‘Seinfeld’ Showed Me How We Got Here and Why I Don’t Care
Making Indifference Fashionable
Roughly coinciding with my becoming a Christian was the advent of Seinfeld. No TV show before or since has captivated me as much as this quirky sitcom from the 1990s. My Thursday nights were built around catching the latest episodes. I had never seen a show so clever, creative, and consistently hilarious. I wasn’t alone in my love for the sitcom. During its last five seasons, 30 million or more viewers tuned in weekly, with the finale garnering around 76 million viewers. It is regularly cited as one of the best shows of all time and has remained a cultural phenomenon since going into syndication.
The brilliance of the show’s concept was portrayed in a key episode in season four, where Jerry (played by Jerry Seinfeld) and George (played by Jason Alexander) discuss writing a TV show pilot episode for NBC. As they consider what the show might be about and exchange some typically witty banter, George timidly suggests, “This should be the show. This is the show.”
George: This. Just talking.
Jerry: Yeah, right.
George: I’m really serious. I think that’s a good idea.
Jerry: Just talking? What’s the show about?
George: It’s about nothing.
Jerry: No story?
George: No, forget the story.
Jerry: You gotta have a story!
George: Who says you gotta have a story?
In Overcoming Apathy, theology professor Uche Anizor takes a fresh look at the widespread problem of apathy and its effect on spiritual maturity, offering practical, biblical advice to break the cycle.
As the conversation goes on and Jerry remains bewildered by
the concept, he exclaims in a frustrated voice, “I still don’t know
what the idea is!”
George: It’s about nothing!
George: Everybody’s doing something. We’ll do nothing.
Jerry: So, we go into NBC, we tell them we got an idea for a
show about nothing?
Jerry: They say, “What’s your show about?” I say, “Nothing.”
George: There you go!
[Pause . . .]
Jerry: I think you may have something here.1
This scene was a bit of an inside joke. The show’s writers were giving the audience a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how Seinfeld and the sitcom’s cocreator, Larry David, came up with and pitched the show. Though this may not have been the writers’ intention, this scene suggested that a key to understanding the actual show (not the imaginary pilot) was to recognize that it was a “show about nothing.”
Many fans latched on to the idea that Seinfeld was a show about nothing. The writers were onto something. A show about nothing was quite unique—uncharted waters even. But was Seinfeld really a show about nothing?
The show’s unofficial motto, “No hugging, no learning,” coined by David, highlighted its nose-thumbing attitude toward previous TV and societal conventions. It was not a show about nothing per se, but a show about insignificant, petty things. It was a show that normalized indifference toward big, meaningful things (such as marriage, family, religion, social concern, even the Holocaust) and a fixation on life’s daily minutia (such as getting a good parking spot, the annoyance of “close talkers,” and maintaining one’s high score in Frogger).
Indifference was the name of the game.
Nothing captured this theme like the series finale. While waiting around in the small fictional town of Latham, Massachusetts, the show’s four main characters witness an overweight man getting carjacked. Rather than jumping to his aid, they sit back and mock him about his weight, video record the assault taking place, and then walk away. The victim notices their mockery and inaction, and eventually reports them to the officer on the scene. The four are then arrested for violating what is known as the “Good Samaritan Law,” a statute requiring bystanders to respond in situations when others are in danger.
A lengthy and highly publicized trial ensues. The prosecutors call in witness after witness (characters from several previous episodes) to demonstrate that the main characters’ inaction toward the carjacking victim is just one example among many of their poor character.
Finally, the judge calls on the jury to read its verdict on the charge of “criminal indifference.” The jurors find Jerry and his friends guilty. But it is the judge’s closing statement that captures the truth about Seinfeld that its writers and viewers have known (or at least felt) all along. He declares, “I don’t know how or under what circumstances the four of you found each other, but your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built.”
They are sentenced to one year in jail. The series ends with the four friends sitting in a jail cell, more or less indifferent to their consequences, chitchatting about the location of George’s shirt button—which, not coincidentally, is the very thing he and Jerry talked about in the opening scene of the very first episode—among other insignificant things.
Thus concluded one of the best shows of all time, a show that ended as it began, with none of the characters really having grown as a person. Seinfeld made it fashionable to not care about significant things, to treat them with a “meh.” As David would tell an interviewer, “A lot of people don’t understand that Seinfeld is a dark show.”2
A Seinfeldian Society
I wonder what effect being reared on Seinfeld, not to mention other shows, such as The Simpsons, Married with Children, and Friends, had on my posture toward life. While there were certainly a number of factors shaping me at the time, a steady diet of this kind of pop culture (and I watched a lot of TV) only nurtured an attitude of indifference. Subconsciously I grew to believe that it was cooler to not care about meaningful things, or at least to not put any earnestness on display.
I knew, in my head, that there were important things in the world to care about. However, I couldn’t bring myself to care deeply enough about them or move toward them.
I don’t believe I’m alone in this. I think that many of us experience this disconnect between head, heart, and hands. We know what is good, right, and life-giving, but cannot seem to lift a finger to do anything about it. We know that a bit of quiet reflection would do us some good, but we hit “Play” on that fourth consecutive episode of whatever show we’re into. We’re aware that spending some time in worship with other believers might inspire us, but we’d rather sleep in (especially after our previous night’s Netflix marathon). I am calling this the “curse of apathy,” and many of us have been stricken by it. Conversations with friends, youth workers, my students, and colleagues have convinced me that we live in a culture plagued by apathy. For too many of us, life feels like a show about nothing. It feels unworthy of our serious attention. We are citizens of a Seinfeldian society, where only inconsequential things matter. This claim may seem counterintuitive in light of how easily people seem to get outraged these days. Yet, I’m simply trying to shed light on the fact that we are numb to the meaningful, but often “alive” to the trivial.
Some things evoke passion in us, while other things induce yawns. The paradox of apathy is that we are captivated by the things we don’t really care about and are lukewarm to the things that, in our heart of hearts, mean the most to us. We don’t act on what we should act on, but we are awakened to things we should probably ignore.
The paradox of apathy is that we are captivated by the things we don’t really care about and are lukewarm to the things that, in our heart of hearts, mean the most to us.
Thus, busyness and activity are not necessarily the antonyms to apathy. What one writer says about sloth is true of apathy: “It easily attaches to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothful (read: apathetic), yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.”3
Apathy is not care-less; it is care-adrift, care-misplaced. As another writer puts it, our culture is a “breeding ground” for chronic apathy due to the proliferation of distractions available to us.4 We are regularly invited to care, just not too much or about too important a matter. In fact, our busyness may serve only to exacerbate our disengagement from meaning and to keep our spirits in a state of lethargy.5
Apathy and the Church
It is not that our culture is unique in this. I imagine apathy has existed since the dawn of time. What seems unique is that apathy has to some degree become normalized and acceptable, and confessing it can be a mark of authenticity. There’s no shame, no stigma attached to it in some quarters. At worst it’s a bummer, but it is just the furniture of life in the twenty-first century.
This issue is all the more important for Christians, who know the only true God, have Jesus as their Savior, have been given a mission to the world, and are promised eternal life. In other words, we’ve been given access to the most significant realities one could imagine. Yet, we “are in the world” even if we’re not of it. The things that pervade our society inevitably creep into the church and shape the people of God. Apathy is no different.
So, pause and ask yourself: Where does apathy show up most in my life? What areas does it plague? How does apathy hinder me from living a full, kingdom of God kind of life? Let us see, own, and confess our sickness so as to put ourselves on the path of healing (see James 5:16). The Lord restores the contrite and brokenhearted (Pss. 34:18; 147:3; Isa. 66:2). God can wake us up from a life that feels like a show about nothing.
- Seinfeld, season 4, episode 9, “The Pitch,” directed by Tom Cherones, written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards, aired September 16, 1992.
- Francis Davis, “Recognition Humor,” The Atlantic Online (December 1992), https:// www.theatlantic.com/.
- Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (New York: Riverhead, 2008), 130.
- Nicole M. Roccas, Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith, 2017), 18.
- Norris, Acedia & Me, 131.
This article is adapted from Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care by Uche Anizor.
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