The Reading Room
Paradise Now! Milton, Seinfeld, and the Single Life
We often associate “I’ll never forget where I was when…” memories with tragic events, like the JFK assassination or 9/11. But sometimes we have these memories about happy occasions and other personally and culturally significant events too. For many of us (at least for those of us who are Millennials or older), one of those occasions was the final episode of Seinfeld, perhaps the most widely anticipated episode of TV in American history. This year marks the 25th anniversary of that episode.
Although so much in my life has happened since that last season of Seinfeld, I still remember that episode—and that day—rather clearly. I was in 7th grade that year, and it was only a few weeks before my bar mitzvah. It was a beautiful spring day in western Massachusetts, and I had gone home to watch the episode after having played basketball with my friends. The finale itself was disappointing to many of us Seinfeld fans at the time, but over the years I have grown to appreciate and understand its logic the more I think about and watch the show’s earlier seasons.
The finale was watched by a staggering 76 million people, a viewer total that we’re virtually assured of will never, ever happen again in this age of hyper-fragmented viewership. (If the finale of The Crown, which has begun streaming on Netflix this month, gets even 10% of this viewership, its producers and crew will have reason to celebrate like its 1998.) Seinfeld’s extraordinary success and enduring appeal is a result of many elements that made the show so unique and refreshingly distinctive from anything else that had ever before been seen on television.
One of those elements was the motif of lifestyle unconventionality. Up to that point in American TV history, the overwhelming majority of popular TV shows focused on families. From Leave it to Beaver to The Brady Bunch to The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show, it was almost inconceivable to imagine a mainstream American TV show that didn’t prominently feature a family. Even The Simpsons, Seinfeld’s “subversive” contemporary that President George H. W. Bush once infamously criticized for lacking traditional family values—still revolved around a family: Marge and Homer, and their children Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. (And don’t forget their dog Santa’s Little Helper; after all, what all-American family would be complete without one? The Simpsons even have a cat to boot—Snowball—as if they’re making sure to cover any and all possible bases.)
Seinfeld broke radically from this family-first paradigm. Rather than having at its center a family of four, it dared instead to feature four single people. Even more radical yet was that none of them ever appeared to have a burning desire to get married and start a family. During the one season when George happens to be engaged, he is never particularly eager to actually get married. (*Spoiler alert*—as if it’s possible to spoil one of the most-viewed TV shows of all time—but, hey, you never know who’s out there who still hasn’t seen it!) When George’s opportunity to marry his fiancée shockingly evaporates, he feels more relieved—even lucky—than he does cursed. The one time that Jerry considers marriage, he quickly quashes the idea as soon as he discovers how strangely his girlfriend treats her food (“she eats her peas one at a time!”). Elaine is more preoccupied with her publishing career and her own series of exasperating boyfriends than she is with the idea of marriage and a family. And, as far as Kramer is concerned? All you need to know about Jerry’s neighbor’s stance on marriage is encapsulated in his hilarious (and perhaps scarily true) riff on marriage that he delivers to Jerry when he learns that his comedian pal has been thinking about the wedded life:
What are you thinking about, Jerry? Marriage? Family? They’re prisons! Manmade prisons! You’re doing time! You get up in the morning—she’s there! You go to sleep at night—she’s there! It’s like you gotta ask permission to, to, to use the bathroom. “Is it alright if I use the bathroom now?” And you can forget about watching TV while you’re eating. You know why? Because it’s “dinner time”. You know what you do at dinner? You talk about your day. “How was your day today? Did you have a good day today or a bad day today? What kind of day was it? And what about you?, how was your day?” It’s sad, Jerry. It’s a sad state of affairs.
Seinfeld’s revolutionary approach to family dynamics and its mold-breaking embrace of singlehood changed the name of the game in American TV, opening a pathway for shows like Friends, Will & Grace, Sex in the City, and Girls. But as groundbreaking as Seinfeld’s breaking-from-the-family-first paradigm may have been in TV history, it was not entirely unprecedented if we expand our range of reference to literary history—and to the life and work of John Milton specifically.
John Milton—who has been as influential in English poetry as Jerry Seinfeld has been in American comedy—may come across today as the embodiment of literary and cultural conventionality. When we think of his magnum opus, Paradise Lost, we may tend to associate it with stodgy, arcane, old-fashioned capital-L Literature, in contrast to the avant-garde modernist and postmodernist literature that has been steadily filling bookshelves and course syllabi over the past several decades. But this stereotyping of Paradise Lost belies the ways in which Milton’s epic was more radical—in form as well as content—as anything that had preceded it. And the picture of Milton as the archetype of staid dead-white-male conventionality does not in any way do justice to how daringly unconventional John Milton actually was—not only in his poetry and political advocacy but in his personal life as well.
Although Jerry & Elaine and co. may not have realized it, it was Milton who set the precedent for the Seinfeld crew’s family-less lives. Milton was a child intellectual prodigy, penning learned poetry at a young age, mastering biblical literature, Latin and Greek, and graduating with an M.A. from Cambridge in 1632. It appeared to almost anyone that knew him that Milton was destined for a life in the clergy (or in another profession where his vast learning would be an asset). But rather than pursuing a path in the Anglican Church, and—even more audaciously for the time—rather than immediately pursuing marriage and a family, Milton, after graduating, spent the next half-decade-plus of his life in solitary study. Milton decided to pursue his own path rather than the one that society and conventionality were dictating for him. During his six years of intensive solo study, Milton mastered even more languages and disciplines (history, philosophy, biblical Hebrew, and political theory) that he would draw upon when writing his masterwork Paradise Lost. Without his sharp break from conventionality, Milton would never have been able to write the literary work which would eventually come to define literary conventionality.
To be sure, Milton did eventually marry and start a family. (Though—spurred by problems in his first marriage—he was also one of the first public intellectuals to argue for the permissibility of divorce.) So did Seinfeld, who is now a happily married family-man father of three, now almost unrecognizable (at least in his lifestyle) from the new-girlfriend-per-week bachelor that he played on the show. And while Elaine may have played a single character on Seinfeld, in real life not only was she married when the show was on the air; she even had two children during that span of time—during the show’s third and eighth seasons. (In order to make the newfound bulge in her belly explicable to viewers, Seinfeld, Larry David, and the show’s other writers thought about creating a running plotline during those seasons in which the fictional Elaine would become pregnant and have a baby. They instead chose to conceal the real-life actress’s pregnancy through the cover of clever wardrobe choices.)
It may be that family-free unconventionality can only go so far. In the end, most people do end up wanting (and needing) some form of family life—John and Jerry alike. But what Milton and Seinfeld both tell us is that we should not be afraid to take a few zigs and zags before getting there. Those temporary detours may not necessarily produce the next Seinfeld or Paradise Lost—but they may end up helping us accomplish significant things in our own right, in our own time.