Murphy's Law tells us that anything that can go wrong...will go wrong. Unfortunately for the protagonist---and fortunately for the viewer---Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm rarely breaks this law. Drawing comparisons to David's own Seinfeld, this celebration of social ineptitude began with a one-hour HBO special in 1999 and was followed by a regular series a year later. Curb's main attraction lies in its approach to comedy: though the characters themselves are well-defined, the improvised dialogue and interaction is perhaps the key element to the show's freshness. Half the time, it seems possible we're watching real-life events as they actually happen: the performances are spirited, while the sticky situations---although usually played for laughs---often remind us of life's embarrassing moments, only more embarrassing.
The first four seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, especially those during the second and third years, seem to be when the series achieved its strongest balance and effectiveness. Though his social awkwardness seemed exaggerated, we couldn't help but chuckle as David unknowingly planted "seeds" for later in the episode; for example, a total stranger---who's just had a heated exchange with our hero in the checkout line---would be the doctor he'd have an appointment with later in the week. Murphy's Law was never this strict, but it worked for the most part: even in harsher episodes like "The Doll" or "Grand Opening", more socially repulsive moments were handled fairly well. We often felt bad about laughing, but we did anyway.
As Season Five wore on, this balance was often treated with less respect. A few standout episodes can be spotted, though nothing along the lines of "instant classic" (with the exception of season finale "The End"); more often than not, Curb seemed to be going through the motions, often throwing in a "pretttty, pretttty good" or a "stare-down" and calling it a day. Only in episodes like "The Larry David Sandwich", "The Christ Nail" and "The End" did Curb seem to hearken back to "the good old days". Others like "Kamikaze Bingo" and "The Ski Lift" are rough around the edges---particularly in the way that they mishandle delicate subject matter (i.e., the episodes turned me off somewhere in-between "suicide e-mail" and "big vaginas"). Mediocre episodes like "The Smoking Jacket" and "The Seder" show that the usually dependable Curb is often either too flat or too sharp during the bulk of this season.
Larry's on-air persona is partly to blame as well, often straying from the unlucky victim of circumstance to become a full-time social dunce; in all honesty, he's harder to root for as the season goes on. As the heart and focal point of the show, this doubles as perhaps the most notable change and the most glaring error. Cheryl isn't far behind, though: in seasons past, the reluctant understanding of her husband's errors made their relationship more charming; as of late, she seems more cynical and distant than ever. Even worse, she's given little else to do but complain.
Additionally, certain plot devices seem to exist completely "in the moment"---hardly a new issue with Curb, but one that made itself more known this season. Many episodes feature characters or events that come out of nowhere---like the Davids' new dog in "The Bowtie" and a Korean friend in "Kamikaze Bingo"---only to virtually disappear in later episodes, though the familiar painting of "a bigger picture" is left intact. This season, Larry is told by his father that he's adopted---and although this may or may not be true, it lends an undercurrent of mystery that certainly helps. Another subplot thrusts Richard Lewis into the picture, as the ailing comedian is in dire need of a kidney transplant. Luckily, both issues are resolved by the excellent season finale, "The End"---especially since Season Six, though rumored to be in the writing stages, has yet to be officially announced by David or HBO.
In all honesty, it's really hard to pick out problems with Curb Your Enthusiasm and not sound as if I hate the show: even at its least impressive, it's still more entertaining than 90% of TV comedy these days. Even so, there's no doubt that the cast and crew of Curb can do a little better than what Season Five offers---and if you need proof, just check out the first four. Either way, you're bound to get a decent (but somewhat slim) presentation on DVD, as HBO has once again served up all 10 episodes with a few bonus features just for fun. But first, here's the complete episode list:
(10 episodes on 2 single-sided discs)
* - Also includes Bonus Features
In all respects, the audio presentation lies roughly on the same level. Presented in your choice of English or French Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, Curb Your Enthusiasm boasts an acceptable, clean presentation that gets the job done nicely. English, French and Spanish subtitles are also included for the hearing and English impaired.
The 1.33:1 menu designs (seen above) are pleasantly simple, offering funny highlights and easy navigation. Each episode is presented with a handful of chapter stops, though there's no selection screen. Packaging is identical to past seasons, as this two-disc set is housed in a nice digipak case with trays that pull out like a pop-up book. It's a unique and clever design, but I'd imagine most buyers would prefer a simpler packaging job and a lower price tag.
It's still a very funny and entertaining series, but there's no doubt that Season Five of Curb Your Enthusiasm is the weakest of the bunch so far---although this certainly doesn't imply that Larry David's creation is down for the count. Even so, it's still an uneven ten-episode run: despite a handful of amusing situations and oddball characters, it's hard not to notice that CYE is simply trying too hard to stand out this time around. HBO's technical presentation is on par with past releases; unfortunately, the same could be said for the included bonus features. Fans should still enjoy this collection for the most part, while newcomers are encouraged to start from the beginning. Mildly Recommended.