"I'm yelling for society! For everybody! It's not just me!" --Larry David
A couple of days after my wife and I started working our way through the eighth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, we were standing in line at a Starbuck's when a woman started chatting with the woman ahead of us, and as they spoke, she casually slipped into the line. "Are you seeing this?" I asked her, and she nodded. "Classic chat and cut." The infraction--of starting a conversation with someone in a line (perhaps even someone you barely know) in order to cut into said line ahead of those how have been waiting--is dramatized and defined by Larry David on the fifth episode of the season, "Vow of Silence," and what David does there is what his show does best: find a slightly obscure but present fact or irritation of modern life, identify it, satirize it, and throw it into the blender of his peculiar world.
In this season, LD defines "the Bald Code," the "lesbian advantage," and the "shit bow," takes on the tyranny of sharing restrictions at all-you-can-eat buffets, and chastises New Yorkers for "upstreaming" when hailing cabs. Those are great moments, and the season also boasts two of the show's best episodes to date: "Palestinian Chicken," a rather brilliant examination of Jewish- Palestinian relations (and of the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy) through the microcosm of Larry and Jeff's new favorite restaurant, and "Larry vs. Michael J. Fox," in which Larry begins to suspect that the actor is using his Parkinson's as an excuse for rude and nasty behavior.
Those highlights noted, this is Curb's most uneven season to date. The show's Seinfeld-esque construction, wherein each episode establishes a series of conflicts, subplots, and ideas that all collide unexpectedly at the end, is starting to exhaust itself, and for every episode where it works (as it does in "The Bi-sexual") there's at least one where you all but hear them straining to connect ("The Safe House"). The show's attempts at physical comedy have never been all that graceful, but they're getting more and more clunky--and in the case of Susie (Susie Essman) and Larry's scene in his front seat in the "Mister Softee" episode, the two of them end up trying so hard to make a bit work that they shamelessly overplay it, employing a broadness barely shy of a poor Three's Company episode.
And the organization of the season is a real disappointment. Early on (while the season was in production, in fact), word got out that season eight would be Curb's "New York season"--just as season three was the "restaurant season," season four was the "Producers season" and season seven was the "Seinfeld reunion season"--and both those of us who love the show and those of us who live in New York waited with off-the-charts anticipation, imagining LD returning to the irritations of NYC life (which he had so beautifully captured on Seinfeld). The trouble is, he doesn't even get on the plane to New York until the sixth of the season's ten episodes. We're used to the first couple of shows being a kind of clearing of the throat for the season's big arc, but with less than half the season in Gotham, we're left feeling as though the trip is something of a missed opportunity. Where are the subway flare-ups? The run-ins with Times Square tourists? The rants about those weird picnic tables, or the calorie counts at the restaurants?
The other, less pressing concern is that the show has let go of some of the vulnerability that made the previous year so interesting. The split of Larry and wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) midway through the sixth season was an unexpected masterstroke, a revitalizing narrative play that shook up the show's core, opened up the comic gold mine of Larry David dating, and allowed the opportunity for David's art to reflect his life in an even more direct and poignant way. But the fascinatingly subtle emotional overtones of the past two seasons, which allowed the viewer to regard David with a bit more complexity, are all but gone; now he's just a single guy working his way through a lot of chicks, few of whom are interesting or terribly likable. (Hines only appears in the season's first episode, and while her absence is all but inevitable from a narrative point of view, she does leave a bit of a hole at the center of the show.)
But it must be stressed, after three paragraphs of reservations and complaints, that Curb Your Enthusiasm remains smart and wild and very, very funny. Larry's duets with agent and best buddy Jeff (Jeff Garlin) and perpetual housemate Leon (JB Smoove) remain the show's comic high points, and the show's loose, improvisational nature allows all three men to joke around with such freedom that they often seem on the verge of losing it, they're so genuinely amused by what the other is saying. It's fun to watch Larry and Ricky Gervais going after each other, and his rivalry with Rosie O'Donnell for the same woman ("Game on, Larry David!") is a real treat. The episode with Michael J. Fox is consistently uproarious, the actor's lickety-split comic timing still fully intact (and his willingness to send up his Parkinson's is ballsy and admirable). And the entire ethos of the show and character may be best summed up by the perfect moment when Larry is asked "Is it possible that you have a little room for growth," and he responds, immediately and sharply, "No."
Video & Audio:
As ever, the anamorphic widescreen image is solid if not spectacular; it's a good-looking video presentation, with strong saturation, clean lines, and no issues of note. The English 5.1 mix is front and center heavy (expectedly, since it's a chatty comedy show), but the dialogue is clean and audible--even during crosstalk--and the music cues give the track an occasional bounce.
A French 5.1 track is also available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Curb is never a show that's gone all that heavy on the bonus features on its DVD releases, which is why it's such a surprise (and treat) to discover that season eight includes a "Roundtable Discussion with Larry and the Cast" (1:28:29), recorded live at the 92nd Street Y in New York. With Brian Williams moderating and David, Garlin, Hines, and Essman on the panel. It's a free-wheeling and funny discussion, with plenty of great stories about the show's creative process, working together, how their personalities compare to their characters, and some general ideas about its comedic voice and style. It's just plain fun to watch, particularly when Garlin trots out his infectious, high-pitched giggle.
Also included is "Leon's Guide to NYC" (9:35), with an in-character JB Smoove taking the camera on a funny improvised walking tour of the city.
So much of Curb Your Enthusiasm's eighth season is so funny that it feels like grousing to point out the year's considerable flaws. But many of these have been small issues since the inception of the show, and they're becoming tougher to ignore in its advancing age. When Curb is on, there are few television comedies that can touch it. But when it's off, it's way off, and that's starting to happen with a frequency that's worrisome.