Reviews > Culture

Obituaries for sitcoms

Culture | Cultural conservatives get the last laugh

Issue: "Against all odds," May 30, 1998

Seinfeld is not the only television icon that is passing from the screen this season. Murphy Brown and Ellen are also fading to black for the last time. In each case, cultural conservatives have the last laugh.
Seinfeld's last judgment
Never was there a TV show hyped like the last episode of Seinfeld. Stars of the highest-rated sitcom seemed to be on every magazine cover, and serious newspapers ran features on how people could cope with the psychological letdown of not being able to see their favorite show anymore. The commercials commanded pricetags that dwarfed those of the Super Bowl. But the finale was a letdown for most of the show's fans. It was one of the few episodes in nine years that was not very funny. And yet, it gave the show a moral closure and revealed that Seinfeld had a meaning after all. After playing with the conventions of series finales-Were they moving to California to put on the TV show that we have been watching? Were they going to die in a plane crash?-Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine get stranded in a small town. They watch a man getting mugged and make their shallow jokes about it. But they are out of New York, their native element. Out here in the rest of America, there is a moral center. The town has passed a Good Samaritan law-similar to the French law the paparazzi broke by taking pictures instead of helping Princess Diana-which makes it a crime not to help someone in need. The four are put on trial, and we are treated to a reprise of all the obnoxious things they have done on Thursday nights over nine years, with their victims testifying against them. From Jerry's stealing the old lady's marble rye to George's "restrained jubilation" at his fiancée's death, they are exposed before a shocked jury as really rotten human beings. Their lawyer cannot help them, and they are sentenced to a year in prison. The last scene shows Jerry in an orange jumpsuit doing his nightclub schtick for his fellow condemned criminals. The lameness of the plot was not the only reason the finale was jarring. All of the hype was about how loveable they all were, how they were America's Thursday-night friends. But the characters were not loveable; rather, they were selfish, narcissistic, and hilariously shallow. Nor were they anybody's friends. Jerry would break up with a girlfriend because of the way she ate her peas. The final episode presented our favorite episodes from a slightly different angle and revealed them to be morally repellent. The show, all along, was a satire. It was making fun of these empty-lived people and the surface-oriented, cynical culture that produced them. But many Americans did not get the joke. They wanted to be like them. The final episode, like other classic satires, brought the characters to a final judgment. Ben Jonson's Volpone ends with the virtuoso conman thrown into the dungeon. Even today many critics think the ending is too harsh, but the 17th-century playwright had to restore the moral balance. The final joke is that getting thrown into the slammer does not really bother Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine. They remain unemotional and unrepentant, acting like they had always done in Monk's restaurant, worrying about how they will look in orange and obsessing over buttons. They are as turned in on themselves as ever, oblivious as always to their condition. This may be what the damned in hell will be like. Murphy's law
This season will also be the last for Murphy Brown, the show that brought down a vice president. The saga of a tough-minded TV broadcaster played by Candace Bergen had a 10-year run, lauding the values of the "liberated" working woman and symbolizing the feminist ideals. When Murphy decided she wanted to have a baby without the bother of a husband, progressives hailed her integrity, while conservatives like Vice President Dan Quayle condemned the program for undermining the country's moral fiber. Though Mr. Quayle was roundly ridiculed by the media for criticizing the popular TV show, after his 1992 electoral defeat magazines articles started coming out with titles like "Dan Quayle Was Right." Studies were showing overwhelmingly that the fad of single parenthood was a social disaster, condemning women to poverty and their children to a troubled, dysfunctional life. Interestingly, after Murphy had her baby, a few storylines featured the mother and child, but the child then just dropped out of the plots. As columnist Ellen Goodman, a fan of the show, points out, Murphy (as often happens in real life) sacrificed her child to her job. In the final seasons, her son did show up again-as suddenly older, not a troublesome baby-and Murphy battled breast cancer. Her image softened. The final episode has her doing her ultimate journalistic fantasy: an (irreverent) interview with God. Today, the place of Murphy Brown is being taken by Ally McBeal. In this show, what crusaders against the Equal Rights Amendment warned against has come true: Men and women share the same bathroom. At the corporate law offices where Ally McBeal is an attorney, men and women go into their stalls and gossip in front of the same mirror. And yet Ms. McBeal, though liberated to pursue her career, is haunted by the image of a dancing baby and the ticking of her biological clock. She wears business suits, but with ultra-short skirts, and her main unspoken priority-dramatized in fantasy sequences that show what she is really thinking-is finding a man. She wants to change the world, she says, but, "I just want to get married first." For all of the promiscuity and Seinfeld-like shallowness of its characters, Ally McBeal is post-feminist. After feminism has been achieved, both nature and nurture reassert themselves. Ellen a handbasket
While Seinfeld and Murphy Brown died a natural death after a decade of success, Ellen was cancelled only a little while after her character and the actress who played her came out of the closet as lesbians. Despite the Seinfeld-like hype of the coming-out episode, despite the booming celebrity of Ellen DeGeneres for her "courage" in affirming her sexuality, despite the accolades of the media, the critics, and the Hollywood establishment, Ellen sank in the ratings the more it sank into the homosexual subculture. The lesbian innuendos and in-jokes could not hold a mass audience. Contrary to the impression they give, there are simply not enough homosexuals to hold sway in the mass marketplace. Although Ellen may have been a cultural watershed in publicly affirming homosexuality-and though many Americans now mask their actual unease as Seinfeld did, with "not that there's anything wrong with it!"-the failure of Ellen in the ratings may mean that Hollywood will think twice about overtly celebrating the homosexual lifestyle. The result may be a net gain for cultural conservatives.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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