February 10, 2023
“No one else wanted to come to India, not even Pinter’s parents, and they’re Indian!” says Sue Ellen, a guest character on the long-running TV sitcom Seinfeld (1989-98), referring to her future in-laws. And so the trio of friends — comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the titular character who plays himself; George Costanza (Jason Alexander); and Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) — find themselves at a dusty Indian airport on their way to attend Sue Ellen’s wedding. Incomprehensible gobbledygook blasts through the airport’s speakers.
Sue Ellen would be right. “India is a dreadful, dreadful place,” Mrs. Ranawat, Pinter’s mother, says. Her husband agrees: “It’s the only place that still has the plague. I mean, the plague!” Over a 21-minute episode, Seinfeld fans get to witness what, at best, is an Orientalist fever-dream interpretation of “India.”
Seinfeld is one of the highest-grossing sitcoms of all time, and Jerry Seinfeld is one of the most successful comedians in history, earning $1 million per episode in his eponymous show’s last season. Over nine seasons, in a series in which someone burns the Puerto Rican flag, fetishizes Chinese women, and sexually harasses teenage girls, its reduction of South Asians to comedic plot devices may seem inconsequential. But here’s where things get complicated: many South Asians agree that Seinfeldis problematic, but they adore the show.