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How a Show About Nothing Taught Me Everything

July 25, 2012

None of my friends watch, or have ever watched, Seinfeld.

“I just don’t get it,” said one, “they’re all such arseholes.”

She’s right, of course. In their myriad adventures, Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer steal marble rye loaves from elderly women, seduce mannequin makers and indirectly kill their fiancés by skimping on quality glue for wedding invitations. They’re narcissistic, neurotic and entirely self-serving. In other words, they’re human beings.

When I watch Seinfeld these days – often catching ceaseless digital channel repeats that are most likely funding another few dozen Porsches for Jerry – I see me, my friends, and all the anonymous chums you meet on the city loop. It is a show about nothing, yes. But with hindsight, and a much more developed appreciation of irony, I now see how it’s also about everything: the trivialities, rather than grand dramas, than define life. It’s quotidian, familiar and above all, a regular date on Wednesdays at 6pm.

As television producer John McNamara aptly puts it in the documentary ‘Hollywood: The Rise of TV’, “TV is your wife, cinema your mistress”; the characters we come home to every night become “names in our subconscious”, even something like “family members”. Sure, you might have a fling you’re your superhero buddies on the silver screen, but you’ll always come home to the ordinary human beings that dominate the nightly line-up because, let’s face it, they’re blood.

That’s why some of the best television is, at its core, concerned with the everyday practices of life. Masterchef should be phenomenally boring, but every night, I sit down with a bowl of Special K and yell incoherent criticism to Julia and Audra, spitting fat-free shards all over the floor.

Similarly, when the material is more intellectually stimulating than Gary Mehigan whipping egg whites, the promise of a regular challenge can be just as addictive. Indeed, Graeme Blundell writes in The Australian of his passion for The Sopranos (just slightly more Machiavellian than Masterchef) that missing episodes hardly mattered because the experience was, “like reading a great novel about the human condition that became more intimate and compelling with every page”. 

He makes a good point – part of the attraction of television, just like a Dickensian serial, is the promise not only stimulation, but stimulation over time. The expanse of a season opens up before you like so many printed pages, and you sigh; relieved, more than anything, to be excused from an hour or two of staring into the middle distance, bored out of your mind.

As Blundell rightly points out, the “defining moment” that gave rise to such high quality entertainment was the digital filmmaking revolution. Soon after The Sopranos, HBO discovered Lord of the Rings + sex + The West Wing = TV gold with Game of Thrones. Digital filmmaking has allowed TV to  become artistically ambitious, and more satisfying than ever.

Perhaps buoyed by the technological advancement, TV began to shut down the critics by becoming more provocative than ever; as Michael Patrick King reminisces about Sex and the City’s sexual explicit dialogue, “No one had ever written this…the risk made it real.”

Which is all well and good – but does it really excuse spending an entire weekend watching Girls in bed?

Because TV teaches us empathy. Every night, we sit down, turn on the box and find out someone’s story, codified into a neat episode of social norms. Would we eat that eclair out of the bin, like George Costanza?

Television becomes a nightly theatre of human behaviour, and by watching our shows, we learn to observe ourselves more critically, and (depending on what you watch) develop our sensitivity to the stories of all people, and not just our immediate bunch. Alan McKee says it in his blog post simply, and well: “Watching TV makes me a better person.”

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