December 5th, 2004

Seinfeld Vs Rumsfeld – Out Of The Nineties

I just got the first three series of Seinfeld on DVD, a programme which I watched with an obsessiveness bordering on the sectionable in the late Nineties. It’s to be pointed out that this is the series’s Triassic era – Kramer hasn’t quite developed into the catastrophically sanguine, virtuoso slapstick comedic tic dispenser of the late episodes – in the earliest ones in particular, he’s still a variation on the stoner stereotype of “Carlton, your doorman” in Rhoda or Christopher Lloyd’s slow-on -the-uptake acid casualty in Taxi. George, meanwhile, is only in the process of transforming from a Woody Allen impersonation to a more full-blown, appallingly well realised Larry David impersonation. Seinfeld has, admittedly, become Seinfeld and the magnificently sexy/hilarious Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has established her wonderfully seductive lexicon of Elaine-isms, in which a mere jut of the chin can speak ironic, comedic/erotic volumes.

Still, the quality of both the acting/writing and the strangely accidental courage of the conceit still make for absolutely essential viewing.

Still . . . it was as well Seinfeld stopped when it did. It more or less exactly spanned the Nineties – when it commenced, the dust of the historical turbulence of the collapse of the Soviet satellite states and the Iraq war had settled, for the time being at any rate. Clinton was about to enjoy, arguably instigate a lengthy period of economic and political fair weather for America, one which became very quickly taken for granted. (Who cried out ‘what glad and benign times we live in?’ in the mid-Nineties) Absurd as it was that Kenneth Starr insisted on pressing for impeachment when Clinton porked Monica Lewinsky, there were many on the Left who quietly enjoyed this unctuous politico (and opportunistic executioner of mentally handicapped black men, lest we forget) being put on the spot.

This, then, was the era in which Seinfeld flourished, one which seems aeons ago – the twin Shadows had yet to cast. It was an era in which Seinfeld could, honestly and appropriately be a Show about Nothing, a (for many) desultory, affluent, privileged era in which it seemed a proper and duly, pleasantly opportune moment to reflect home on in the absurdities of the consumer everyday rather than the follies of war or the iniquities of globalisation. Granted, there was plenty of war and iniquity going on but for the concerned but cosseted middle classes, these were going on way, way beyond the horizons. Fukiyama’s End Of History had apparently been established. That underground, adrenaline river of anxiety that coursed through decades of cold war and nuclear fear had been expunged. In New York, Mayor Guiliani was in the process of sweeping New York’s underclass under the carpet and giving midtown in particular a brush-up it hadn’t seen in years. New York felt like the stage for an extended, comic contemplation of unconsidered trifles, an era of political and cultural hiatus in which the most vexed question was indeed, what’s the deal with airline peanuts?

Today, watching Seinfeld almost feels like watching an opulent screwball Thirties comedy like, say, The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in a gay post-depression/pre WWII Thirties hiatus. Naivety isn’t a factor – the quality of the comedy frivolously spills over the highest established benchmarks of erudition, irony and sophistication. But the era of untroubled grace they apparently inhabit seems part of a soft-focus, long-ago time.

9/11 was clearly a factor in all of this and it would have been impossible for the studiously trivial Seinfeld to have continued in its increasingly preposterous comedic bubble, with New York an acrid crematorium for weeks and months after the destruction of the Twin Towers. As Kramer might have said in one of those improbably pompous moments of his, it wouldn’t have sat well. Don’t get me wrong. It is not that, as politicians are constantly warning us, “we” are in imminent danger of terrorist annihilation. I have never believed that, and happen to feel as personally safe, for what that’s worth, as I did in the Nineties. I completely concur, always did, with the recent BBC documentary series The Power Of Nightmares which effectively accused both the US and UK governments of using fear of terrorism as a means of encouraging trust in the prevailing powers-that-be and even as a way of subtly (or unsubtly) sneaking through packages designed to infringe civil rights.

Effectively, Western populations have been dulled into a false sense of insecurity. As said documentary explained, Al-Qaeda were baptised thus by the Americans, they are not the systematic, SPECTRE-like global/subterranean organisation they’re depicted as. Even the much-vaunted threat of “Dirty bombs”, which would supposedly leave a trail of irradiated dead in their wake, is a nonsense. According to experts, dosages would leave a few people feeling a bit queasy but that’s about it. The threat of terrorism has been overplayed by the right/establishment as a means of deterring boat-rocking but is also integral to the rhetoric of the Left, some of whom argue that Bush’s adventurism leaves “us” all vulnerable to terrorism. Bollocks. Pertinent voice of complacency calling: Your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are so laughably infitesmal as not to be worth worrying about for a second. It’s galling to think of, say, Soccer Moms in remote American small towns worrying sufficiently about being massacred by bin Laden by remote control from his cave that it might have swayed their bloody vote in the recent election. The Left, too, join in the rhetoric of “insecurity” and “dangerous times”.

One of the main arguments deployed, for example, against the Iraq war is that it has made us “less safe”, more vulnerable to terrorism. But this is just as ill-founded, even opportunistic, as the establishment Right’s eager deployment of the terrorist threat and plays just as much on self-centred, irrational hysteria. “We” are not all going to die, any more than “We” are going to win the lottery. In broad terms, it’s not going to happen. Be more afraid of travelling by car – a million, a barely spoken MILLION deaths a year are caused by automobile accidents. Your chances of being killed by a terrorist act remain comically low – so don’t even let it cast any sort of shadow across your field of anxiety. As ever, someone else, far away, will be doing our dying for us.

Still, the point that the Nineties were a very distinct decade from the Noughties holds. The defining event wasn’t 9/11 but the election of George W Bush and the concomitant misery, resentment, debt and ideological rage he and his neo-Cons have created. That sense of privileged desultoriness that might be the defining characteristic of the Nineties is no more. Think of trip-hop, the abiding soundtrack of the Nineties – think of how washed up, boneless, useless a confection it now sounds, the muted trump of a white elephant. You could almost be unwarrantably, perversely happy that a sense of excitement, anxiety, and anger has increased the tempo of music coming out of, say, NYC, be it Radio 4, The Rapture, the DFA brigade.

Another casualty of Bushism, to my mind, is The West Wing. Under the aegis of Aaron Sorkin, now departed I know, it was, for a while, a thrillingly erudite, magnificently nuanced drama that, in the context of US TV drama managed effortlessly to morph between an almost light operatic, Gilbert & Sullivan feel (think of the light, staccato pace of Donna Moss’s stilettos along the White House corridors) to a sense of sober gravitas that left you feeling grimly sympathetic about the weight of the world’s tragically intractable problems laid upon the decent but often helpless liberal shoulders of Martin Sheen.

As it’s gone on, however, it’s been hamstrung by the problem that besets other such long-term drama series such as The Sopranos. After a while, you realise that these characters aren’t going anywhere, because they have to back in the same place, in situ, for the next series – the dramatic arc is a boomerang-like one. You begin to feel a bit strung along, begin to wonder what you’re still doing with these people, when some sort of closure or Nemesis is going to occur. You start missing appointments with the series. With The West Wing, however, there are other problems. When it first started, it was a reflection of the Clinton era in TV’s looking glass world. This was a White House staffed by well-meaning people and brilliant, if at times a little self-satisfied (for which they were always smacked down, especially Josh) and they represented a success – good people in the White House. Of course, the series makers were always careful not to make them too successful, in a manner that would have them run away from reality. Bills, supreme court appointments were deferred, a sense of necessary compromise and dissatisfaction was kept nicely simmering, offset only by the odd rousing speech from President Sheen or small triumph, be it electoral or political.

Since 2000, however, through no fault of Sorkin’s, naturally, The West Wing has inevitably felt further unmoored from reality. There’s a parallel with Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister in the Eighties, a very pertinent satire on a centrist government whose Wooster-like politico is hamstrung by the ostensibly servile but subversive, Jeevesian machinations of the civil service. Pertinent, that is, except to the actual era in which it was broadcast – the Thatcher years, in which the PM was enthusiastically tugging the political goalposts to the far right, regardless of any huffing objections from the do-nothing, establishment status quo.

Who believes that White House staff operate with the improbably pious integrity of a Sam Seaborn, insisting to all his staff that all their research material be triple-sourced? Or in the improbably statistical and cultural omniscience and sagacity of the staff (not just those endlessly rattled-out stats but references like that in a series 4 episode made by staff spokesman CJ, Alison Janney, in which she refers to the punch Ali didn’t throw as Foreman went down in 1974. I happen know what she’s talking about but that’s because I’m an absolute boxing freak. But how are we to believe that CJ would utter such a blatantly-from-Aaron-Sorkin-type allusion?).

What’s inadvertently bad, despite its brilliance about The West Wing, isn’t so much the fact that it’s a liberal fantasy about the qualities and good intentions of the White House but that it bolsters a very American, appalling reverential attitude towards the Office of the President that is so ingrained in US culture it lets the monkey Bush get away with a multitude of sins – you really get the impression, even among high-profile liberals that slagging off their employee, the ‘commander in chief’ is an inexcusable breach of protocol. In a strange kind of way, The West Wing functions as propaganda for the American Presidency, whomsoever they may be. What’s really needed is a cross between The West Wing and The Sopranos to reflect the actual state of The White House. But would even HBO have the balls/clout to make such a show?

As for comedy, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm remain brilliant but feel like the belong to a world of micro rather than macro-trouble that’s not quite in tune with these times. The Simpsons remains the surprisingly durable repository of all countercultural activity but, brilliant as it is, it’s gone through eight or nine degrees of self-parody. What’s needed, what may be brewing in left-field, is programming that reflects that still-fresh, suppurating rage at the reelection of Bush, the polarisation of America, the repoliticisation of vast numbers of the erudite but jaded. Maybe it’s in development right now.

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