But Emsworth is nothing if not open-minded, so I loaded up my DVD player and sat back in my recliner. A couple of weeks later, I had gotten through the four DVDs that contained the seventh season of Seinfeld. It seems that these were originally aired around 1996.
Midway through the fourth disc, I finally stopped asking myself why I was still watching. The answer was that this show, despite its shortcomings, owes a lot to P. G. Wodehouse.
Now a typical Wodehouse plot goes like this: One of Bertie Wooster’s domineering aunts summons Bertie, a passive and obliging character, and sends him on a simple errand, like picking up an antique brooch from a jewelry repair shop. But Bertie bungles everything and lets the brooch come into the possession of someone who will not give it back. The situation becomes hopeless, but at the last minute, through an ingenious plot twist, Bertie’s man Jeeves sets everything aright.
Then take the plot of “The Bottle Deposit,” the 21st episode of the seventh Seinfeld season. Elaine’s domineering boss gives her a simple errand: she is to go an auction and bid up to $10,000 on a set of golf clubs once used by President Kennedy.
But she bungles the job, first by rashly bidding twice as much as authorized (just the sort of thing Bertie Wooster would have done!), then by entrusting the vintage clubs to Jerry, who leaves them in the back seat of his car, which is then stolen by a crazed auto mechanic. The clubs end up mangled and bent. But in a hilarious, last-minute plot twist, Elaine’s boss jumps to the conclusion that the clubs were bent by the late President himself in moments of golfing temper, and Elaine comes up smelling like a rose.
Then there’s the gag that runs from the first to the last episodes of the seventh season: George Costanza has rashly become engaged, and, like Bertie Wooster in nearly every Jeeves and Wooster novel, he is desperate to get out of it. This too is classic Wodehouse. As Bertie Wooster said after one of his dangerously close brushes with matrimony: “I was in rare fettle and the heart had touched a new high. I don’t know anything that braces one up like finding you haven’t got to get married after all.”
Wodehouse might have written “The Bottle Deposit” himself, and I would be very surprised to learn that Larry David, the principal writer for Seinfeld, did not know his Wodehouse. In fact, Jerry’s friends Kramer and Newman are stock Wodehouse characters, amoral ne’er-do-wells and moochers who, like Wodehouse’s Ukridge, spend all their time dreaming up easy money schemes. (I find that blogger Mark Grueter has also noted the relationship between Larry David and P. G. Wodehouse.)
So the writing in Seinfeld, grounded on the Wodehousian formula, isn’t bad. But the eight hours or so I spent on these episodes served as a bracing reminder of why I don’t watch network television shows.
Let’s start with the laugh track. Long ago, when TV shows were filmed live, audience laughter was natural enough. But canned applause annoys me beyond words. And this show isn’t always funny. I was surprised, for example, at how little I found to laugh at in Jerry Seinfeld’s opening monologues. But the laugh track keeps rolling, regardless.
Then there’s the debased popular culture portrayed in Seinfeld. Emsworth is no prude, but Seinfeld and his friends have the sexual morals of characters in a soft-core porn movie — not for comic purposes, but just because that’s the way they live. The essentially sluttish Elaine, for example, is ready to bed someone she has just met, but hesitates because she has only a limited number of discontinued contraceptive devices. Should she waste one on him? Elaine’s schtick over whether he was “sponge-worthy” was cringe-making.
But worst of all is the yelling. Jason Alexander is clearly a talented actor. So why does his character, George Constanza, always yell at fellow characters who are only six inches away from his face? Why don’t TV sitcom directors realize think that high-decibel discussions are only funny if they’re the exception, not the rule?