Thursday, October 8, 2009

TV review: New season shows 'Curb' is at top of its game

By John Thomason

Claims that Curb Your Enthusiasm has jumped the shark have been circulating around the Internet from snarky bloggers since at least Season Five, when its ill-advised mortality plot thread saw Larry David die and receive a second chance at life.

Murmurs that the show had lost its luster continued into Season Six, when Larry’s wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) separated from him, severing some of the best chemistry on television. Larry’s relationship to new girlfriend Loretta Black (Vivica A. Fox) and her copious extended family introduced a great new character in Loretta’s brother Leon, but the new household dynamic lacked the witty interplay between Larry and Cheryl.

Judging by the first three episodes of Season Seven, you get the impression that David is regretting the dramatic decisions of the previous season, removing the Black family from the paradigm as quickly as possible and restoring the show to its provocative glory. The work in these three episodes is so inspired that you’ll be hard-pressed to find any rumors of shark-jumping this time around.

In the season’s debut, David takes aims at issues both quotidian and monumental. His character naturally finds great offense when a doctor helps himself to a soda from Larry’s refrigerator without asking, though it doesn’t stop him from hypocritically taking food from another stranger’s fridge later on.

But it’s the episode’s final moments – showing Larry squirming uncomfortably at the thought of sacrificing his own freedom to care for his now cancer-stricken girlfriend – that finds the already un-P.C. Curb reaching a controversial and comedic new high through its narcissistic antihero’s latest low. The implication is clear: Larry is going to dump Loretta so he can still play golf.

Sure enough, he finds a way out of his relationship one episode later, discovering a gold mine in a local doctor who believes obnoxious, self-serving and negative partners only worsen a cancer patient’s condition, physically as well as emotionally. Like a disgruntled employee who decides to do the worst job possible so he can wait to be fired – rather than man up and quit – Larry has found his out.

Of course, like any great Curb episode, there’s a lot of other stuff going on too, and it’s all magnificently orchestrated under David’s impeccable baton, everything converging under the lowbrow leitmotif teased in the episode’s title: “Vehicular Fellatio.” The act, or perceived act, of automotive oral-sex rears its head (Is it even possible to avoid a pun here?) three times in the episode, destroying the relationship between friend Richard Lewis and his new girlfriend, damaging his new relationship to Loretta’s new oncologist and revealing Jeff and Susie Green (Jeff Garland and Susie Essman) to be hypocrites in the most embarrassing way.

In both episodes, there were small allusions regarding the season’s long-awaited bombshell, dropped in episode three: the Seinfeld reunion. In this, too, Larry’s actions are completely self-serving, corralling the principal leads of Seinfeld for a comeback show not for the entertainment of the show’s innumerable fans or to dust off some new comic chops but to offer a part to Cheryl, now an actress looking for work at NBC.

Simply titled “The Reunion,” Curb’s third episode finds Larry bringing the idea to Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards individually, causing minor faux pas with two of his former cast members and nearly upending the entire project when he curses out a chief NBC executive for offering him nosebleed – instead of courtside – Lakers tickets.

Seinfeld uses his part to decry the very idea of reunion shows as saccharine, pandering and unnecessary, a self-reflexive implication that this unique spin on the comeback episode – a reunion show about the making of a reunion show, how Seinfeldian indeed – will break the maudlin mold. Alexander, meanwhile, uses his lunch meeting with Larry to suggest that maybe a tribute show could correct the lousy finale of the series, an episode which, more than any other, anticipates Curb Your Enthusiasm’s uncomfortable masochism.

Seinfeld, you’ll recall, had a rather self-flagellating culmination that took its quartet of self-absorbed Manhattanites to task for nine seasons of petty and passive cruelty – after almost killing them all in a near plane crash. The same kind of conclusion might be assembled for David’s character when he finally retires Curb.

If the three two shows in Season Seven are any indication, the list of people for Larry to offend is far from complete. In fact, it might be getting more shockingly funny than ever.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Curb Your Enthusiasm airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO.

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