Losing Enthusiasm for ‘Curb’

Nov 11, 2007  •  Post A Comment

One reason for HBO’s continuing dominance in pay cable, cable generally, and television itself is the network’s policy of judicious coddling. At HBO, contributing talent—writers, directors, actors—is treated not with kid-glove deference but with palpable respect, an attitude that translates into invaluable artistic freedom. It’s a fact of life that’s been referred to in many an Emmy acceptance speech and in triumphs both seminal and inconspicuous on the air.
Michael Fuchs established the precedents; Jeff Bewkes later expanded on them. As HBO chairman, Bewkes helped breathe life into Tony and Carmella and the other “Sopranos”—in addition to enabling the creators of “Deadwood,” “Sex and the City” and such highly praised miniseries as “Band of Brothers.” Now, Bewkes has been rewarded with the biggest job in the empire: chairman of Time Warner Inc. He’s certainly the wittiest chairman that outfit—maybe any big conglomerate—ever had.
Chris Albrecht, Bewkes’ successor at HBO, dropped the ball, and was recently tossed out for abominable misbehavior in a Las Vegas parking lot. He simply didn’t have the gift for developing the kinds of water-cooler shows that have kept HBO in a position of industry supremacy. Many a loyal HBO subscriber is still scratching his head over that hippy-dippy surfer show—not excluding members of the show’s own cast. “John From Cincinnati” wasn’t even an interesting failure.
Then we have the curious case of “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, a comic genius whom Albrecht managed to keep happy—happy enough for David to extend his “Curb Your Enthusiasm” another season, and another, reportedly after having decided to kill himself off. “Curb” just wrapped its sixth insanely hilarious, hilariously insane season on HBO. It was a season, however, that was not without, as they say, “incident.”
There’s been a confounding perversity to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” all along. A friend in the business finds this admirable, however, and calls David “the most courageous writer in television,” at least among those (currently striking, of course) on the entertainment side.
It took courage, the theory goes, to create and play a character who is based on and named after himself and who steadfastly refuses to cuddle up with the viewer, to try to be our new best friend. Faux Larry behaves boorishly, risks resounding wrath, and often deserves the lambasting he gets from other characters. He can be SUCH a jerk.
Sometimes, in fact—especially during the past season—too much of a jerk. Larry occasionally behaved in ways that were so stupid and even reprehensible that one lost all respect for, and interest in, him. The show isn’t working unless Larry seems to some extent “a victim of soy-cumstance,” as Curly used to say. On some episodes, Larry’s problems derived not so much from goofball idiosyncrasies as from what seemed a fundamental and even malicious ignorance.
I’m thinking particularly now of show No. 58, “The N Word,” a word David spoke several times in the course of the story, a word that flipped too trippingly off his tongue. He was quoting other people when he said it, but the word still came too easily to him. And though both Larry Davids are extremely successful and fabulously wealthy writers, the TV Larry couldn’t find a way (didn’t even try) to paraphrase the “N” word so as to avoid actually blurting it out.
In a scene set in a hospital cafeteria, Larry quotes having heard the word in a bathroom (where so many “Curb” scenes have been set over the years) just as an African American doctor is walking by. The doctor flies into a rage of umbrage and then storms off toward an operating room where, still rattled, he mistakenly orders a patient’s head shaved. The patient turns out to be Larry’s friend and manager Jeff Greene as played by Jeff Garlin.
It came off as wrong-spirited if not mean-spirited. Was David ridiculing blacks for allegedly overreacting to “only a word”? It’s not his place to do so. Part of the supposition is that only black people are offended by the word, which is crap. People of every race can be appalled by racial epithets. Who has to be Jewish to be infuriated by anti-Semitic slurs? A swastika painted on a building doesn’t just outrage “the Jewish community,” as numbskull local anchors usually report; it outrages, or should outrage, everybody.
Near season’s end, things took another ugly turn. It can hardly be coincidental that David decided to break up his TV marriage—having the sublime Cheryl Hines as Cheryl David walk out—at about the same time David’s real-life wife exercised an option to dump him. The real Mrs. David’s environmental fanaticism had previously been lampooned on “Curb” (in one episode, Larry suffers the agony of scratchy recycled toilet paper) but now, with her exit, the portrayal turned nasty. Viewers have a right to feel double-crossed when a character they’ve grown to love and admire is turned into a banshee so the author can spank his ex-wife in public.
In fact, it could be argued that “Curb” has finished its sixth season in a shambles, or a near-shambles at best. OK, maybe a half-shambles. Can there be only one “shamble”? Maybe too much artistic freedom is a dangerous thing, at least in the wrong hands. Larry David can’t be doing this show only for the money, unless he is the greediest man on Earth (he may already have realized $1 billion from “Seinfeld”). He has to be doing it partly for the love of it. That makes it even more painful to see him screw it up.
All is hardly lost. David has months and months in which to de-hoist himself from his own petard. Considering it’s just about the funniest petard in modern American television, it will absolutely be worth the effort. It’s not just Larry’s show, after all; it’s ours, too, and we want it back.


  1. Sir, it seems you just don’t get it. Many of us (especially we of the bald middle aged Jewish variety)have never “grown to love and admire” the character of Cheryl David. Never once has she had her husband’s back. He’s never been right (in her eyes) when going off on a rant and during the entire run of the show, I wondered why she ever married him; she had to know what she was getting into. It took 58 episodes for a woman to stand up for him and it wasn’t the “sublime” anyone.

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