As season 8 begins, David is still the prince of wince
It’s hard to label “Curb Your Enthusiasm’’ as “cringe comedy’’ these days. Larry David’s show, which premiered in 2000, was part of the first wave of cringe TV, along with Ricky Gervais’s 2001 British version of “The Office.’’ These sitcoms positioned you between extreme discomfort and hysteria, as you sat watching others fall deeper and deeper still into social embarrassment. The rough, documentary shooting style only made the blundering more painfully realistic.
Now, though, as “Curb Your Enthusiasm’’ returns for its 8th season on HBO, cringe comedy is fairly commonplace, so it doesn’t trigger as much queasiness as it once might have. We’re used to watching Larry scream his way through excruciating predicaments on “Curb.’’ And we know that no one is really victimized by Larry’s inappropriateness more than Larry. Sure, Susie Greene - played by that M-80 of a comic Susie Essman - is crushed by Larry at the end of every half-hour; but we can also see that she always willingly goes back for more mortal combat, greeting him early in each episode with her casual “Hi, La.’’
On “Curb’’ in 2011, as well as on later-generation cringe comedies such as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,’’ “Parks and Recreation,’’ “Louie,’’ and the American “The Office,’’ the cringe has become more of a fond flinch. For the most part right now, TV’s humor of social embarrassment packs a light punch. The buffoons and nerds are more like misfits than offensive louts. Larry is still the spikiest, but our culture has nonetheless domesticized him and turned him into a beloved pet. He barks too much, and too loudly, but what are you gonna do?
Still, even if “Curb’’ has lost some of its original wallop, it remains a great comedy of manners. The show, which returns Sunday at 10, is a portrait of a “social assassin,’’ as Larry’s agent Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin) calls Larry. Armed with his grating voice, Larry continues to say out loud what many of us - I bet most of us - only think. In an upcoming episode, for example, he is willing to tell the domineering wife of his golf buddy (played by Jason Kravitz) that she uses the phrase “LOL!’’ too often. He shoots her down, when her wimpy husband isn’t willing to. Why doesn’t she just laugh, Larry asks, instead of saying “LOL!’’ when she finds something funny?
Larry continues to be a fountain of unrepressed feeling, which has its psychological pluses. He doesn’t hold on to corrosive emotions for too long. But he can’t seem to differentiate between the petty and the important. He doesn’t know how to pick his battles, so he obsesses over minuscule “Seinfeld’’-esque issues - for example the “chat ’n’ cut,’’ as he calls it in another upcoming episode, when a woman latches onto a distant acquaintance in order to get ahead in a buffet line. He can’t see the difference between that level of minor transgression and bigger issues such as emotional support between spouses, which is why his marriage to Cheryl has had hard times.
HBO has provided critics with three advance episodes, but they will all air later in the season. So I can’t say exactly where the saga will pick up on Sunday night, but I can say that the episodes I saw were good, particularly the one called “The Palestinian Chicken,’’ in which Larry and Jeff become obsessed with the chicken at a Palestinian restaurant where everyone hates Jews. Political incorrectness is de rigueur in comedy right now, but Larry David does it in a particularly joyful and clever manner. I can also say that Larry eventually moves to New York, where he encounters celebrities such as Michael J. Fox and Gervais and a host of new things to complain about.
And I can say that Larry’s LA cronies such as Richard Lewis, Bob Einstein (as Marty Funkhouser), and J.B. Smoove (as Leon), return, his own version of Howard Stern’s wack pack. These guys live in a strange world indeed, where the rules and the rituals are both fragile and yet brash. It’s like Jane Austen doing vaudeville.