‘Curb’s’ Enduring Appeal

Entire series has returned to HBO

Larry David’s character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” was petty and selfish, a multimillionaire forever ranting against microscopic injustices.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In fact, David’s HBO series did more than lightly fictionalize the man who co-created “Seinfeld.” It debuted just as reality television was getting a foothold on American culture and gave us TV’s most squirm-worthy storylines.

David’s on-screen persona would shatter societal norms all the while attempting to enforce them.

Today, stars routinely “play” themselves on reality shows. Think “The Osbournes” or “Gene Simmons Family Jewels.” They, too, go by their real names, but play out scenarios that appear manipulated by unseen producers. “Curb” did it first, and was far more open about the process. And the show famously relied on improv moments to flesh out the storylines, much as the current FX hit comedy “The League” does each week.

Now, HBO’s Comedy channel has served up a four-pack of “Curb” episodes each night from the show’s eight seasons starting at 8 p.m. Eastern this past Thursday. The series can also be seen via HBO Now and HBO Go. It’s a fine chance to catch up on one of television’s best comedies.

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Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, wonders just how improvised those now-classic shows really were.

“It’s one thing to be on stage and do improv, but to have the camera crew and lights (ready),” said Thompson. “I was always skeptical about how much of that was improv, or worked out, and rehearsed.”

“Curb” debuted in 2000, a few months after CBS unveiled “Survivor,” the show that kicked off the reality TV boom, Thompson said.

“(MTV’s) ‘The Real World’ got it jump-start on everything, but network TV really ignored it,” Thompson said.

A few years later we witnessed “The Osbournes,” the “Real Housewives” franchise and other shows that played fast and loose on the term “reality.”

“They pretended they were documentaries,” he said. “I think ‘Curb’ always confessed it was something somewhere between his life and a fiction they were creating.”

Those creations could be challenging at times. David’s on-screen persona would shatter societal norms while attempting to enforce them. He’d make a scene about someone cutting in line at the buffet, for example, or blast a complete stranger for parking too close to the line in a crowded lot. He even scolded an employee for her inappropriate outfit showing a tad too much of her generous mid-section. It’s the kind of things we might like to do — but we hold our tongues and silently seethe for decorum’s sake.

“It was the most uncomfortable show. Now, that discomfort is commonplace,” Thompson said, referring to reality shows steeped in confrontations and in-fighting.

David continues to tease a possible ninth season, telling HBO executives recently he has a notepad full of ideas for new episodes. There’s still no official announcement, even though HBO is supposedly ready to give him air time whenever he asks for it.

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Can “Curb” reclaim its spot in popular culture at a time when Must Squirm TV is the norm?

Thompson compared the show to David Letterman’s late-night reign. Letterman was the innovator who, by his final few years, seemed “stodgy” compared to the competition. No wonder, since, “everyone was doing” what Letterman did, he said.

“Will it be as central to the zeitgeist as it was? Probably not,” Thompson said.

Longtime fans may disagree. Even mediocre “Curb” installments, and a few snuck into those eight seasons, can be “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good” for show devotees.

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