The long-running sitcom Seinfeld has been in frequent syndication on cable and local network channels continuously for two decades after its conclusion. And every time I catch an episode or two, I am struck by how wrong is that frequently heard characterization of the series as being “about nothing.” It ran for nine years, from 1989 to 1998, and, as readers probably know, starred stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld playing a version of himself. In the series, he lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and has three ubiquitously close friends: the ever-buoyant Kramer (Michael Richards), an anachronistic beatnik with vintage tastes who seems to survive on the cuff and lives across the hall; the chronically insecure, occasionally pompous, and amusingly unprincipled George (Jason Alexander), who has been friends with Jerry since the fourth grade; and Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the lone female, formerly Jerry’s girlfriend, now just a friend, smart and pretty. A little more bookish than the others, she sometimes holds herself superior, but she is as tightly bound to the set as any.

The “about nothing” designation came from the show itself. In one ongoing storyline, Jerry and George pitch a television series based on their own lives and experiences, and George describes it as being “about nothing.” The idea caught on as a description of the actual series, in which, for example, a loaf of marble rye can figure importantly in the plot on more than one occasion, and locating where a car is parked in a suburban mall or waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant can take up whole episodes. (One promotion for the series in repeats advertised that “Nothing is on at 6:30 and midnight.”)

The truth is, considered as a whole, and even episode by episode, the series is very much about a lot of things, and it may be the first situation comedy truly to achieve the status of art.

It’s a comic study of life after several decades of a counterculture that supposedly upended all the rules of life, definitely obscured the path to maturity, and persistently encouraged doing as one likes. The characters are thirty and beyond, roughly early to late Baby Boomers, but often behave like kids, cutting up at concerts, engaging in middle-school slapping matches, arguing over Drake’s coffee cake, and given to playing with the toys they nostalgically remember from childhood if the opportunity presents itself. Except for Kramer, who has a penchant for various idiosyncratic undertakings, they are all college graduates, and they do intermittently pursue important life landmarks—jobs, careers, promotions, apartments, relationships. Jerry is the most securely fixed, as a minor but fairly well-known and constantly working comedian who appears on late-night television. But the series is less about these things than about stumbling and staggering and sailing through not-so-early adulthood in a world with few trusted guidelines: one where you have to make it up as you go.

And it isn’t just younger people who inhabit this rudderless world. Even the professionals can be amazingly unprofessional, like the blabbermouth rabbi who casually reveals Elaine’s embarrassing confidences in a very public way, the dentist who keeps Penthouse in his waiting room (and converts to Judaism and starts making Jewish jokes), the mohel with a bad case of nerves, and the boss who wants to play instead of work. Add to this parents and other seniors equally caught up in comical dramas of the minute details of their unfinished lives, especially Jerry’s and George’s excitable fathers, and the world is filled with irrepressible people spinning around by their own lights, colliding as if propelled by Brownian motion.

The very form of the show is shaped by this pattern. Some of the earliest episodes have a more conventional sitcom feel, with clear laugh lines and obvious comic buildup, and even a more developed Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end. But soon a unique format emerged—several storylines running at once, not necessarily intersecting, with quick cuts from one to the other, punctuated by bursts of electric strings that herald the next stage of nonresolution. “No hugs, no learning” is the motto the show took for itself—and handsomely fulfilled in its comic circularity.

The series also satirizes contemporary pieties that have somehow come to prevail in a supposedly anything-goes environment, and makes comedy out of the very stuff of political correctness. George wants a certain choice apartment and finds that his rival for it is a survivor of the Andrea Doria, a shipwreck that, unlike the Titanic, eventuated in relatively little loss of life. Nevertheless, George has to work up his own life story of pain in order to compete before the building’s blubbering rental board, a broad send-up of how Americans are now encouraged to contend for status as the greatest victim and are rewarded for how much they can claim to have suffered. (In the end, the apartment goes to a man who tips the super.)

Then there’s race and the presumed glamour of “diversity.” In one episode, Elaine and a new boyfriend are each under the impression that the other is a “minority.” He could be a very light-skinned African American; her last name, Benes, sounds Puerto Rican to him. When they realize their mistake, the frisson of superiority over their supposedly interracial romance evaporates, and it’s two white people off to the Gap for a run-of-the-mill shopping date. Jokes about dentists as failed, would-be doctors become “anti-dentism.” An episode in which George and Jerry must repeatedly deny that they are gay is filled with the ritualistic refrain “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

And the show detects the coerciveness that lurks under the huggy solidarity of today. Although Kramer is an eager participant in an AIDS walk, he resists wearing the red ribbon and is set upon by angry fellow marchers who cannot abide any deviation from the conspicuous compassion agenda. A movement toward greater friendliness begins in Jerry’s apartment building, but when he resists the subsequent kissing and high-fiving routine that occurs at every encounter, the newly friendly neighbors turn extravagantly nasty toward him. Likewise, when the quartet takes unwarranted advantage of a handicap spot to park, it arouses such fury in onlookers that they turn into a raging mob and destroy the car.

Even illness and handicaps are not exempt from satirical treatment. Pretending to a minor disability, George finds that he receives ostentatiously deferential treatment, until, of course, he is found out. Another episode builds up a huge reservoir of sympathy over a “bubble boy,” whose damaged immune system necessitates his living behind a plastic shield. Yet the bubble boy turns out, unsentimentally, to be a minor monster of belligerence, with a distinctly grown man’s grouchy voice, who maybe doesn’t even feel as sorry for himself as others do.

Doing good for others is a worthy thing, but not the answer for a directionless life, nor an automatic path to redemption. A plan to do volunteer work with senior citizens backfires, as our heroes are clearly not ready for even the most minimal self-forgetfulness. Attempting to address any class divide or inequality results in disaster as well; considerately providing a rocking chair for a security guard on duty leads to a robbery, and befriending a resentful doorman only unleashes more resentfulness. (It has to be said that even purely good intentions can backfire, as Jerry learns when he tries to give his father a Cadillac.)

None of the lead characters can be relied on for anything, as they often disappoint each other and wreck one another’s plans. Any secret confided and supposedly “locked in the vault” will soon be heard abroad. And for that matter, practically any plan involving Kramer precipitates disaster for himself and others, but people trust him again and again, with his promise of a kind of weird Beat-era “hipster doofus” transcendence, which, it has to be said, he does infrequently deliver on.

With Elaine and Jerry looking after his affairs, a Pakistani immigrant loses his restaurant and is eventually deported. Back in his home country, he plots revenge and will reappear in fine form at the end of the series. George is helping Jerry refine his dating skills but is distracted by a Frisbee game. Jerry makes Elaine burst out laughing at the piano recital of George’s girlfriend, thus ruining their otherwise budding relationship. An acquaintance’s twelve-step program is undone by George’s obstinate refusal to accept his offer to “make amends.”

Periodically one or another may try to escape the tight little band, but trapped in the revolving door of comedy, Laurel and Hardy–like, they wind up with each other all over again. Kramer goes to pursue a film career in Los Angeles and innocently manages to become a murder suspect. Deploring the aimlessness of her life in the quartet, Elaine stumbles upon a “bizarro” world in which Jerry, George, and Kramer have their fantastic opposites, a steady, nerdy, super-responsible, delicately sensitive trio of young men. Elaine thinks she has found her release, except that the unbridled behavior nurtured in the original band soon has her ejected from the new group.

Despite the free-form, free-fall, supposedly about-nothing concept, the series is anything but nihilistic. Words, actions, decisions, no matter how small and insignificant, bring consequences. Lying, petty dishonesty, minor deceptions, for example, although assumed to be yawningly acceptable and routine, always bring reprisal. The least transgression or misstep on the part of the insular and often heedless quartet will earn its share of punishment, embarrassment, or pain.

George pretends he’s a wealthy businessman and gets fleeced by a predatory woman. Cutting corners to obtain a good suit on sale, he finds that it makes swishing noises as he walks. He confidently manufactures a story to worm out of being a Big Brother mentor, but the lie leads to his being stuck having to chaperone a bratty kid anyway.

A depressed Elaine conspicuously makes out with a guy at an office party and, to avoid being labeled a “skank,” pretends they are actually involved. This results in her having to nurse him through a particularly messy cold-turkey withdrawal from drugs. Another time, her refusal to tell her true disdain for the overhyped prestige film The English Patient means having to sit through it in agony once again.

In one of the funniest episodes, Jerry and George deliberately misrepresent themselves in order to take another traveler’s limousine home from the airport and are thrust into a nest of neo-Nazis.

Thus with the marble rye: dishonestly obtained by Jerry, though in an arguably good cause, to help George with his future in-laws, it eventually figures months later in Jerry’s father’s thoroughly ridiculous ouster for corruption from his Florida condo board (in which that cursed Cadillac is also involved).

* * *

Much of the old ways may have passed, but the idea that we can make our own rules, govern our own lives, and live by our own lights is repeatedly questioned, or shall we say, interrogated. There really is an order in the universe, an inescapable moral law still presiding in its effects, a kind of comic principle of retribution always at work. For one thing, the universe is amusingly small, even in the big city, and it can be as hard to get away with things as it was in the days of Ozzie and Harriet and the Nelsons. Jerry and a girlfriend make out during a viewing of Schindler’s List (another prestige film, this one deservedly so), only to be spotted by enemy Newman (the very funny Wayne Knight), a frequent minor character, who by coincidence is in the theatre and reports them to their parents, who all happen to be around and who are suitably condemnatory.

Even deeds of decades ago are liable to come back. A library book Jerry never returned brings us Mr. Bookman, yes Bookman, the library investigator who lectures on the decline of standards. The old rules still hang in the air. Concern about using profanity in front of a kid shows that bad habits, once ingrained, are hard to break.

Rattling around in insecure manhood, worried about being “wusses,” Jerry and George might occasionally be reminded of earlier models of masculinity—the Soup Nazi, who demands strict observance of discipline in his shop (only to be undone by Elaine), or the gaggle of hard-drinking, profanity-spewing businessmen whose company George actually enjoys. But Elaine’s father, a Hemingway-style writer and Korean War vet played flawlessly by Hollywood tough guy Lawrence Tierney, has Jerry and George quaking in the men’s room.

Comedy itself is something of a structure in the series. Allusions and references to comedians of the past pop up, and sometimes they are imitated outright: the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts. Settings include the old-fashioned Friars Club and the very different contemporary comedy club in which Jerry performs the monologues that open the show, which are not nearly as funny as the show itself. And then there are the old time comics who appear in person: Pat Cooper, Jerry Stiller as George’s father. A further commentary on comedy comes from some members of the censorious Florida condo board, who disdain Jerry’s brand of humor. Even the idea of a show about show business reprises an old genre. Fred Astaire movies were often about people in musical theatre and vaudeville. The Dick Van Dyke Show was about writing for Sid Caesar.

Sensing their lack of larger purpose, the leads do periodically examine their lives. They even discuss their childishness and immaturity, and occasionally make efforts to do better, but somehow never seem to progress in self-understanding. Still, a shadow of a feeling that there is a better way to live haunts them. George’s greatest success comes when he ditches all his usual habits and goes with the reverse of his deceitful tendencies—that is, complete honesty. And it works beyond his dreams, even landing him a dream job with the Yankees. On another occasion, when he forgoes sex for a time because a girlfriend thinks she is ill, he becomes a near genius with his now thoroughly sublimated supply of energy, focus, and discipline.

Such victories cannot last, however, since they are just flukes, as is Elaine’s being hired by the J. Peterman catalogue, which is rather shamelessly satirized, another send-up of contemporary efforts at meaning, in this case through clothes with Third World panache.

Shards of previous ethical codes remain, but no abiding principles. Religion enters in fits and starts. Elaine is troubled that her dim-witted boyfriend is a Christian, something she cannot understand—she prefers “dumb and lazy to religious”—yet she resents his thinking she’s going to hell for her unbelief. (A priest jocularly informs them that, owing to their premarital intimacy, they are both going to hell.) George converts to an Eastern Orthodox religion for the sake of winning a girl, who then defects to the home country. A bris raises all kinds of concerns but none particularly spiritual.

The culture, too, floats in fragments about them but forms no coherent whole. Historical references drift by: Stalin, Chamberlain, the siege of Leningrad, concentration camps, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and the memorable Van Buren Boys, as well as references to art, drama, literature, opera, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. Contemporary European fiction writers whom Elaine encounters when she enters publishing are (amusingly) dark and bad tempered. One clever episode has Newman whispering poetry to Kramer, Cyrano-like, so he can woo a young lady. (Kramer gets the words wrong.) Another quite dazzling episode tracks Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in plot and theme and music. Yet another uses Pagliacci as a backdrop for one of Elaine’s jealous and unbalanced admirers. The characters wring some insight from popular culture: Superman, Star Trek, The Godfather, The Graduate, and from the past too: Death of a Salesman, Sunset Boulevard—but this gets them only so far. One bit has them probing and parsing the song “Downtown” for direction. And as for chick-flick movies that supposedly show us where we are in male/female romance, they are only for spoofing.

They often try to fashion some rules on the go in a culture that claims there are none. A grievance call on a cell phone is a no-no. As casual as we are, it’s not acceptable to go around in velvet sweats. Not leaving a note on a car you’ve dented is decidedly blameworthy, as is shoplifting. George insists that New York City drivers have a pact with pigeons, who know to get out of the way of moving vehicles, but not with squirrels, who have no business being in the streets. Sometimes one or another of the characters will remember the demands of “society,” or “civilization,” even when arguing for a parking place.

Some of the biggest puzzles arise as the quartet improvise and use the shreds of remembered decorum to help them in an era of casual sex. Are you obliged to call a woman after a single date? (Jerry doesn’t, only to run into her at a party where she subjects him to loud, withering condemnation.) What is the exact protocol for handling a tearful woman? How many more dates must you suffer before breaking up with someone you’ve slept with? When do you have to break up in person? How can you tell if a relationship is serious? Do you scrub the bathroom when a girlfriend comes over? Is she keeping her intimate things at your place? They all put so much on sex and so little thought into the relationship that they have to consult outward signs in order to assess where they are. (Still, it’s a notable distance from the utter affectlessness and indifference we hear about in the campus hook-up culture today.)

The way they behave is almost a primer on what not to do in relationships. One can see the human organism frustrating its own desires by pursuing now one of them, now another, instead of ordering them as goods. George even attempts to bring all his lusts together in one instant: food, sex, and television. The quartet are so unaware of their real needs that, even when they get what they want, they don’t want it. A long anticipated weekend in Vermont is a numbing bore. A sexy Brit Elaine meets on vacation turns out to be a snobbish boor. Jerry is so fastidious about women that, when he finds one just like himself, he’s turned off.

They often find themselves aswim as the free-range culture gets ahead of them, catching them between advancing phases of sexual license. Jerry feels uncomfortable having sex with a girlfriend while his parents are staying at his apartment. A married woman makes herself available to George and terrifies him with the idea of adultery. Sure enough, her husband menaces him with old-fashioned spousal jealousy. Trying to scare off the extra female in a triangle that has formed, George and Jerry discover that some women find the idea of a threesome quite enticing. Jerry might show up to take a woman out and see that she’s living with another guy in some mysterious arrangement. On the other hand, when she ditches the dude and decides to devote herself to him, Jerry suddenly realizes he doesn’t want her.

They complain about lack of partners, yet sabotage promising relationships again and again. George ignores a woman who is genuinely interested in him and even enjoys his silly sense of humor because he’s obsessed with making Jerry’s current girlfriend like him. Elaine, too, destroys a relationship with a perfect guy because he failed to put an exclamation point on a special message! Another is ditched because he disagrees with her pro-choice politics. Yet the men she does link up with she sometimes can’t wait to get out of her bed and out of her life.

And the partners the four do fasten on are not for them. In a bout of self-examination, George and Jerry make some kind of obscure pact to marry, which Jerry promptly abrogates under the influence of Kramer. George gets himself engaged, but he’s put the cart before the horse; he and his bride-to-be are woefully incompatible, and George is conspicuously unhappy in the relationship. Making up a rule that it is OK to go out with others even when you’re spoken for as long as there’s no sex, he tries to date Marisa Tomei (playing herself), who socks him a good one when he blurs the implications of being “engaged.”

Yet when circumstances conspire to get him out of the engagement, he begs to get back in. His fiancée’s improbable and still comic death—from licking the cheap toxic envelopes he bought for their wedding invitations—finally frees him: frees him, that is, to return to his previous frustrations and to tend her flame in a time-consuming charity devoted to her memory (a foundation inadvertently suggested by Jerry).

And for all the attention to it and the relative ease with which it can be had, sex seems to yield less the expected ecstasy than chronic dissatisfaction. When Elaine is asked by a sexually inexperienced young woman what sex is like, she responds with a dismissive shrug and an “ehhh.” In one episode she discombobulates Jerry by letting slip that she faked orgasm all through their relationship. Thinking about the demands of a dinner date, Jerry observes that “sex is meaningless, but dinner takes an hour.” Jerry would rather play with a girlfriend’s vintage toys than have sex. And he discovers that having a beautiful naked blonde around the apartment is not the Hugh Hefner fantasy it may sound like.

Even the businesslike way Elaine is shown interviewing potential lovers as “sponge-worthy”—that is, worth her using her limited supply of her preferred birth control—only suggests a sex life more perfunctory than free. (At times it seems she anticipates the grasping, self-centered feminist Louis-Dreyfus will portray in Veep.)

It all culminates in the series’s conclusion, in which the four do nothing but laugh as a haplessly overweight young man is roughed up (very minimally) and his car stolen. They are actually arrested and put on trial for negligence and violation of some Good Samaritan law that has recently been passed in the small town in which they find themselves. They are defended by the delightful Jackie Chiles, the Johnnie Cochran–like lawyer brilliantly played by Phil Morris, who appeared intermittently in the role during earlier seasons. In the two-part, hour-long finale, every person who has a beef against them shows up to condemn the quartet for their carelessness, heedlessness, selfishness, whatever, to the shock of the packed courtroom—a scene that brings back most of the wonderful character actors who inhabited the series in different capacities. In this episode, too, when the four leads believe they may be near death as their plane plunges downward, there is a moment in which that better life not lived comes briefly to the surface, only to be forgotten when the danger passes.

In the Kafkaesque trial at the end, it turns out that the four are guilty, again and again, as each of the people they’ve supposedly wronged in previous episodes comes to make the case against them. And the judge’s name is Vandelay, the silly alias George used for a bunch of his doomed intrigues, a sign that the reckoning of destiny approaches. And sure enough, they are given a year in jail (Kramer sees the bright side; they won’t have to wonder what to do on Saturday nights), where it soon becomes abundantly clear that they still haven’t learned a whit: in a comic vision of Sartre’s No Exit, as they sit in a holding cell, Jerry repeats the line with which the whole series started nine years earlier.

Many viewers disliked the closing episode, but it was an aesthetically perfect ending, as well as audaciously enjoyable. As the Supreme Court has instructed us on the meaning of our democratic freedoms: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This was Anthony Kennedy’s famous “sweet-mystery-of-life” passage, as Antonin Scalia mocked it later in one of his dissents. It might lead to happiness. Or then again, it might land you behind bars.

Carol Iannone is editor at large of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.