George Costanza, Cliff Clavin, Nick Miller, And In Praise Of Bumbling Characters

As the television season’s been winding to a close over the sweeps of May and the end of the spring prestige television season this June, I’ve been watching a great deal of Seinfeld. Though I grew up a non-television watcher, Seinfeld was one of the shows I caught repeatedly while I was at my cousin’s house*, and , as was the case with Friends, where I sensed that the show was enough of a phenomenon to feel that I needed to see the finale in real time, with everyone else. But I’ve been watching the episodes more systematically and with greater concentration, appreciating that what’s great about the Soup Nazi installment, for example, isn’t the catchphrase but everything going on around the utterance, loving everything about Elaine, marveling at every way Kramer finds to crash through a door. And I’ve been struck by something I didn’t expect: the refreshing dumbness of George Costanza.

We’re in a moment when all forms of ordinariness are being pushed to the margins in popular entertainment, particularly in television. Working- and genuinely middle-class people are the dramatic minority on television. Shows like Raising Hope, which follows the lives of a landscaper, a housekeeper, and a grocery store clerk, and The Middle, about a less abjectly-poor family, drown under a tide of gleaming luxury cars and lavish homes on Modern Family, the utterly unaffordable loft occupied by the young professionals on New Girl, even the seized beachfront palace where undercover agents hang out on USA’s police procedural Graceland. The stakes are always of the highest order: if it’s science fiction or fantasy like Lost Girl, the world is always about to end, if it’s a crime drama, the crime is always rape or murder, and if it’s a national security story, the terrorists are always extraordinarily competent. And we’re surrounded by experts and geniuses. Fox is trying to replicate House, about a brilliant but cantankerous doctor, with Rake, a drama about a brilliant but cantankerous lawyer. The labrats of the CSI franchise gave rise to the off-the-charts anthropologists, soil analysts, and artistic techs on Bones, who solve even more unsolvable crimes. Even in comedy, we’ve got fabulously-competent characters like Parks and Recreation‘s politician Leslie Knope and the late-lamented Happy Endings‘ Jane Kerkovich, who’s never met a turkey she can’t stuff the hell out of or a car purchase negotiation she can’t ace. We love brilliant super-villains, root for genius anti-heroes, cheer hyper-effective cops.

It’s doesn’t require a complex psychological explanation to explain why we like rooting for winners, even if they’re winning at endeavors like cooking methamphetamine in Albequerque or staging massacres at weddings. But in this highly aspirational environment, it’s amazing what a relief it is to spend time with the George Costanzas and Nick Millers of the world, people who don’t have it all figured out, and for whom the outcomes of any conflict aren’t always particularly certain.

Part of the reason these characters are appealing is that the stakes in their storylines feel more realistic. For George, Cliff Clavin on Cheers, and Nick on New Girl, the world can be a genuinely befuddling place in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. Women, both specifically and generally, come across as a real challenge. It makes sense that someone like George would lie about being a marine biologist to impress an attractive woman he knew slightly in college, even to the point of saving an actual whale, that Cliff would take any shot he possibly could, including with Diane, that Nick would hook up with an attractive stripper in a sleigh at a Christmas party to prove that he was adventurous. If romantic success seems like an uncertain prospect, then it makes sense that these characters would fail frequently, but not without good intentions, and that when they succeed, as Nick has with Jess this season, it’s a cause for considerable gratification, both for the characters, and for those of us rooting for them at home.

The same goes for work. It’s rare for popular culture to present people who hold lower-wage or service jobs, or who have trouble finding and keeping steady employment, rather than to portray dedicated professionals who excel in fields that are a match for their skills and interests. But some of these non-genius characters provide important and relatable alternative perspectives on work. On New Girl, Nick has drifted into bartending, and feels behind when he realizes the extent to which his other friends have pursued actual career paths, especially when a similarly-directionless Winston unexpectedly finds pleasure in a job at a talk radio station. Cliff Clavin’s work at the Postal Service, and how seriously he took his obligations there, may have been an object of some ridicule on Cheers, but his pride in his work on a show where tending bar and waiting tables were also treated as if they were occupations worthy of respect was a reminder that there’s more than one kind of valuable job, and that salary isn’t the only way to assign value to work. George’s reasons for blowing up his jobs may have been petty, whether he was throwing a tantrum over access to a nicer bathroom, or faking a disability, may have been petty, but given that, until his job with the Yankees, George had little reason to suspect he’d have really fulfilling work, these little things were much of what he could fight about or fight for. And on Parks and Recreation, the much-abused and not exceptionally competent Pawnee Parks Department employee Jerry Gergich turns out to be someone whose primary passion is his family, rather than his work. Making life better for his fellow Pawnee residents is a perfectly fine way to pay the bills, but what’s important to Jerry isn’t building parks, it’s singing over the dinner table with his wife and ludicrously gorgeous daughters.

And most of all, perhaps, characters who aren’t brilliant geniuses also have a tendency to be surprised by life or pleased by small aspects of it. George is an epic kvetcher, but that’s in line with the actual reality of his life, whether he’s failing at parking cars or getting stuck with a gorgeous but irritating woman who threatens to kill himself if he dumps her. When something goes right, like landing that Yankees job, he’s so surprised that his joy is contagious. Nick is similarly crotchety, but his enjoyment of things like pranks, or writing his zombie novel, even if it turns out apocalyptically badly, are charming in a small-scale way. The running gag of Cliff’s beloved but totally erroneous bits of trivia could make him pitiable, but his enjoyment of what he believes his knowledge, and the harmlessness of his errors, are contagious. We want to believe with him. In a world full of murders, rapes, conspiracies, terrorism, and standoffs, sometimes a container of soup, a mug of beer at a friendly neighborhood bar, and the comforts of home become the most important thing in the world, precisely because they’re so rare.

*That I also spent a lot of time paging through his comics collection and watching X-Men cartoons with him probably says a great deal about what had a formative influence on my mass-culture tastes.