Curb Your Enthusiasm

Thursday, September 2, 2004 by

It’s rare for a TV programme to leave you so inclined that the minute it’s finished you want to watch the whole thing again straightaway. It’s even rarer for the programme in question to be a sitcom.

Such is the majesty of Curb Your Enthusiasm. So much is crammed into each half hour that the thought of having to sit through it a second time to properly take in all the throwaway gags and nifty plot twists is not something to regret but to relish. Even before each episode is finished you’re anxious for the moment when you can rewind the tape and start from the top once more.

That’s quite a remarkable achievement, certainly for a US comedy series. But it’s all the more impressive given how those painstakingly constructed plots are not only carried off with such ease and consummate charm by the cast, but have also arrived on screen in the form of almost wholly improvised scenes. This lot are making it up as they go along, having a great time, and it’s still genius!

Saying that, it’s likely the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm will have passed most of the viewing nation by. Promoted in this country from day one as an acquired taste, the programme has never been in a position to garner massive ratings or even cumulative critical appeal. Perhaps that’s not surprising – after all, a sitcom whose main callings cards can, if so desired, be depicted as an obsession with extreme obscenity, TV taboos (incest, paedophilia, blasphemy) and downright amateurish photography is clearly, even today, an inflammable proposition for most broadcasters.

But at the same time its core elements can also be ticked off as an unrestrained celebration of accidental misfortune, the comic potential for misunderstanding, and an individual struggling through a world dead set on making his life a misery: themes as ancient as the written word. And herein lies a clue to the show’s brilliance. Anyone can in theory identify with its central character Larry David and his desperate tactics to avoid embarrassing social situations, or to call in tricky favours – or even to engineer petty retribution on a close associate. Anyone would love to be able to have Larry’s ability for killer one-liners, on-the-mark put-downs, the guts to howl outraged complaints at the smallest thing, and the intelligence that sees people and situations for what they really are. Few of us, though, would ever dare to do so in real life.

It’s certainly asking the viewer to make a large leap in their perception of how rich celebrity Californians have to go about their business. The show does foreign audiences no favours, being littered with American cultural jargon and numerous special guests. On top of all this, the way in which Curb Your Enthusiasm turns the everyday into the extraordinary in such an ostensibly unfettered, unselfconscious manner (you’ll never hear “cunt” used more often in a sitcom) can only have hastened its acquisition of cult credentials.

But like all programmes that attract and sustain loyal if tiny audiences, there’s an exclusivity about it that seems to work in its favour. Maybe it was just as well there have only ever been three episodes shown on terrestrial television. When Curb Your Enthusiasm debuted in the UK last year on BBC4, it immediately helped that channel turn from a largely downbeat, cheerless ghetto into a much more dynamic and addictive endeavour. Now it’s been snapped up by E4, however, and you can’t help feeling the Beeb were very unwise to let it go. It’s doubtful it can enact the same magical influence upon its new home, chiefly given that E4 has never had any coherent identity, even a downbeat, cheerless one. Where next for BBC4′s comedy output?

In the meantime there are 10 brand new helpings of Larry and co to savour over the next few months. If you’ve never watched Curb … before, the start of this series is as good an entry point as any, especially as there’s to be a loose overarching theme to this run: Larry’s involvement in a restaurant business, in which he’s decided to invest along with other celebrity friends. It’s a hugely unlikely conceit upon which to hang his weekly dose of escapades, but it’s also a resolutely typical one, being redolent of many a scenario he sort of just blunders into knowing nothing whatsoever about, but which he immediately seeks to commandeer for his own ends.

Indeed, one of the highlights of this opening episode was the incongruous yet hilarious sight of Larry purporting to “chair” a discussion with his fellow investors – all of whom clearly knew far more about catering than he – about the menu (“I will not be giving you any money if you serve kebabs”), the service (“every table should have a bell on it”) and even the uniforms. “I was put in charge of uniforms,” he later reported to his wife Cheryl, “this is something that I’m very interested in!”

Larry out of his depth, seeking to impose his own system of values and prejudices onto others, is one of Curb‘s great recurring themes. You can’t help but warm to his valiant attempts to talk even the most stubborn of opponents round to his way of thinking – after all, if he believes he’s right, why shouldn’t? It’s mirrored by another habitual element of the show, where a supporting character that Larry has wronged is merited the opportunity to seek unexpected revenge, usually through another quirk of fate that has left him in some demeaning situation. Here it was a dentist, his invitation to dinner rubbished by a horrified Larry (“that’s the end of this dentist … everybody’s got to get together … the whole world’s got to get together”) before finding his reluctant guest seeking urgent treatment after being hit in the mouth by a baseball bat wielded by Ted Danson’s daughter.

The means by which Larry found himself receiving such a ludicrous injury, and why he was then more concerned by the blood stains on his new shirt than his missing teeth, all flow from the programme’s greatest strength: its structure. The complex yet utterly natural, freewheeling feel to the plots harks back to the very best of Fawlty Towers or One Foot in the Grave, in the way seemingly inconsequential incidents return to play a hugely significant role in proceedings. Hence the very first scene of this episode, involving Larry innocently tossing an apple core into a neighbour’s bin, supplied the perfectly-timed dénouement in the very last scene. This might be merely a variance on the kind of crude signposting that underpins most mainstream US comedy, but it’s a hundred times more entertaining for being so cunning and executed in such low-key fashion.

In fact, this series opener had almost everything you’ve come to look for and expect in a textbook Curb episode, from Larry trampling all over the feelings of a bereaved friend to getting involved in an undignified comical punch-up, scrambling around on the floor and flailing like a girl. As time’s gone on and these signature elements have become more obvious, the programme feels like it’s got funnier. There are certainly far more laugh-out-loud moments than in early episodes, partly, no doubt, because we’ve become attuned to all these ingredients, and partly because – well – even Larry’s face is somehow funny now.

It might be into its third series here, and shortly to embark on its fifth in America, but Curb Your Enthusiasm is no less fresh and sublime than when it first began. From the most modest of premises, and really the most flimsy of conceits, a sequence of expertly synchronised and mutually dependant plots continue to spin. Against a backdrop of equally inspired and quirky incidental music, chaos usually reigns by the time the 30 minutes are up, but it’s all happened so perfectly, so naturally, and with the most contrived events imaginable somehow acted out in the most uncontrived way, you’re left bowled over with joy.

Quite simply, television doesn’t get much better than this.


Comments are closed.