Enthusiasm Sufficiently Curbed
It is often said that Larry David was the driving genius behind Seinfeld, that his was the mind that spun all those comic situations that made the show so ineffably funny for so many years. His new HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, does nothing to contradict that claim. It is rife with the same sense of humor that propelled Seinfeld, all the way down to the recognizable mix of self-absorbed characters compelled by their natures to do outlandish things that eventually ignite in a come-uppance finale of guilt and embarrassment made ironic by intricately interconnected storylines. The situations in Curb are every bit as brilliant as the ones in Seinfeld.
Having said that, it’s unfortunate that Curb is about a fifth as pleasurable as Seinfeld. I pick that fraction purposefully, because my take on Curb is that it is essentially Seinfeld minus the four foundations that made that show work so well: the brilliant comic actors, the micro fine-tuned comic dialogue, the studio production quality, and the everyman New York setting. It’s almost as if David is saying, “I know I can succeed with all those elements, but it bores me to use them. I want to see if I can play the game without the equipment.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think he can. At least not if he’s looking to please audiences. If he’s just trying to challenge himself (creating a kind of uber-vanity project, the kind of thing we might all do with a video camera, but without an HBO slot) then it’s fine. In the series, Larry David plays Larry David going through his everyday activities hanging out with celebrities, generally living a cush life made difficult only by his own obsessiveness, guilt, and encounters with the “crazies” of the world. Early episodes include the following storylines: Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen invite Larry to a concert and then stand him up; or, Larry goes to great lengths to convince a lawyer neighbor to sign on to bury a power cable that obscures his family’s view of the treeline.
The first problem with the series is pretty easy to locate the acting. David isn’t an actor. Lore has it that he began in New York as a stand-up who killed the comics, but died in front of the audience. You can see why. Whereas on Seinfeld Jason Alexander could take the Larry David character (George Costanza) and make him likable, extreme, and bursting with energy, Larry David plays Larry David as pretty dull, blank-faced, petty, and teetering toward unlikable. Great comic actors take real life characters and find the sympathy that lets us forgive their deficiencies, or they exaggerate flaws so fully that we don’t see them as particularly real, and thus can revel in the fact that they are so much more extreme than in real life. Larry David as Larry David seems very real, very whiny, very self-absorbed, and in the end, not someone who’s much fun to hang out with.
The second problem emerges from the fact that the show bills itself as “scriptless.” By this, the producers seem to mean that they have a storyline, but the actual dialogue is improvised over a series of takes by the actors. It sounds admirable, even experimental, but the result is that we lose the sharp lines developed by a writing staff of great comic minds. Instead we get a lot of hemming and hawing, repeating and groping for something good to say. Seinfeld was renowned for establishing phrases that entered the popular imagination, such as “Master of your domain,” or “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” It may indeed be fun for David to improvise his way through the scenes and while his actors are pretty bland, he provides consistently clever quips and comebacks but the overall yield is thin. I want my great lines, and if that means that Larry David has to write them all and put them in the actors’ mouths, that’s fine with me.
Next up is the problem of giving away the studio production value you would normally see in a sitcom (and make no mistake about it, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a sitcom, even if it doesn’t claim to be one; it’s just slightly hidden by its production style). Curb is shot in natural locations, almost documentary style. There is no studio audience to add energy to the performances, no laugh track to carry weaker moments, no set locations with which audiences can become familiar; what’s more, the lighting is dull, the cuts slow, the scenes even slower. It’s a situation comedy without all the production tricks and tweaks that make situation comedy recognizable, and sometimes even powerful. Unfortunately, making humor work on television is a tenuous business at best, and if you want to deviate from established techniques then you should have something positive in mind, not just omissions. As it is, I think Curb Your Enthusiasm is trying to avoid a standard sitcom look, but the makers haven’t thought about what this difference might actually add to the show; they just do it because it’s different.
Finally, and maybe even fatally, Curb Your Enthusiasm suffers from a bad case of navel-gazing by the privileged. Seinfeld was navel-gazing as art form, but it all took place in New York, a gritty city with everyday characters who were simply extreme versions of the same type of people you can meet in any town or city. By contrast, Curb is set in wealthy Beverly Hills. How many people can relate to those characters? How interesting is it to watch Larry David go to chic restaurants and buy expensive shirts and hang out with rich people who are concerned with the minutiae of style and leisure? It’s hard to drum up much concern over whether David’s wife (Cheryl Hines) wants a powerline buried because it obscures her perfect view of the world. It’s also hard to watch the real lives of celebrities sans the glamour. The use of celeb guest stars is obviously a marketing plus, but the truth is that most celebrities aren’t particularly attractive people when they’re not turning on the charm for a camera or performing well-written characters. In fact, they’re pretty unseemly. And watching them is more irritating than enlightening, or even compellingly voyeuristic.
And yet, even without the aid of polished acting and dialogue, high production values, and a viewer-friendly setting, Curb Your Enthusiasm is watchable, if only because the macros of its writing the odd characters and the plethora of plot twists and turns recall Seinfeld‘s. Unlike NBC, which aired Seinfeld, HBO doesn’t need a huge audience. And there are likely enough Seinfeld-ites who, like Trekkies, will search out any leftover morsel of the show, a phenomenon that may allow the new series to survive. I still believe that Larry David is a comic genius, but his appears to be a grooved type of genius, one that now runs the risk of being able to do only one thing well. More often than not, Curb comes off as a pale outline of Seinfeld, perhaps the version David would have made if he hadn’t been influenced by Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comic who honed his act for Middle America by meeting its denizens face to face. He knew how to make David’s comic vision palatable to middle and working class viewers. In Curb, David has lost that second voice that reminds one to do more than parade details of one’s own life, to make those details both universally accessible and sympathetic.
I actually admire the idea of what Larry David is doing here. It’s the next step in the career of a comic artist so talented that he has become bored by using all the common tools. In this new turn to a kind of minimalism, he has thrown out the paints and brushes and begun to scratch out his visions with sticks in clay or whatever else he can find that isn’t just crass or easy. It’s a fine way for an artist to stay interested in his own work. It isn’t, unfortunately, such a good way to keep an audience interested.