Where did a nice little boy like you learn such a bad word like that?
The only argument I’ve ever given any credence to that purports Seinfeld to not be a sitcom of unquestioned brilliance is the one that claims it is overly ironic and cynical. It would seem to these detractors that a post-modern show ‘about nothing’ would offer little after it has thoroughly trashed every social convention and held nothing sacred in and during its wake. After this monsoon of hipness washes aside, they’d argue, its aftermath would be a glaring void of nothingness to which we could build no foundation upon. It’s an argument against post-modernist ideology that has definite merit, just not in regards to Seinfeld. I think ‘The Race’ does as much as any episode to argue just this.
‘The Race’ on face value is a quintessential episode in this manner; on one hand it seems shallow and needlessly trite—especially when one considers its central topic (workers rights) to be one where integrity is of the utmost—making the anti-Seinfeld crowd see it as something of an ‘Exhibit A’ for their arguments. But under further inspection, ‘The Race’ becomes what it actually seems to skirt and poke fun of: a serious articulation of liberal (worker) politics in a short form television program. All that is on the surface is what a detractor to Seinfeld, and communism for that matter, would (mistakenly) argue: communism is a fetishized ideology (Elaine’s playful glee at the sudden knowledge of dating someone potentially politically radical or dangerous) that has been the center of controversy and conflict with Western culture for centuries, of which only it is to blame (several times this is hilariously shown; small children enthralled within a capitalistic society innately know to become hostile when they hear communism spouted to them, a Mall Security guard just needs a mere unsubstantiated accusation to use force in the form of a job firing, and Mikey’s claim to “know what’s been going on in the world for the last 60 years” all support this), and that how Seinfeld articulates these points (in typical manic smirking glibness) is juvenile and lacking reverence. Couple those points with the fact that most don’t understand the fundamental nature of Seinfeld, or again, communism for that matter (see Kramer’s sudden embracing of communism’s tenants as an absurd articulation of a ‘class breakdown’ of cold cut deli meats and his doltish mishandling of how “means”, “abilities” and “needs” correspond to one another, to George using the Daily Worker classified section as his personal dating service) and a virtual molotov cocktail of straw man arguments could be, and is often, constructed to trash both Seinfeld (and again, communism).
But under a more careful examination, a bubbling undercurrent of transgressive ideas do exist; Jerry’s opening monologue about the quickness with which our culture dumps its supposedly sacred images, only to move on to the next one (“All that time is spent selecting it and decorating it, and then a week after it’s just thrown somewhere, you see it by the side of the road, it looks like a mob hit. A car slows down, a door opens and this tree just rolls out. People snap out of that Christmas spirit like it was a drunken stupor, they just wake up one morning and go, “Oh my god, there’s a tree inside the house! Just throw it anywhere!”) hints at the seriousness of the articulated points that are to come. But really it’s his role as defacto ‘Superman’ that provides the force of this progressive angle. At first it’s just seen as a playful nod to his love of the particular superhero character coupled with his ‘finally’ dating a woman with the same first name (‘Lois’) of his comic book idol’s girlfriend. But as the episode opens up you can begin to see the ‘Superman’ quality as an english translation of the everyday hero of Nietzsche’s übermensch; the human conduit(s) to which mankind can rise above the petty squabbles, class differences, bunk ideologies and exploitations of each other. Rerouting back to the episodes central theme of communism this would mean a wholesale collapse of the system, with one person (or persons I’d think) acting as the chief mechanisms of change (Ned Isakoff is seen as the literal interpretation of this; he spreads “literature” from the “trunk of his car” to Kramer and seemingly anyone else he meets that is even just remotely interested). Suddenly the Superman-Everyman of Jerry is thrust into this role when asked to destroy the “controller” of the “means of operation” (a great Marx-like line delivered in a sympathetic plea from Lois when her job is suddenly put on the line depending on Jerry’s participation in the title implied footrace), i.e. Duncan Meyer, and free the ravaged member(s) of the underclass. The newfound heroic everyman Jerry does win the race and real life pandemonium does break out in the streets. The classic reference to Superman The Movie‘s soundtrack tries to laugh the seriousness away a bit, but those paying extra attention will no doubt understand the alarming point they’ve just witnessed. Mainstream prime time television arguing for a complete demolishing of the ordered status quo business hierarchy, then a celebratory dancing on the rubble. All in twenty-two measly minutes. Glorious.