Sunday, May 30, 2010

On TV: "Curb Your Enthusiasm- The Complete Seventh Season"

When we last saw Larry David, in the wonderfully subversive sixth-season closer of Curb Your Enthusiasm, he was falling into the arms of Loretta Black (Vivica A. Fox), the lovely matriarch of the displaced Louisiana family the Davids had taken in after Hurricane Katrina, rather than those of his recently estranged wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines). It was an ingenious and unexpected ending to a season that brilliantly recharged the series, which had run five seasons with the same basic combination of elements: Larry the misanthrope, Cheryl the understanding wife, Jeff (Jeff Garlin) the partner in crime, examinations and explosions of the minutiae of daily life and the rules of polite society. It wasn’t that the series had gotten into a rut, per se, and the clever notion of creating a season-long overall arc for each year (the restaurant in season three, The Producers in season four, Lewis’s kidney transplant in season five) helped keep the situations fresh. But when Cheryl and Larry separated midway through season six, in a clear reflection of David’s real-life split from his wife Laurie, it revitalized the show in several ways. First and foremost, it shook up the general make-up of the series. Second, it opened up a gold mine of comic situations—putting a character as well-defined as Larry out into the dating pool was a stroke of genius. But third, and most intriguingly, we saw an honest-to-God case of an artist transforming the pain of his real life into art. Whether you’re a fan of Curb or one of those inexplicable people who loathes it, all parties can agree that (lovable or hateable) Larry is basically a dick. But for the first time, at the end of season six and into season seven, we start to see that dick’s vulnerability.

Season seven manages to embrace that new direction while simultaneously engaging in the show’s most blatant grab at nostalgia to date, by introducing a season-long storyline of Larry finally putting together a Seinfeld reunion show. David devises a clever way to introduce the arc, when David bumps into Cheryl at a restaurant and finds himself genuinely missing her (God forbid, some poignancy!), starts thinking about getting her back, and then runs into her on his way to a meeting with NBC. She confesses that she’s started acting again, and is impressed that the network wants to put him back to work. He’s suddenly entertaining fantasies of casting her on the reunion show, and the stars in her eyes as she sees him as, well, the master of his domain. So the Curb incarnation of Larry David does a Seinfeld reunion show to impress his wife and get her back—and the meta-minded viewer is left to wonder whether the Curb writer/producer Larry David did a Seinfeld reunion on his show to accomplish the same goal.

This was the angle most embraced and promoted in the run up to the shows, though (as with the previous serialized storylines) it doesn’t quite dominate the season—it’s not introduced until episode three, and is only directly related to about half of the season’s ten episodes. The primary subject is our curmudgeonly hero and his continuing adventures as the unhidden Id—swimming through the pretty but shallow pool of Hollywood, offering up his unsolicited opinions and tactless reactions. It’s not that Larry doesn’t know how he’s supposed to act; he just doesn’t care, and his immense wealth and independence has allowed him the freedom to be exactly who the hell he wants to be. He’s perpetually put upon, but he brings so much of it on himself, he’s both the victim and the perpetrator.

As with Seinfeld, the show is at its best when Larry questions the unspoken rules of polite society—as a writer, he has always picked up on the little social norms and daily questions that the rest of us tend to shrug off (but not in the “have you even noticed?” fashion of so many bad comics). He’s outraged by the visiting doctor who goes into his fridge for a lemonade without asking; “Liquids are okay,” explains Marty Funkhauser (Bob Einstein), as if this is common knowledge. When Jeff’s wife Susie (Susie Essman) invites him to a dinner party and refuses to divulge the other guests, it is with the disgusted rejoinder that “It’s not done!” But Larry demands that others play by his rules, as when he accuses Christian Slater of “going over your allotment” as he hordes the caviar at a dinner party, or is infuriated by Jason Alexander’s refusal to engage in “tip coordination” when they pay their checks at a business lunch. Best of all is his heated battle with Rosie O’Donnell over who takes the check—the “inviter” (who invited the other to lunch) or the “toucher” (who grabbed it first)—which becomes an uproariously physical confrontation. He also continues the show’s fine tradition (another Seinfeld holdover) of adroitly bringing each episode’s various disparate storylines together into one unified conclusion; only Curb could tie together, as it does in the season’s second episode, the dangers of vehicular fellatio and the irritation of vacuum-sealed plastic (with an unreasonably hilarious Mohamed Atta reference to boot).

David continues to engage as a performer—his big comic beats in this season are particularly funny (especially when he finds himself driving around and singing “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story at top volume), and there’s a real joy of watching Larry—the original “George Costanza”—and Seinfeld working together, bouncing off each other, utilizing the conversational rhythms developed over years of friendship and partnership. (In his Curb appearances, Seinfeld cultivates an on-screen persona that makes stand-offish into a bold comic choice.) But then, in many ways, the show is all about the scene partners; the cast works from David’s intricate outlines but not a set script, so when he finds a performer with the improvisational acumen to match him—the way Jerry or Jeff or J.B. Smoove as Leon does—it makes him better. Consequently, one of the season’s few flaws is that, by necessity, it has less of Cheryl Hines; when she shows back up midway through the season for her audition and reacts perfectly to the situation with Larry’s semi-stolen pants, you realize how much her exasperated counterbalance has been missed.

There are a few other minor missteps, primarily when the comedy goes too cloddish and starts to feel desperate (as in Larry’s slapstick lovemaking with a handicapped woman, or the business with the Jesus painting). And in the final two episodes, dealing with the table read and production of the Seinfeld reunion show, too much of the material is repeated—a shame, because so much of it so very good, effortlessly recapturing that show’s characterizations and cadences (which are, in fact, quite different from this one’s). And there is genuine fanboy pleasure in the final episode’s glimpses of the finished product—which are directed by longtime Seinfeld director Andy Ackerman. That’s perhaps the most interesting surprise in those episodes, that David didn’t shy away from the challenge of actually doing (at least part) of a Seinfeld reunion. Come to find out, they actually could have done it. But it was better this way, as a masterful folding of two terrific comedies into one—allowing not just a return of Jerry and the gang, but a chance for Jason Alexander to play himself as a pretentious boor (he’s just put out a slender book on his art, titled “Acting Without Acting”), for Larry David to self-flagellate for the series finale (everyone expresses their desire to “make up for the finale”), and for a commentary on Michael Richards’s PR troubles that is downright brilliant.

The Seinfeld reunion was the element of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s seventh season that piqued everyone’s interest, and those episodes are beautifully done. But there’s much more happening in these ten episodes; unlike David’s previous series, Curb is a show that is continuing to take big chances and unusual risks deep into its run, while maintaining the acid tongue, clever construction, and wry point of view that has made it such a terrific comic series.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Seventh Season" hits DVD on Tuesday, June 8th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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