Stop Being Offended By Classic TV (Not That There's Anything Wrong With That)
As it turns 30 today, the iconic 90s sitcom 'Seinfeld' is a compelling test case for how we approach what I call “retro TV offence”.
How do we take a show that strove to be so politically incorrect in the first place, so brazenly subversive, not always successfully, to spotlight prejudice and ignorance? How do we separate that from what we may see now as painfully cringeworthy treatments of hot button social issues?
I’ll admit, as a huge fan of the show, it’s difficult to criticise it. But along with Jerry’s (co-creator Jerry Seinfeld) high-waisted jeans and pristine, white dad kicks, and Elaine’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) big hair and shoulder pads, there are moments that haven’t always aged well.
Take the infamous fourth-season episode 'The Outing', where Jerry and George (Jason Alexander) panic that the young NYU reporter profiling Jerry thinks they’re a gay couple. It was 1993 and the line, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” quickly entrenched itself in the pop culture lexicon.
It was something of a clumsy attempt at gay acceptance, the irony being that the inclusion of the line was ordered by the show’s broadcaster NBC to offset any offence caused to the gay community by the storyline.
But looking back, the episode could be seen as homophobic, such is the level of George and Jerry’s gay hysteria. You could just as easily alter the catch phrase to “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But whatever you do, just don’t call me gay. I can under no circumstances be seen as being gay.”
Not so catchy is it? It would seem to be a faux acceptance of homosexuality at best. Even the episode’s pointed jab at the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy -- celebrated as progressive for the time -- now feels lost among the gay fear gags.
But here’s that complexity again -- you could also see the episode as a dig at faux gay acceptance, an attitude that still exists today when people say things like “I don’t have a problem with gay people, but..."
And George’s homophobia was lampooned with all the might of a male masseuse’s knuckle (the "it moved" moment from the 1991 episode 'The Note'), a character conversely prepared to feign being “steeped in gayness” to get out of a heterosexual relationship.
But then, all of Seinfeld’s quartet did reprehensible stuff. That’s how they were designed, whether you liked it or not.
Now, we find ourselves in the often awkward position of viewing these iconic TV flashpoints through an acutely PC, post #MeToo lens. Outrage over shows that are incongruous with our general worldview can seem misplaced.
Shouldn't we give it a rest already? Have we lost our sense of humour?
But, as the #MeToo movement has demonstrated so powerfully, we need to reflect on the mistakes and misdeeds of the past to better approach the present and future.
And so, to that other 90s sitcom juggernaut, Friends.
Much has been made of the wringing of millennial hands as they have discovered the show, supposedly taking great offense at everything from perceived sexism to homophobia, sexual abuse to transphobia, not to mention a curiously white rendition of New York City.
READ MORE: Why Lisa Kudrow Refuses To Watch 'Friends'
Again, it’s complicated. It’s one thing to be able to write off a show like, say, that bastion of bad taste, the 90s shock-com 'Married With Children' -- it was only ever intended to offend. But a much-loved show that has proved disturbingly tone deaf? That’s worth reflecting on.
I wasn’t as keen on 'Friends' as I was 'Seinfeld', but I have fond memories. Still, rewatching some episodes now leaves a bad taste -- the running 'Fat Monica' and "Everyone thinks Chandler is gay” gags (someone even went to the trouble of creating a 50-minute supercut of the show’s perceived homophobia), the derisive treatment of Chandler’s (Matthew Perry) transgender father (played by Kathleen Turner), letchy man-child Joey (Matt LeBlanc).
But hold the dial phone, is that a subversive flourish in Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), a woman no less, hiring an unqualified man as her assistant simply because he’s hot and she wants to date him?
Is Chandler’s gay anxiety just showing what twits sexuality insecure men can be?
And shouldn’t 'Friends' score points for featuring progressive storylines (for the time) like a lesbian couple raising a child?
Is it a bit rich to be so harsh on an old show when we’re still wrestling with many of the same issues in TV representation today?
But I do wonder how a much-desired Friends revival would play out and whether it could really work today. Iron all the politically incorrect kinks out as much as you like -- would it still be 'Friends' if Joey couldn’t say “How you doin’?”
Maybe we need to treat problematic retro TV as we might that old relative that sometimes makes an offensive comment at a family gathering. You can take issue, but you can still love them and think of them as of their time. Their ignorance doesn’t have to make up their totality.
Being conflicted about classic TV? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Featured Image: NBC