David keeps his sitcom from turning treacly

January 03, 2004|By Matthew Gilbert | Matthew Gilbert,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

One malady that commonly strikes television comedies is Sentiment and Poignancy Illness, or SAPI. The symptoms of this disease, which generally surface in the final minutes of a sitcom, include feverish regrets, seizures of apology, and the sudden inflammation of moral conscience. And when SAPI strikes, glassy eyes and viewer fatigue may not be far behind.

HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm - which returns for its fourth season tomorrow at 9:30 p.m. on the premium cable channel - is happily immune to SAPI. This spiky series may be TV's most uncompromisingly unsentimental comedy ever, fueled by the rudeness and narcissistic angst of its creator and star, Larry David.

Seinfeld, which David co-created, was famous for the thorough meanness of its characters, who were forever dumping friends and lovers for the pettiest of reasons. But Curb Your Enthusiasm makes Jerry & Co. look downright cozy, as David's TV version of himself brings low qualities such as pigheadedness and deviousness to new heights. This is cringe comedy at its giddiest best.

And Larry is more dislikably cranky than ever before, at least in the first four episodes of the new 10-episode season. During the show's initial year or two, he was most aptly described as "kooky" and "neurotic"; now he's just a raving mess of complaints and battles, as he offends his dentist, a quadriplegic, a lesbian receptionist, a local meteorologist, Paul Mazursky, Ben Stiller, and others in the course of only a few days. And Larry also continues his rage-a-thon with his agent's wife, Susie (Susie Essman).

Larry's a misanthrope, in short, and the show's verite style - with improvised scenes and hand-held cameras - reinforces the rawness of his whining and belligerence. But Larry is also suffering from a classic case of culture clash. His is an East Coast sensibility locked in a prison of L.A. air-kissing and positive thinking. In New York, his abrasive voice would probably blend in more and offend less.

Not that Larry doesn't exert some appeal in the course of his peculiar Los Angeles adventures, which at one point find him lunching contentedly with a group of retarded men who clean cars.

Larry also befriends a bubbly Muslim woman in a chador (played by Moon Zappa), whom he fixes up with his blind friend from seasons past. And Larry's wife, Cheryl, continues to better-than-tolerate him, a state that actress Cheryl Hines conveys with a perfect mixture of wisdom, bemusement, and affection.

One of the joys of Curb Your Enthusiasm is the way each episode finishes in a collision of subplots - something Seinfeld also did on occasion. But it's the opposite of Dickens' famous denouements, which bring all the strands together to effect a sweet happily ever after.

When the stories merge on Curb Your Enthusiasm, usually in a rush of awful coincidences, Larry is ushered into an even hotter circle of social hell. He becomes even more shrilly defensive, and his life becomes even more miserable. And we should all be thankful for that.

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