Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Fourth Best Television Programme of the 00s

Prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay good.


In his 1997 book “Facts and Fancies”, Armando Iannucci told the fictional tale of fifty-two year old electrician Peter Manion. Manion was a man who had volunteered to undergo a pioneering neurosurgery, placing a microchip containing a selection of songs into his brain, with an appropriate tune to be played for each moment throughout the remainder of his days. His overall stress levels reduced, he went on to lead a blissful, if fictional, life.

If such a practice were to become reality (or even mandatory), we'd suggest that the incidental music from Curb Your Enthusiasm made the implant playlist. This way, should tempers rise in any  situation, be it inconsequential or monumental, the sounds of Luciano Michelini’s “Frolic” or Franco Micalizzi’s “The Puzzle” would slide into the minds of the participants, and everyone would chuckle at the thought of Larry David getting het up about the sleeves on pullovers and such. Tempers would cool, foreheads would be jovially slapped by their owners, and warring factions would realise the futility of getting all het up about the minutiae of modern life.

image For anyone who hasn’t watched the series, here’s a lazily constructed nutshell: it’s essentially One Foot In The Grave, only with more swearing, sunnier backdrops and more dry New York Jewish wit. Larry David plays Larry David, a reflection of his real self in an only slightly distorted funhouse mirror. The delightful Cheryl Hines plays Cheryl David, Larry’s wife (we avoid using the adjective ‘long-suffering’, in case you expect slightly less of the show as a result). Jeff Garlin and Susie Essman appear as the Greene’s, Larry’s agent and his ferociously short-fused wife, best pals to the Davids.

Many other members of the recurring cast play modestly distorted versions of themselves, including Richard Lewis, Ted Danson or Wanda Sykes, alongside less frequently spotted guest stars such as Rob Reiner, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael York, Martin Scorsese, Mel Brooks, or Ben Stiller. However, the initial lure of the show (for us) was that Curb includes turns from a post-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander both joining Larry (at various points in the series) in a quest to repeat the success of The Greatest American Sitcom Of All Time (a title we’ve awarded it). And yet, it turns out that their involvement (alongside Michael Richards and Jerry Seinfeld, as the show went on) turned out to be a sideshow compared to the marvellous goings on inside the mind of Larry.

It’s the contents of Larry’s brain that make Curb so utterly enthralling. If you’re not paying attention properly, you might dismiss the programme as a wealthy, successful US comic complaining about everything, but Larry is deeper than that. It’s not that Larry is grumpy, or that he has declared war on etiquette, but that he has his own rigidly defined set of expectations, and he generally won’t budge from them. He just won’t Let Things Go. To celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, Larry insists Cheryl comply with a pre-marriage promise that she’d allow him to cheat on her, once and once only, after their first decade of wedlock. When a shop owner asks Larry to hand back a pullover he’d tried for size so that it can be folded ‘properly’, Larry’s insistence that he can fold the garment perfectly adequately himself soon escalates into him being banned from the store. And yet, while few could see themselves taking a similar stance in those situations, there is always some kind of skewed logic to Larry’s actions, which adds to the overall amusement factor.

imageHis obduracy aside, Larry is frequently capable of both selfless and selfish acts. So, while one episode may see him resolve a minor sun-cream related misunderstanding by taking an entire special needs group out for a meal, another may see him save himself a trip to the florists by stealing flowers from a roadside memorial. There is always a sense of Larry living his life by the standards he, not society, has set for himself. In what might well be the series finest half-hour, Larry is caught in traffic while trying to make a baseball match. Spotting that the carpool lane is moving much more quickly, Larry doesn’t just sneak into the carpool lane and risk the chance of a fine, he hires a prostitute to accompany him on his journey. She gets paid, he gets to the match on time, and it’s not as if he’s paying to have sex with her – it’ll all logical.

All in all, Curb hangs together brilliantly, with the top quality writing, superb performances and measured direction all combining to produce  a reliably entertaining situation comedy.


5 .:

Derek Williams said...

Yet again a program I don't like. This top 5 really isn't going well. You should take my advice and redo from start. Obviously.

I don't care that it's a top 100 list purely on your own opinions, you should always re-write your several thousand hours work just because one person disagrees.

Word verification: rensu

Mark X said...

Curb is a programme you need to get used to. It's a bit like red wine - a bit icky at first and hurts your throat, but lots of people who sound like they're quite clever claim to like it, indeed, don't stop going on about how good it is, so it must be good.

No, hang on. That's The Wire I'm thinking of there. Anyway, Curb is brilliant, you loon. You must have been watching the disappointing 'Lefty Call' episode on a loop or something when you gave it a chance.

John the Monkey said...

whilst it has it's "WTF?" self indulgent moments, Curb is a grumpy, idiosyncratic gem, worthy of its high placing, I think.

The comparison with "one foot in the grave" is an interesting one, and hadn't occurred to me. I think a big difference is the way that the moral universe in "Curb..." works. As Larry himself says, "No good deed goes unpunished..." and the effects of his actions (whether they're good OR bad) seem entirely due to a capricious fate. Sometimes he does something good & is rewarded, sometimes it results in further annoyance & embarrassment, and the results are equally random when he does something bad.

The sitcom format is familiar, but your expectations of how things are going to work out simply don't coincide with what (usually) happens. The character interplay is superb too - Suzie's obvious dislike for Larry, and the Ted/Mary/Larry dynamic really stand out for me.

trendthrift said...

Fully deserving of its place in the top five for me -- presuming, of course, that there's an even better US sitcom still to come in your countdown.

I came to Curb the wrong way, really. I somehow missed out on the BBC2 Seinfeld/Larry Sanders years (I say somehow; the scheduling clearly didn't help), so I had no frame of reference going in. I was obviously aware of Seinfeld, but it wasn't until I was hooked on CYE that I resolved to go back and catch up with it.

I first caught Curb when the BBC annoyingly showed only the opening couple of episodes on BBC 2 in some kind of BBC Four teaser week. With no digital access at the time, I had to wait and grab the US DVD release -- and by the time I got around to 'Beloved Aunt' the glorious punchline had already been spoiled by a C4 Top 100 TV Moments countdown. Shame.

Still, it's a wonderful show for so many reasons. The breathtakingly funny 'big' payoffs seen in episodes like 'The Doll', 'Beloved Aunt' and 'The Grand Opening', it's the smaller moments that really tickle me: Larry's impression of the Jerry Springer participant in 'The Car Salesman'; the 'pity points' exchange in 'Porno Gil', the entirety of the Starbucks scene in 'Shaq'.

In fact, 'Shaq' might just be my favourite episode. So many highlights -- Jeff's roadside reaction to his Lakers tickets being confiscated being just one.

LewieP said...

Pretty pretty pretty pretty good.

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