Sometimes, ‘Seinfeld’ Crosses the Line

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine

One of my favorite lines from “Seinfeld” is when Elaine is listening to Jerry announce that he’s dumping the latest Cindy Crawford look-alike he’s been dating because she eats her peas one at a time or has some equally grievous character defect.

Elaine gives him a look of utter disbelief and says something like, “You know, every time I think I’m sure that you’re the shallowest man on earth, you find a way to drain another couple of inches out of the pool.” That was one of the things I liked best about “Seinfeld,” that self-awareness that what we have here is an apartment full of delightfully entertaining miserable excuses for human beings. Elaine calling Jerry shallow is like the Atlantic calling the Pacific salty.

“Seinfeld” was a great show. Still is. In fact, with the exception of NBC’s executives, I’m going to miss it as much as anyone.


But listening to critics eulogize “Seinfeld” as the show that defined TV in the ‘90s, the pioneering sitcom that dared to dwell on the mundane, I can’t help but recall those times when I wished the writers hadn’t bounded quite so recklessly down the path leading out to the TV comedy frontier. They might have avoided sending some pretty awful messages about the value of human life.

Remember the time Kramer took off to California to seek his fortune in Hollywood? At an audition he meets an over-permed actress wannabe whose chief claim to talent is having a West German consortium interested in casting her in the lead for a miniseries about Eva Braun. Cut to a crime scene. A police officer is drawing a sheet over the curls of the very same aspiring portrayer of Hitler’s concubine. She’s become the latest victim of a serial killer, the Smog Strangler. A young woman has been strangled to death--not hit by pastry, not conned out of the money she’d been saving for German lessons, but brutally murdered, and we’re supposed to think it’s funny.

The same goes for the season-ending episode in which the make-believe director of programming at NBC, after being spurned by Elaine, quits his job and enlists with Greenpeace. During a protest ambush at sea, he drowns. Anyone who thinks death by drowning is funny will enjoy a regular gut-busting watching the frozen human flotsam scene near the end of “Titanic.”

Finally, there was the critically acclaimed (in some quarters, anyway) extermination of George’s fiancee, Susan. Having proposed in a fit of maturity that ebbed predictably quickly, George is desperate to break off the engagement but too much of a coward to do so. He is spared from confrontation by the darkest of miracles. In a sickeningly unfunny scene, Susan is on the couch licking envelopes for the wedding invitations when her eyes roll back in her head and she collapses. George, Jerry and Elaine rendezvous at the hospital and learn that glue on the envelopes, which went with the invitations George had insisted on buying because they were the cheapest, had become contaminated by some kind of poisonous mold.

Who among us can imagine a circumstance in which the death of a friend, let alone one’s fiancee--someone you’ve been intimate with--would be funny? Yet this was supposed to be hilarious irony. In fact, at the hospital, Jerry, Elaine and George, while not stifling giggles, are nonetheless a far cry from tears or even sadness.

Some might argue that I’m being too hard on the show, that what I’m complaining about is black comedy, which has a long and honored tradition. The characters aren’t real people; we know that no one is really dying.


But “Seinfeld” isn’t a black comedy. Jerry’s apartment, the coffee shop--they’re realistic places. Same goes for the characters. Like Jerry and his pals, we don’t often ponder the meaning of life, we always hunt for primo parking spaces.

What “Seinfeld” showed us about the absurd, shallow things we spend our days doing and thinking about was hilarious, and I’ll miss it.

But what it occasionally did to promote that eternally dangerous idea that other people’s lives are disposable, I won’t miss. No one should.