final chord at the end of a symphony – sometimes with a single note left out, and that note would be provided in the wrap up after the commercial. 

In The Contest episode, the four principles are bound by the contest that emerges out of George's behavior.  George has been caught masturbating by his mother and the four agree to compete to see who can go the longest without doing so.  Elaine has to put extra into the pot because it is assumed to be easier for women to forego masturbation.  So the four plots are set up – and each one is tempted to masturbate by their own personal siren.

Another layer of pleasure here is that the thing they are not doing is never said.  The word masturbation is never uttered the entire episode.  While this has been blamed on the censors – the use of multiple euphemisms – including master of one’s own domain – simply points out the naughtiness of the whole thing – what they are competing about is naughty enough that they can’t talk about it directly.  If they were to say masturbation, it becomes an adult thing – the kind of thing some authority would talk about on NPR.  But if we keep referring to it by nuance – we remain kids playing at something that is forbidden.

Kramer’s siren is a woman across the street that is walking around naked in her apartment with the shades up.  He is out almost before the contest begins.  Elaine is tortured by running into the most eligible man in the world – JFK, Jr. – at the gym and his offering her a ride home (she lies to him about where she lives so that they can share a cab in the same direction and he believes she lives in Jerry’s building).  George is tortured by the image of a beautiful patient in the hospital bed next to his mother’s (she fell and hurt her hip when she discovered him masturbating) who is give a sponge bath by an equally lovely nurse (and how glorious is it that he is gathering fantasy material while tending to the mother he has injured by indulging in fantasy – what could be naughtier?).  Jerry is trying to bed a virgin – Marla – but lies to her constantly about his intentions because to be honest would scare her off. 

After this set up, we see the four of them in bed at night – Kramer sleeping soundly, but the other three in tortured agony unable to sleep – and we sense that if they would just masturbate they would be sleeping well, but they each (other than Kramer) wants to win more than to be at peace.  This is the end of the first act, if you will, just before the commercial.  And it is a nice moment to pause and to reflect on the relationship between fantasy and sleep (if one is so inclined).  From a psychoanalytic perspective, Kramer is freed to sleep because he has released enough tension, both by masturbating, but also by indulging in enough fantasy about the woman across the street that he can sleep peacefully.  None of the other three have the portal of release that will move them to be able to incorporate fantasies into their dreams and instead ruminate about them as a means of fending them off which keeps them in a tortured state.

Elaine, somewhat surprisingly, falters shortly after the commercial.  She is so excited about a date with JFK, Jr. who is going to pick her up at Jerry’s building that she can’t contain herself.  Jerry, in the process of getting close to having sex with Marla, tells the virgin about the contest.  She is disgusted by the behavior of he and his friends and leaves in a huff, and Jerry turns to the window to look at the woman across the way and it is not hard to imagine what comes next.  Later George tells Elaine and Jerry that she missed JFK arriving at the apartment, but that JFK found Marla running out and offered her a lift instead.  After the commercial, we are rewarded with another look at the sleepers.  Kramer is now sleeping with the exhibitionistic woman, George, Elaine, and Jerry are sleeping soundly – and – in a final note that ties it all together, we see the JFK figure sleeping soundly with Marla – who presumably has chosen to be deflowered by him.

All of this (and more details than I could include) has been packed into a half hour.  We have had a feast of keeping up with each of the plot lines, each of which we have been interested in and unsure how they would resolve – each of them has resolved – and, as a bonus – the unresolved piece of the three extras – the exhibitionist, Marla, and JFK, Jr., get resolved in the final moment as well.   Each of the main characters has failed to inhibit him or herself in his or her inimical way.  And, to afford the viewer further satisfaction, all of their scheming and conniving and lying leads them to shoot themselves in their own feet – and the people that they have schemed against end up connecting with each other, leaving us on the moral high ground.  We have been able to simultaneously revel in their pleasures and, when they achieve their just ends, we can pull back from that, and be reassured (and gratified) that those they have abused end up in a good (and gratifying) place – and, hey, our heroes get to finally sleep because they get their own form of pleasure as well.

The problem for my mother-in-law, bless her heart, is that she is so good herself and so disturbed by the callous shenanigans of others that she can’t wait long enough to see that this ultimately doesn’t work for them.  That this is, despite all the trappings of being a show without morals, without boundaries, a show that appears to have thrown off the yoke of civilization; that it is really a morality play and the liberation that the kid-like parts of ourselves feel as we identify with the out of control characters is not the only gratification – our parental parts get some gratification as well when we see the failings and comeuppances visited upon the protagonists.  This ends up being a feast for our own entire internal gang – and we end up feeling satisfied on multiple levels – levels that are usually in conflict, but here get harmonized – simultaneously and satisfyingly.  We are released from the tensions that the show has built up and are free to sleep peacefully as we allow various levels of fantasy free rein.

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