Today features a review of the first two seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Have a good weekend, folks.
If you had videotaped me watching the first ten episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it would’ve looked like I was watching a particularly great horror movie—wary eyes peeking out from between rigid fingers, grimace on my face, knees squeezed together, laughing so maniacally that it’s obvious I’m doing so in self-defense. And you’d be half right. Each episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which David plays an exaggeration (I hope so, anyway) of himself as a rich comedy writer in Los Angeles, is like watching a bloody train wreck in slow-motion—you know how awful it’s about to become, but you’re powerless to stop it.
David is a caustic man without tact, who constantly finds himself in awkward social situations that are usually caused, at least in part, by his own ineptitude and acerbity. It’s the funniest show I’ve seen on television since Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It’s certainly funnier than Seinfeld, which David co-created. Built upon improvised scenarios, CYE’s conversations fly by the seat of their pants; its overlapping subplots weave themselves together in startling, hilarious ways; and its technical messiness is somehow endearing.
The episodes both start and end in media res, as if the directors are cutting snippets from David’s life. Each scene is shot in seven or eight takes, and then the best parts of each take are indeed cut-and-pasted together to form a coherent scene. This jumpy editing—combined with the fact that it’s shot on handheld, digital video cameras—gives the series an antic, nervous cinematic sense. The show deals with the same issues as Seinfeld—the vagaries of everyday social interactions, the potentials for dangerous miscommunication in even the most minor affairs, sexual and romantic politics—but CYE is angrier, more anxious, and, most importantly, more cinematic. The DV cameras and innovative editing give the show more freedom than the theatrical lighting and stationary camera of most sitcoms.
This freedom is wonderfully hazardous. Despite all the warning signs, and we always know Larry’s gonna get himself in trouble, CYE is constantly surprising. When his wife’s family asks him to publish an obituary for a departed aunt, we know it’ll end badly. We can’t imagine that the newspaper would ever publish it beginning with the phrase “Louise Hoenin, charitable mother, beloved”—well, substitute the “a” for another letter. Things go downhill from there.
The fact that he’s allowed to frequently screw up—and not in cute, easily solvable family-comedy ways—is what differentiates CYE from Everybody Loves Raymond. Because we see things from Larry’s point-of-view, we see the disconnection between how he perceives himself (as the woe-begotten, sharp-as-a-tack mensch) and how he really is (an off-putting, selfish jerk). At his core, he’s got dignity—he almost always says what he means, usually when it’s wildly inappropriate; he can’t lie to his wife (even when he desperately wants to); he generally starts things off trying to do right by people (and failing miserably). Because we see both his emotional core and how it gets transmitted to the rest of the world, we both sympathize with and are repelled by him. In short, you can see why his wife (played by improv-comedy veteran Cheryl Hines) loves him, but also why she spends so much time imagining him on a torture rack.
For their interactions alone, it’s worth the price of admission. The show captures the aimless talks, curdling pseudo-arguments, and resignation that are part of every long-term relationship. Helped along by cinematic techniques that are as jittery and nervewracking as its characters and conversations, CYE is comedy that makes you seasick. You’re laughing hysterically while ducking for cover.
In season 1, David is an Everyman, despite the fact that—unlike most people—he’s Jewish, super-rich, doesn’t really work, and has famous friends. His foibles suggested that he was connected to us despite all traits to the contrary. We laughed in self-defense, because we saw ourselves in him. The second season concentrates on his efforts to pitch a new TV show to executives. Everything about the show has been supersized: more celebrities, more courtside seats at the Lakers, more excessive consumerism.
The episodes get increasingly outlandish in design. Oddly, the rarified bubble in which he lives becomes smaller, more site-specific, and more opaque. When he accidentally trips Shaquille O’Neal during a Lakers game, it’s hilarious, but there’s always a twinge in your upper brain saying that this could never happen to you. When he decides—mostly for the hell of it—to become a car salesman, we never lose sight of the fact that he’s got the spare time to spend on such a stunt… and we don’t. The now-constant hobnobbing with superstars simultaneously gives you a glimpse of David’s working life and reminds you that he lives in a stratosphere beyond your reach.
The show’s so sharply written that it’s continually funny even when it’s unbelievable. And there’s at least three classic episodes—the one with Shaq, and one in which Larry inadvertently stops a Jewish man from marrying Cheryl’s Christian sister—that rank among the best thirty minutes of contemporary TV comedy. An episode in which he refuses to give Halloween candy to two surly teenagers, sans costumes, brings the show back to its roots. It’s mercilessly funny, convoluted, and centered around minor pet peeves that are universal. (I wouldn’t have given them the candy, either.)
Still, it’s a little sad that we’re now looking at David from above, as if he’s in a petri dish, and not from street level. We still laugh at him, but now we don’t laugh at ourselves while doing it.