Wednesday, January 30, 2008

DVD review: "Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Sixth Season"

Posted By on Wed, Jan 30, 2008 at 9:34 PM

(Image courtesy HBO Home Video)

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Not long after the debut of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” HBO’s unscripted but carefully structured sitcom, creator/star Larry David described working on the script of a “Seinfeld” episode. He felt like writing down the dialogue was practically unnecessary -- that the story practically wrote itself. In “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” David famously put those instincts to the test, since each episode features a precise outline but no written dialogue -- instead, the performers improvise while filming. On one of the extras of “Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Sixth Season” (released on DVD Tuesday), David explains that most scenes require multiple takes before they hit on the funniest combinations.

At times “Curb” can feel structured to a fault, like some of the overly schematic “Seinfeld” episodes. On the sixth-season episode “The Rat Dog,” David’s alter ego “Larry David” insults an acquaintance’s dog for looking like a rat, and also reluctantly befriends an exterminator. Rat dog + exterminator = collision course for hilarity! Or maybe just a big contrivance.

The impressive thing about “Curb’s” sixth season is the way it flips the script. Most seasons feature an arcing, unifying subplot (like Larry performing in The Producers in the previous year), and in this latest one, the David household offered shelter to the Blacks, an African-American family displaced by a hurricane. The odd-couple setup felt a little pat, but Vivica Fox and J.B. Smoove made terrific comedic foils.

Since “Curb’s” inception, Cheryl Hines has superbly played Larry’s long-suffering wife and “normal” counterweight for his irascible, antisocial behavior. On “The TiVO Guy” episode (spoiler alert!), Larry’s self-absorption drove her to the breaking point and she moved out. In real life, David and his wife also split up, but rather than cast a too-serious pall over the show, the separation plot liberated “Curb,” providing fresh material for three of the funniest episodes in the show’s history. Steve Coogan made a guest appearance as a therapist who offers spectacularly bad advice, while the show’s supporting cast of friends seemed to find it surprisingly easy to “choose” Cheryl over Larry.

Even Susie Essman, who plays Larry’s foul-mouthed nemesis, started being nice to him. Essman (who interviews Larry on the main DVD extra, a live chat at New York’s 92nd Street Y), has always struck me as playing a crucial role on the show. Larry’s abrasive, confrontational antics can build up enormous tension in a given episode -- in their conversation, David admits to having been surprised when people tell him they can barely stand to watch the show. (“Curb’s” squirm factor has sent my wife running from the room on more than one occasion.) Essman’s profane, force-of-nature tirades open the release valve for that pressure.

Perhaps as a sign of David’s advancing age, “Curb’s” sixth season relished awkward moments involving doctor visits. In one hilarious plot line, suddenly single Larry went out with a doctor (“Seinfeld” player Brenda Strong) who’s dating habits turned out to be strangely like medical visits. It was such a classic, “Seinfeld”-style plot that you wonder if David had been sitting on it for years. In the DVD extra, David won’t confirm that “Curb” will return for a seventh season, but admits to being open to the idea. The sixth-season finale resolves the separation and Black family storylines with such a bizarre twist that I’m definitely interested in a seventh season. I’m even enthusiastic about it.

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