Instant Karma

Larry David's new HBO sitcom creates a universe of petty malevolence and endless distress

This TV season has brought us numerous twice(or more)-told tales: yet more cops (The District) and caring doctors (Gideon's Crossing) keeping our streets safe and our grandparents among us; yet more movie stars trying to cross back over (Gabriel Byrne and Geena Davis) and show that they can play small; and, of course, its share of heavily promoted flops (Oliver Platt's beyond-tabloid Deadline the most prominent) testifying to the eternal fuzziness of studio math. Can you stand the suspense of seeing who'll fall next and provoke the second reality-TV onslaught? I'm eagerly awaiting the weight-loss competition, in which the contestants will be assigned personal trainers, then tempted by strategically placed arrays of sweets. No, really--as with literature and architecture, Europeans dreamed up the competitive-diet concept first, and it's headed our way. (Not to mention the new Fox Web channel, which will showcase material "too hot" for their reality empire but draw the line at impalements, sadly.)

If you just can't wait for more "unfettered" realism, you could do a whole lot worse than the often hilarious Curb Your Enthusiasm (10:00 p.m. Sundays, HBO), Larry David's dramatization of his daily lowlights. David, most famous for co-creating Seinfeld, plays what appears from all reports to be himself, a balding, acerbic producer who co-created Seinfeld and now lives comfortably in a San Fernando Valley monstrosity, doing some nebulous "job" that mostly requires him to shlump around in leisure wear and return messages. Curb Your Enthusiasm takes the "show about nothing" conceit Seinfeld made famous and fills it out--imagine a life about nothing, and you'll have the germ of this show.

From what we see, Larry spends most of his time attempting (and failing) to relax: He golfs, eats lunch, and kibitzes with/abuses buddy Richard Lewis, gets into fights with his wife and tries to make it up to her. The show's worst moments look real in clunky ways--aimless true-to-life blathering that David may have picked up from planting a bug to catch your most banal moments, then airing them unedited. Its best scenes build comic arpeggios that any Seinfeld fan will recognize. In the funniest, Larry mistakenly calls a guy from his golf club, finds himself getting hopelessly lost on the way to, then stuck at, a dinner party where he and his wife endure raunchy anecdotes about the host's days as a porn star (Tabasco sauce is alleged to create mountainous erections), then gets caught at his agent's house, by his agent's dour parents, watching one of the actor's earlier performances.

Bleaker than Seinfeld but at its frequent best just as funny, Curb Your Enthusiasm argues that the world is filled with irascible bastards ready to do you dirt in the most trivial ways (the more trivial the better), Larry prominent among them. No passing resentment, no momentary cruelty escapes notice here, from Larry's refusal to tip the captain at a posh restaurant (is he supposed to reward him and the waiter, he wonders?) to his needless struggle with a woman who won't get up to let him enter his row at the movies and later turns out to be buddy Richard Lewis's girlfriend. But where Jerry and pals mostly jeered at the fools who mucked up the smooth running of their worlds, Larry suffers--this show presents a remorselessly punitive universe in which no bad turn goes unpunished. After Larry leaves his credit card at the restaurant and returns the next morning to retrieve it, the captain huffily lectures him about getting stiffed, then boxes his car in. Even the very rich and successful, you see, endure insecurity and the fear that their peers dislike them. An entire episode is devoted to the burning question of whether Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen will invite Larry to the Paul Simon concert.

The result is something altogether unfamiliar: the nebbishy millionaire. Larry himself doesn't make much of a sympathetic figure--he's only marginally more sane than his surroundings, and measurably less nice. (Though he does get a run for his neuroses from frequent guest star Lewis, who informs a blind man they meet on the street in Beverly Hills that his issues matter too, dammit: "I'm a recovering alcoholic, and I have intimacy problems.") Larry calls his wife "Hitler" on the car phone, then has to drive over and apologize to his agent's parents for offending them. While there, he irritates them further by refusing to troop upstairs and adore the new baby. Unlike Seinfeld, in whose anthropological worldview each of these inconvenient behaviors represented a recognizable modern pathology (the "Low Talker" and so on), here all the nuttiness is personal and individualized--solid proof that, deep down, the world just doesn't like you.

Something truly bleak lies right at the heart of the humor here--partly an almost Beckettian sense of futility, partly a very Jewish sense of "why me?" Like all great Jewish comics, Larry David constantly balances self-hate with aggression. His stammeringly combative yammer can't help evoking Woody. But here the self-loathing generally defeats the aggression that Seinfeld unleashed, more often than not, against un-PC targets: Asian delivery men, Puerto Ricans at a parade. From all the evidence, David truly doesn't like himself very much--not in Woody's peevish do-what-I-want way, but in a fundamental sense that deep down, something in him has gone horribly wrong. He gives himself all the worst lines, puts himself in the wrong, time and again. If Bette, eponymous title and all, is a classic "vanity production," what do we call this--a "modesty production"?

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