Thursday, February 14, 2008

“My son has an office on the right hand of Jesus”

The sixth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm finished here last week, and I had been mulling over a review/recap of it when Edward Copeland beat me to the punch with a DVD review of the season. I agree with Edward that the fifth season was mostly uneven, though our opinions differ as to that season’s finale, which I thought was terrible. Thank god it didn’t end up being the series finale like Larry David originally planned.

Among my real life friends (all three of them), I am universally alone in my unabashed enthusiasm for Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show had slipped under my radar in the UK, where Seinfeld has never been a hit (and had been condemned to the graveyard slot during its initial run), which, subsequently, meant that Curb’s launch never had the kind of in-built momentum as it had in the US. Incidentally, a pet peeve of mine is the way many Brits dismiss American comedy, especially sitcoms, as nothing more than workmanlike series of sappy family humour or frat boy-friendly histrionics (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But that’s an unfair simplification of a genre, which is most natural to American television, and in which it clearly thrives. In fact, it is British sitcoms that are generally dreadful, and The Office and The League of Gentlemen and Phoenix Nights, all of them sublime, are all but oases in the barren Sahara that is British television comedy.

Anyway, back on topic: Larry David is one of the great storytellers currently working in television. I’ve been watching the fourth season of Seinfeld these past few days – the break-out season, and the first one with an overwhelming arc ("The Jerry Show"). Although Seinfeld would use arcs in its later seasons, to varying degrees of success, The Jerry Show arc is the one that is closest to the way Larry David has fashioned all seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm after its debut season. In fact, the clockwork precision of the second, third, fourth - and now the sixth - seasons, the way the episodes, and the overall arcs, inexorably lead to an ineluctable outcome, and yet still manage to be supremely surprising once they get there, is a testament to David’s perfect grasp of screwball and farce. The show’s cinema (or television) verité style and its indebtedness to such disparate influences as Moliere, Alan Ayckbourn, Phil Silvers, Mel Brooks, Joe Keenan etc only serve to highlight David’s tremendous achievement. The style complements the substance – the apparent haphazardness of the single-camera approach and the mainly improvised dialogue the yin to the yang of the plot’s labyrinthine machinations.

The main arc of the show’s sixth season finds The Davids’ “adopting” an African-American family who’ve been left homeless in the wake of a Katrina-like Hurricane. Fortuitously enough, they happen to be called The Blacks. It’s these too-on-the-nose set-ups that I love about David’s comedy. You know that something most awkward is going to happen with a combination like that – but you just don’t know exactly what. Leon Black, the up-to-no-good, plebian, loud-mouth nephew could usually be interpreted as an attempt to extend a show’s appeal to different demographics – but not in this one. Stereotypes are introduced in an off-handed way, and then subsequently demolished with the same ease. The second arc involves Sheryl dumping Larry when the latter prefers to deal with the TiVo guy instead of talking to his wife, who’s called him from her plane that’s seemingly about to crash. (There is so much I can relate to in that particular plotline – I’ve had an ex who used to call me only three-minutes before The Sopranos would start, and then complain that I wasn’t paying her any attention. Don’t make me choose between you and Tony, hon. Yes, I am a moron.) All the actors do sterling work – the veterans have grown into their roles, and you can see affectations, and lines coming to them naturally. Watch as Larry David tries to stay “in-character” after Jeff Garlin’s adlib at the Laundromat: “At home, I keep photos of all my dry cleaners on the wall.” The additions to the cast, JB Smoove (best. name. ever.), Vivica Fox, Ellie English are equally great.

And then there’s the finale – which comes completely out of left field, and is in such contrast to the general cynicism of the show that it’s not just an artistic non sequitur, but almost Lynchesque in its weirdness. Truly, truly a work of genius.

Postscript: The show had an 11.00PM slot here, which is now occupied by Californication. I suppose the thinking was that, sometimes, just before you go to bed, you want to see a bald man make a tit of himself. And other times, you just want to see tits. Fair enough.