Seinfeld is an amazing and successful show for many reasons, all of which also tend to draw plenty of ire from certain viewers. Its seeming lack of a plot, its dark sense of humor, and particularly, the awful, narcissistic, and at times sociopathic tendencies of the characters all seem to really turn people onto and off of the show.
The last of these traits, the apparent lack of any good qualities in the four central characters, is what interests me. The intense dislike of these characters, their flaws, and their actions creates a sense among many that the show seems to be completely indifferent towards morality, that it is even amoral. Yet, as Nico Lang writes for The Daily Dot, “Seinfeld is deeply rooted in a sense of ethics, as viewed upside down. A moral funhouse mirror, Seinfeld purposefully and violently transgresses against the common mores and social codes of daily life as an act of comic rebellion.”
Still from Seinfeld, “The Finale” (Season Nine, Episode 22, 1998).
Seinfeld is not the only show that features horrible characters engaging in weekly anti-morality plays, nor is it the only show to garner praise and attract a large audience while simultaneously alienating many viewers for its upside down ethics. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia turns the dial up to 11, giving none of its characters any redeeming qualities. The League similarly features a group of narcissistic friends who have no reservations wreaking destruction and havoc in one another’s and anyone else’s lives. South Park makes it a goal to offend every possible group it can.
So why is it that these comedies of offense are so popular? There are likely a great many reasons, but I would argue that not least among them is their freshness. Even after more than 20 years of being on the air, these types of sitcoms still feel refreshing in a TV landscape flooded with wrap-it-up-with-a-bow shows. Series like Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Big Bang Theory, and countless others all insist on resolving the conflict within thirty minutes and providing a clear moral of the story. This is still the standard format that prevails in the majority of sitcoms.
But shows like Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia resist such narrative resolution. Things just get worse until they end. There is no moral of the story. And while there are quite a few examples of this kind of show, as I have listed, they are still hugely outnumbered by the happy ending variety of sitcoms. For that reason, they feel unique and refreshing because they break the norm. And the upside down ethics approach isn’t the only way in which these shows disrupt and deconstruct sitcom conventions. These comedies of offense offer commentary on the sitcom itself, challenging formats, norms, and notions of what a sitcom has to be. It can be argued that Seinfeld isn’t a show “about nothing”; it’s a show “about shows.”
Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz argues that in its popular portrayal of awful characters, Seinfeld paved the way for the modern TV anti-hero. Without George Costanza or Elaine Benes, we would not have Tony Soprano or Walter White. The popularity of these comedies of offense and these anti-hero dramas can thus also be credited partially to their cathartic wish-fulfillment nature. These characters act as surrogates, as outlets for the audience’s desires. Seeing the characters of Seinfeld gripe and moan and commit socially inappropriate atrocities isn’t just funny, it’s liberating.
There are surely many other factors to which the popularity of these comedies of offense can be attributed. If anything, the success of these shows has proven that a main character does not need to be likable for people to enjoy what they’re watching. There’s a completely different conversation to be had as to how effectively these shows condemn rather than condone the atrocious actions they depict, but at the very least, they are certainly hilarious.