8 Retro sitcom storylines that couldn’t happen today: Seinfeld, Saved by the Bell, Friends
Another week, another reason to feel ancient. Just as we’d got over the fact Monica and Chandler are now old enough to go on Saga cruises and that it’s been a whole decade since Lindsay Lohan fell head-first into that bin, a new pop culture milestone arrives to plunge us all into a feedback loop of nostalgia and night cream. Seinfeld is 25!
For Gen Y-ers like myself, of course, Seinfeld has always been retro. When its last episode aired in 1998 I was busy giving my VHS of Spice World: The Movie a daily workout and crushing on Spiller from The Borrowers; it would take a pretty precocious 10-year-old to appreciate the subtle nuances (or even the less subtle ones) of Larry David’s writing.
So while the humour has barely aged a day, I’ve always watched it as a sort of historical text, fascinated by the early 90s-ness of it all. The height of Elaine’s boofy fringe, the whiteness of Jerry’s sneakers, the amount of time spent driving around in cars that look like boats, and, of course, the curious absence of technology.
For digital natives, I imagine watching many of comedy’s best-loved storylines must now feel a bit like watching Laurel and Hardy hitting each other round the head with ladders. So many obstacles, so many digital solutions that haven’t been invented yet. Why wouldn’t he just TEXT her? Why can’t she just Uber a taxi? Couldn’t that whole misunderstanding have been resolved with an appropriate gif? And, the one I can never wrap my head around – if you went to meet a friend and they didn’t turn up, did you just shrug and go home again?
Here are eight scenarios from sitcoms of yore that simply couldn’t happen now:
Seinfeld – The Chinese Restaurant
Just take a moment to think about payphones. Time was they were on every corner, ready to help, smelling only faintly of urine and sadness. Think how many great moments in television and cinema revolve around payphones – Dirty Harry, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the entire movie Phone Booth. And of course George Costanza, fighting over a payphone in a Chinese restaurant to apologise the woman he abandoned mid-seduction the night before because he needed a more private toilet. Were it to happen today, a simple What’sApp of the smiling turd emoji ten minutes later could have resolved everything.
Saved By The Bell – Zack’s phone
True, you can technically still pose as a friend’s parent to get out of an algebra test or fool your headteacher into believing you’re a student with multiple personality disorder who’s lost at the mall with one of our run-of-the-mill small phones, but you know it wouldn’t work. Without the heft of a Zack-style brick at your ear, you’d probably lose your nerve halfway through and hang up – because that phone wasn’t just a cumbersome communication device, it was the source of all Morris’ power. His Samson’s hair or wizard of Oz’s screen, if you will.
You can actually buy your own brick (helpfully called ‘The Brick’) for $70, and it comes with a colossal three months of battery life. Just think how many times you could punk Mr Belding with that.
Seinfeld – The Phone Message
Apparently we’re all terrified of leaving voicemails these days anyway, and when there are a million cosy, non-confrontational messaging alternatives, there’s something about voice contact that feels increasingly… demanding. Talk to me! Talk to me NOW! Listen to me telling you what I would have said if you’d answered!
Not so in 1991 Manhattan, where the mystical world of dating was such that your phone messages could be the difference between living happily ever after with twelve kids and dying alone in a dressing gown with Cheerios stuck to your chin. The crux of this plot, George stealing a woman’s answerphone tape before she hears all the mad messages he’s left her while she’s been on holiday, wouldn’t work today of course because they’d be on her phone, which would have been in her hand the whole time. He’d have to cut his losses, join Tinder and plead anonymity when she puts the story on Reddit a week later.
Friends – She got off the plane!
Speaking of answerphones, they were still a thing in 2004 Manhattan too. Thought there’s a chance they hung on longer in TV land than they did in real life, purely so we could all hear what was going on. If Ross had privately listened to his voicemail on his cellphone instead, Rachel’s famous arrival line would have been a bit like saying, “I walked up some stairs!” or “I got a tasteful side fringe!” – factually correct, but hardly iconic. We’ll forgive you for taking that phalange off the pulse, guys.
Seinfeld – The Invitations
Pretty much the epiotome of the show’s “no hugging, no learning” policy, George’s fiancé’s tragic (but convenient) demise could have been avoided altogether if they’d just done the wedding invites by email, through a service like Paperless Post. I know this doesn’t help you now, Susan, but isn’t it comforting to know the future has given us less toxic options? RIP.
Sex and the City – All of it, basically
Sex and the City: a show so modern in so many ways but so backward in so many others. Among all the millions of things we can’t help but wonder about SATC now (how did Aidan meet and marry a lady and have a baby in the time it took Carrie to get a haircut? How many tedious copywriting jobs was she secretly juggling on the side of her column to afford even half a Manolo?), one is the characters’ almost adorable naivety when it comes to technology. Carrie gets the internet about five years after the rest of New York, and even then only to hide under desk in case the people on the other end of her IMs can “see” her. These days she’d have been usurped by a perky lifestyle blogger quicker than you can say ‘sponsored content’.
The Office – Tim and Dawn
A long as there are jobs to be done and humans to do them, we will have workplace romances. But the exquisite, aching joy of Tim and Dawn’s early noughties flirtation was the fact it all took place out in the open, across desks and over Gareth’s head. Had it all been fast-tracked on Gmail Chat and Skype, by the time Yazoo came on at the end of series Christmas party we’d have nothing to weep at because they’d already have hooked up, broken up and sent each other several passive aggressive reply-all emails about the air conditioning.
Seinfeld – The Soup Nazi
Two words: Trip Advisor.