Character Factors

HBO takes the dislikable lead to new heights on DVD.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Aug. 2, 2006

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Bench warmer: Lisa Kudrow and Larry David master obnoxiousness in their respective series.

Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Fifth Season
Includes: Two behind-the-scenes documentaries.

The Comeback: The Complete Only Season
Includes: Commentary tracks, featurettes.

Traditionally, sitcom heroes are blander than the kooks and wacky neighbors around them--think of Sam Malone on Cheers, Carrie on Sex and the City, Jerry Seinfeld or Ray Romano. But HBO's sitcom revolution--that is, Larry David's sitcom revolution--puts the wacky neighbor center stage.

David's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback bring the cranky eccentric to the mainstream, testing the limits of the quirky point of view--kind of like devoting a whole series to Aunt Clara on Bewitched.

If you're looking to test your sitcom patience, you've come to the right week, with Enthusiasm's surpassingly obnoxious season five and Kudrow's in-your-face Comeback, its first and only season, both out on DVD.

Enthusiasm's fifth season plays as if creator/star Larry David resolved to crank his abrasiveness up to new dyspeptic heights. In its first seasons Enthusiasm strategically mixed hip improv and an unconventional antihero with the kind of strong plotting that David brought to Seinfeld.

Seinfeld pioneered a storytelling style in which seemingly unrelated threads came together in an episode's last minutes, sometimes in loonily improbable ways. This occasional device became the form for every Enthusiasm episode, giving shape to stories otherwise improvised on the spot by the actors.

David thrives on anti-PC outrageousness, but this latest season offers little else, and often feels forced and unpleasant. It's tied together by two running stories: Larry decides he's adopted and hires a Johnnie Cochranesque detective to investigate; and Larry's friend Richard Lewis needs a kidney, and Larry wavers over whether to give him one.

The show pivots not on these plots but on Larry's faux-naive ability to say and do things that get him in trouble with other people. Increasingly, in these 10 episodes, those people aren't just Larry's friends and family, but a rainbow coalition of minorities: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, lesbians, the handicapped.

For the first time in its 50 episodes, the show's offensiveness starts to feel like a formula, as mechanical and repetitive as those of conventional sitcoms. It's as if David--who also wrote Seinfeld's infamously harsh final episode--is daring us to keep watching, pushing us away as his character becomes more predictably distasteful.

If Enthusiasm raises the question of how much of a sitcom with a dislikable lead an audience will sit through, The Comeback adopts that challenge as its entire premise. Former Friend Kudrow goes way out on a limb as Valerie Cherish, a vain, self-deluding former sitcom star (seemingly based on high-strung Cheers diva Shelley Long), whose life consists of humiliations on top of setbacks on top of disappointments.

Filmed like The Office, as an imitation reality show, Comeback's 13 episodes follow Valerie's progress as she lands a WB-ish sitcom where she thinks she'll be cast as a lead but winds up with the role of the wacky neighbor. We also see her at home with her loving, passive husband and evil stepdaughter, as she tries to balance domesticity with her ravenous hunger for fame and acclaim.

The show starts as a smirky parody of reality shows and life in L.A., then wants to turn Valerie into a tragic heroine, a victim of L.A. vanity more than an example of it. The episodes ask us to sympathize with her, even as they continue to heap endless humiliations on her. She seems put-upon more by her creators than by her co-stars, and her parade of disappointments feels increasingly mean-spirited and gratuitous.

Both Enthusiasm and The Comeback force you to confront a main character who doesn't grow, doesn't change, and isn't likable. But this strategy, while engaging in theory, gets you only so far in practice. Watched in sequence on DVD, The Comeback feels more patronizing than challenging--just a skit trying to dress itself up as a series.

Having created a caricature, The Comeback's creators then try to turn her into a real character. But she's a blank wall, with no sense of humor or self-awareness. Once we've been put in this superior position--knowing Valerie snickeringly better than she knows herself--there's no way out of the cul-de-sac.

Weeds: Season One

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