'Seinfeld' vs. 'Girls': A Brief History of TV Backlash

"If People Talked About Seinfeld Like They Talk About Girls," a much discussed satirical essay, has incited a range of responses — because the Girls backlash train never stops rolling — including a not-so-friendly reminder that there was once a Seinfeld backlash, too.

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Mike Trapp published a much discussed piece (of satire) this week on the usually not-so-thoughtful comedy website CollegeHumor parodying the constant critical swarm around Girls by imagining what would happen "If People Talked About Seinfeld Like They Talk About Girls." He paints Jerry as self-involved, the four main characters as unlikable, and the show as an example of white privilege. And of course the essay itself has incited a range of responses—because the Girls backlash train never stops rolling—including a not-so-friendly reminder that even as it went on to become one of the most lauded sitcoms of all time, there was once a Seinfeld backlash, too.

A sample of Trapp's "critique" goes like this:

He really seems to think he’s funny. Do you think he’s funny? I don’t think he’s funny. Like, the critics say it’s a funny show, but the comedy is kind of weird. And nothing ever HAPPENS. It’s just these privileged white people (and I mean, they’re ALL white) living their lives in New York. The only non-white characters are wacky immigrant cab drivers and soup vendors. Oh, hilarious: they can’t speak English well — what’s so groundbreaking about that? 

The CollegeHumor commenters run the gamut. There are the Girls defenders:

The Seinfeld defenders:

And of course those who to bring us all back to the reality of the 90s:

Time columnist James Poniewozik elaborated on that point this morning on Twitter:

Here's a brief and incomplete refresher on a show that was, yes, talked about a lot more than Lena Dunham's still relatively low-rated HBO show:

In 1998, on the occasion of Seinfeld's second-to-last episode, NBC was forced to apologize for Jerry and the gang's run-in with the Puerto Rican Day parade, which was deemed racially insensitive.

That year William R. Macklin—an African American who said he found the show "reassuring"—wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer (available on Nexis):

No, it has not escaped me that the New York of Jerry Seinfeld, George Costanza, Elaine Benes and Cosmo Kramer is a Judeo-yuppie fantasy, very downtown and nearly all-white, a place where most of the characters' political consciousness is about as deep as a cereal bowl and where resentment over purloined lobsters passes for social outrage.

But if  Seinfeld's central characters are self-serving xenophobes who cling to a romanticized Manhattan the way lampreys cling to sperm whales, it is the rare and random appearance of nonwhite characters that often humorously underscores their pettiness and desperation.

In 1997, Maureen Dowd wrote a column lambasting the yuppies of Seinfeld:

The ''Seinfeld'' characters grow more surreally self-centered -- George was relieved when his fiancee died from licking the envelopes on the cheap wedding invitations he insisted on, and Elaine paid more attention to Jujyfruits than an injured boyfriend -- and the actors grow more surreally greedy. ''The million-dollar number is not frivolous,'' Jason Alexander, who plays George, insisted last week.

t is fitting that George, Elaine and Kramer cashed in at a time when the Thursday show is not as funny as the reruns. '' 'Seinfeld' is the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption,'' says Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic.

The existence of criticisms against Seinfeld—perhaps long forgotten or never known by the Girls set—does not make Trapp's piece any less relevant or any less funny. But the fact that today Seinfeld is mostly held on a pedestal—see the Modern Seinfeld Twitter account—makes you wonder how we'll see Girls 20 years down the road. Or if we even will.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.