Why Gen Z loves Seinfeld

Why Gen Z loves Seinfeld. By Nicholas Harris.

Long ago, in another age, young people gathered in sitting rooms to watch television. …

We young people do not do this anymore (television? sitting room?). The sodality of these collective experiences is lost to us, streaming alone in our bedroom-cells. But atomised as we are, generational mood is not completely lost to us. And over the past year, I realised we were all watching Seinfeld. It came around on the Netflix churn in late 2021, arriving like a fresh breeze across the plain of contemporary streaming. Its comic furniture was clearly old — the canned audience laughter, the answerphone messages, those airy flannel shirts tucked into belted jeans. But, in its essential pulse of irony and irreverence, it felt so fresh, so crisp. And, at a time of stultifying, hand-wringing sincerity, something as small as a nasty joke can feel like a punkish, even revolutionary act.


Seinfeld is a faulty sitcom. It doesn’t move properly; it’s missing key parts. It’s “about nothing”, goes the trite assertion. Its triumph is, therefore, one of absence, of refusal. Too incapable to act, Jerry Seinfeld plays himself: stand-up comedian, New Yorker, neat freak and mid-afternoon cereal-eater. But even as a lead he is not the wisecracking protagonist of too many American sitcoms. Instead, he and his apartment often just serve as a planetary centre for his three friends, George, Elaine and Kramer, to orbit. Between them, they exhibit all the vices of man: deceit, spite, narcissism, self-pity, sloth. “No hugging, no learning,” was the mission statement behind the show.

The emotional tenor is therefore pre-Darwinian, any possibility of human mutation, development or evolution flatly rejected. Characters only circle each other, pursued by a supporting cast of cranks, eccentrics and misfits. All motives are low; all manners undignified. Sex is a relentless yet elusive necessity to be pursued through any means, but romantic relationships are too complicated or just embarrassing to maintain. “Sex, that’s meaningless,” says Jerry. “But dinner — that’s heavy. That’s like an hour.” Girlfriends are always new; breakups always imminent. When George does get engaged, he spends the bulk of a season regretting it and trying to break it off.

Such paraphernalia of the predictable sitcom are aggressively boiled away to leave only the relentless imposition of irony: that crushing recognition of the gap between our perspective on things and their bald reality. Consequently, the world can be faced with a shrug or a cackle, too absurd and pointless to take seriously. …

But then came Friends:

On television came Friends, immediately displacing Seinfeld as the popular chronicle of young America, and later becoming the great millennial sitcom. And, while imitating Seinfeld’s New York, group-of-mates setting, Friends is its irritating, naïve younger sibling, never escaping the frothy fountain of its opening credits. …

Seinfeld’s singletons are achingly self-aware; the Friends friends don’t even know they’re in a TV show. They have shapely, winning flaws, not sordid neuroses. Optimistic, improving, they do silly things to cheer each other up like put turkeys on their head. They move to the suburbs to start families. There’s a lot of hugging.

The culture moved towards moral sincerity and virtue-signalling, and reality was lost:

Friends was symptomatic of the mood of sincerity which has since overcast much of the culture. For the past two decades, the cultural stock exchange has been led by a boom in conveyed emotion and self-conscious virtue. We listen to heart-baring, confessional-romantic anthems. We read novels about toxic love quadrilaterals. We watch Ted Lasso conquer English football by baking biscuits. But in more recent years, even this has calcified, slipping from the pure emotional sincerity of Friends to a more overbearing preoccupation with moral sincerity.

Irony has come to be seen as a dereliction of our human and political responsibilities. In fiction, the critic Becca Rothfeld gives a name to this millennial middlebrow: “sanctimony literature”. In these books and outside them, writers and their characters exhibit an inquisitorial obsession with “goodness”. They stress over structural racism and their carbon emissions. They mull over the power imbalances of BDSM. And they are attracted by wholesome, generous, unbelievable people, whose complications come in the form of redeemable scars and wounds, not profanities or sins.

Thanks to the politicisation of everyday life, which accelerated in the late 2010s, this is now representative of an entire sanctimony culture. It demands the iterative performance of goodness across everyday life. We do it on social media, striving to display virtues personal (wealth, sociability, romantic success) and political. We willingly upload and surrender our personal lives, commodifying the very emotions that we seek to display. We buy self-care and wellness, a new marketplace which serves this desire for authentic fulfilment. We inspect artists and writers for actionable wrongdoing.

Poor Gen Z, growing up in the smothering lies of the overly sincere PC culture. Makes even Seinfeld a breath of fresh air.