Death be not proud…but he was downright haughty after the season finale of Seinfeld. The episode — in which Susan, George’s fiancee, dies after licking toxic glue off their wedding invitation envelopes — has polarized fans into two camps: those who found Susan’s demise to be the blackest of comedies, and those who recoiled at George & Co.’s cavalier reaction. Either way, the great beyond has become the subject of much morbid buzz.
”I was tremendously upset, to the point where I wonder if I should ever watch that show again,” says Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, who wrote the best-selling How We Die, a series of reflections about death in America. ”What has happened with death is what happened with sexuality — it’s come out of the closet. Unfortunately, like sexuality, it has come out in a form that is both enormously helpful and enormously disgusting.”
But actress Heidi Swedberg, who played the doomed Susan, defends her character’s fate as revealing rather than tasteless. ”A lot of the show’s humor is based on the fact that the main characters are not nice people,” she says. ”They admit to things the rest of us think about but don’t like to admit.”
For its part, NBC says it logged only a handful of complaints about the episode. But according to a source close to the show, network execs initially objected to the script, but failed to convince then-outgoing series cocreator Larry David — who in the past has chafed under NBC’s supervision — to revise the story. ”This was Larry David’s ‘screw you,”’ says the source. NBC denies having any problems with the finale; Jerry Seinfeld and David refused to comment.
Interestingly, Seinfeld’s finale is only the latest in a growing death-as-entertainment trend. For example: ”Death pool” sites have been proliferating on the World Wide Web, where participants bet on which celebrities will buy the farm in a given year (popular choices in ‘96 include Ronald Reagan and Courtney Love); DEATH: The Ultimate Horror, an independent video featuring graphic footage of executions and animal maulings from around the world (the video is unofficially banned in Canada and England), has shipped a respectable 15,000 copies since April; and ’60s icon and terminal cancer victim Timothy Leary has been recording his intake of painkillers on his website, as preparation for the first online suicide.
One explanation for this current morbid fascination with death is the mind-set of baby-boomer entertainment execs, now at an age when mortality no longer comes with a laugh track. ”Yuppies thought they invented youth,” says TV producer Nancy Miller, whose coroner drama, Exit Elves, is under consideration at ABC for a mid-season slot. ”Now they think they’ve invented death.” Which is to say that in Hollywood, death — or at least the debate over death — won’t be taking a holiday anytime soon.
(Reporting by Jennifer Pendleton, A.J.S. Rayl, and T.L. Stanley)