How is “Seinfeld” a reflection of the postmodern era and the 1990s mindset?


Created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld originally aired on NBC from July 5, 1989 to May 14, 1998. Set predominantly in an apartment bloc in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City, the series follows a roster of characters including comedian Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Kramer (Michael Richards) and George (Jason Alexander) as they try to find their place in the postmodern world.

Postmodern is defined as the era after the modern one; various movements in reaction to modernism, typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms or by ironic self-reference and absurdity; or a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.

Popular examples of postmodern literature include Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, published in 1991, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, published in 1996, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld, published in 1997. Notable examples of postmodern film include Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), whose unfamiliar environment and plot twists challenge our assumptions about human existence, and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), whose jumbled structure challenges our ideas of drama, comedy, and the “happy ending” (considering that all its characters are alive at the end of the movie although some die in the middle).

Like the characters in American Psycho, Seinfeld and his friends can often be described as conniving, dishonest, petty and self-centered. They also face a slew of uniquely first-world problems, such as establishing a friends-with-benefits deal, writing a television pilot, and waiting in line at a Chinese restaurant—all situations that come from living in a wealthy society in the postmodern era.

Jerry’s friends, for the most part, lack any kind of direction. Elaine and George go from job to job, and Kramer—besides his several business ventures such as Kramerica Industries, one writing effort (a coffee table book about coffee tables) and a few days at H&H Bagels—never even holds a job.

Although these characters never turn to violence or create an underground boxing ring as the unnamed narrator does in Fight Club (1999), it is easy to see how they could become disenfranchised with the society that they live in. Perhaps they might adopt violent tactics if their poor choices ever led to harsher consequences.

Like Pulp Fiction and Underworld, Seinfeld is full of allusions to events and other works of popular culture, such as the Son of Sam and Joel Rifkin serial killers, Abscam (a two-year FBI undercover operation that began in 1978 to uncover political corruption), Mary Hart, Lonnie Anderson, the Wiz and Last Tango in Paris (1972).

In “The Bubble Boy,” the titular character is based on David Vetter (b. 1971), who was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID). It is ironic that George gets into a fight and ultimately pops the boy’s bubble over a game of Trivial Pursuit. They fight over the question, “Who invaded Spain in the eight-century?” Whether the answer is the Moors or the “moops,” the question itself is can be seen as irrelevant in the postmodern world.

Advertising and comedic forms of product placement are also notable hallmarks in the show. Like Underworld’s slight alteration of DuPont’s advertising slogan, “Better Things for Better Living… Through Chemistry,” Kramer improvises a commercial for the fictional scotch, Hennigans, in the “Red Dot.” Real-life products like Junior Mints, Snapple and a PEEZ dispenser also make an appearance. These examples satirize the ubiquity of commercialism in the postmodern age.

Underworld depicts a reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet Union’s atomic weapons program. Likewise, Seinfeld features its share of Cold War references: Elaine states that the coffee stain on her shirt resembles Fidel Castro, while Kramer and his friend Mickey (Danny Woodburn) argue the pros and cons of communism after the two take a job as a department store Santa and his helper.

Perhaps the most crucial factor in Seinfeld’s success was the decade in which it aired. The 90’s were an era of rest and relaxation, as the United States had finally come out on top in the ideological battle with the Soviet Union. Like the characters in Seinfeld, this left the country with little direction for a short time.

Arguably, the most important album of the decade was Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in 1991. Its cover, depicting an infant swimming for a dollar bill attached to the end of a fishing pole, is oddly similar to one such predicament involving George and a loaf of marble rye bread. This image perfectly captures the nihilistic mindset of a decade that spawned the “show about nothing.”