By Matthew Seitz | Press Play July 22, 2011 at 6:00AM
By Edward Copeland
Press Play Contributor
Having seen the first three episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm's eighth season now, no arc has developed yet that Larry David will carry through the 10-episode season, unless this year's theme is the pursuit of laughs at any cost and pushing the envelope of good taste even further than Curb has gone before. It appears to be paying off in the ratings: Its premiere was the highest-rated episode in the show's history and the second episode got higher numbers than that. If your sphincter muscles have tightened to the point that any sense of humor you might once have had now needs life support machines to survive, Curb is not the show for you and I'll be too busy laughing frequently and loudly to hear if you voice any objections to my praising David's ballsy genius. The new season's first two episodes have been very good, but the episode that airs Sunday night may end up in the pantheon of classic Curbs.
"You know what you are — you are a social assassin," Larry's manager and best friend Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin) tells Larry in Sunday's episode "The Palestinian Chicken." Jeff bestows this new title upon Larry after he shares the story that when he went to pay Ron (Jason Kravits), a mutual friend and member of their five-member club golf team, for accidentally backing his car into the front of Ron's Lexus, Ron asked him to pay him back in a different way. Ron's wife Ilene (Maggie Wheeler), you see, who Larry says "could be Susie's twin" in the way she constantly berates Ron to the point that he barely speaks around her, has a particularly annoying habit that whenever someone says something funny she verbally says, "LOL." It drives Ron up the wall, but he was so impressed by how Larry speaks his mind about things during a dinner party for the members of the golf team ahead of the club's championship, Ron offered to pay for his own repairs if Larry would confront Ilene on how annoying the habit is the next time she says, "LOL." That thread is just one small part of the hilarity of Sunday night's episode, the third of a season that began with a very funny premiere and has escalated in terms of laughs with each subsequent installment.
The season's premiere, "The Divorce," picks up exactly where season 7 left off where it looked as if Larry and Cheryl might be reconciling when Larry realized that Cheryl had left the cup ring on Julia Louis-Dreyfus' table that Julia had blamed Larry for ("Do you respect wood?") and Larry was calling Julia to get Cheryl to admit her culpability as Cheryl asked him not to do it. The scene continues with Cheryl telling Larry that he never listens to her and she storms out. A title card indicates that it's ONE YEAR LATER and Larry sits across from his divorce attorney Andrew Berg (Paul F. Tompkins) making the final arrangements on his divorce. Larry is going to get to keep the house and it sounds as if he's getting a pretty good deal. As he emphasizes to Berg, Larry wants to look like he's being a good guy, but he doesn't want to be a good guy. I do wonder if this episode marks Cheryl Hines' swan song on the show. In the closing credits, she's listed as also-starring as usual but in the following two episodes in which she doesn't appear, her name is absent. At the same time, Susie Essman's name remains in the credits though Susie Greene doesn't appear in the second episode. Even though Larry David plays a fictionalized version of himself, you have to think that Hines has become a victim of circumstance given David's real-life, well-publicized divorce from his wife Laurie.
That, however, merely sets up the laugh-filled, taboo-breaking hijinks to come in "The Divorce." Among the jaw-dropping "I can't believe they're doing that" moments in the episode:
Gary Cole plays a fictional owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers going through a bitter divorce similar to that of the team's real-life owner Frank McCourt;
Larry dumps his attorney when he discovers he tries to pass himself off as Jewish but he's really Catholic (Of course, Larry's concerns over Judaism only show when it's convenient — at a buffet he stacks his plate with shrimp and crab legs);
Larry tries to coach the Dodgers' owner 13-year-old daughter on how to use a tampon when she gets her first period while visiting Larry's house to sell Girl Scout cookies.
Watching Larry David fumble with a tampon while reading instructions through a bathroom door to a freaked-out young teen has to be one of the show's most sustained set pieces of awkward and uncomfortable comedy. You aren't sure if you're laughing at the scene's content or its audacity. Throughout the long run of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (now HBO's longest-running comedy or drama series), while the series seldom has failed to deliver the laughs, after awhile the mechanics of its formula had become a bit predictable. While so far the eighth season continues to follow the broad outline of the formula where all the various strands come together at the end, so far this season seems to be much looser, with the comedy taking precedence. As a result, it is strengthening the underlying skeleton because that's not what's being emphasized any longer.
Some other highlights from "The Divorce": A classic Susie Greene moment when Larry, the Greenes and the Funkhousers have brunch together and Jeff tells her that if they ever split up, he'd just divide everything 50-50 and give her the best of everything to which Susie replies, "What are you fuckin' kiddin' me? You think we're gonna have a nice divorce if we ever get divorced? I'm takin' you for everything you've got, mister. I'm taking your balls and I'm thumbtackin' them to the wall." Bob Einstein always has been a delight as Marty Funkhouser when he has appeared, but he's hitting it out of the park in all three episodes so far this season. In "The Divorce," he announces at the brunch that he's going on a business trip to London and Larry innocently asks why his wife Nan isn't going, only to get the dirtiest look from Marty when Larry sells Nan (Ann Ryerson) how wonderful London is this time of year. Later, Marty confronts Larry about how he's ruined his getaway because all they do is stare bored at each other or she'll talk over him. Larry asks why he doesn't get divorced. "I'm lazy," Marty admits. Later, he drops by Larry's elated as Leon (J.B. Smoove, still hanging around), Larry and Jeff are playing pool to announce that he's getting a divorce too. He asked Nan for one and she said yes. Leon suggests he tie strings of cans to his car like you do when you get married that say JUST DIVORCED. Jeff is terribly jealous — Larry and Marty are getting divorces, Leon doesn't need one and he's stuck with Susie. It's just a warmup for what Einstein gets to do in the second and third episodes.
That second episode, "The Safe House," ramps up the laughs even higher. So often, Larry ends up getting punished for his actions or his "rules" as how society should function. Too often what gets overlooked is that Larry either has good intentions or he's just right. The opening scene of "The Safe House" offers a perfect illustration of this. Larry is minding his own business, walking down the wide aisle of a grocery store to pick up a carton of a certain ice cream he wants. In front of the case holding the flavor he seeks are two women — one (Miriam Flynn) comforting the other (Tymberlee Hill) who is crying and visibly upset about something. The aisle contains no one else but the three of them and Larry tries his best to coax them to move over just so he can get his ice cream and be on his way, but the woman doing the comforting turns on him — insisting she's done her best to be polite and ask him to give them a minute. Larry appears to leave and the woman tells the bawling woman not to pay any attention to"that jerk" then we see one of the best sight gags ever as Larry's arms creeps through the freezer as the women continue to stand there. Of course, Larry was right. Why should anyone have to wait to get one item when the other two, one of them upset or not, could have easily moved elsewhere? Later in the episode, Larry arrives home in time to catch the woman (Michaela Watkins) who has been walking her dog and letting him go on his yard. Larry yells at her for not bringing a plastic bag with her. "A dog without a bag is incomplete," he tells her. She claims forgetfulness, but he counters that she forgets every time. "You didn't have to yell," she says. "I'm not just yelling for me. I'm yelling for society!" Larry shouts. Honestly, don't we all want to yell for society sometimes? It turns out that both the crying woman and the dog walker are battered women who now reside in a "safe house" a few doors down from Larry which he learns when the other woman knocks on his door and introduces herself as Margaret. She wants Larry to come to apologize to the women to give them "a positive male" image. Larry doesn't think he has anything to apologize for, but agrees to do it anyway, though he's puzzled when one of the women living in the house, Dale, turns out to be a big gal that he thinks is pulling a scam because she looks as if she could take care of herself. If she looks familiar, she's played by Jen Kober, with a different look and demeanor than her role as Melissa Leo's friend Andrea on Treme.
As has been a recurring topic throughout the run of Curb, "The Safe House" also touches on racial issues with no one wanting to leap to conclusions when a laptop Larry was supposed to be watching appears to be stolen after having asked an African American to watch it for him when Larry has to leave. More disturbingly, it gets Leon to regret how it gives his race a bad reputation as he proceeds to rattle off all the personal information he knows about Larry that he's never used but he could have to rip him off if he wanted. Suddenly, Larry begins to wonder why it is that Leon still lives with him. The purely comic thread of "The Safe House" gets launched by Funkhouser in a scene where he's a veritable one-liner machine. He informs Jeff and Larry over a meal that Richard Lewis has yet another new girlfriend and that she's a burlesque dancer with quite impressive breasts. Lewis joins them briefly, but says he has an audition that he is running late to because of a phone call. Lewis finds it annoying that Funkhouser told the others what his girlfriend did for a living and denies that her breasts were the attraction, going on to defend the tradition of burlesque, saying that without burlesque we wouldn't have Charlie Chaplin. "Chaplin was a great pole dancer," Funkhouser comments. Lewis swears that it's her inner beauty and spirituality that attracted him. After a pause, Funkhouser asks him, "Have you set a day aside when you're finally going to look at her face?" Jeff and Larry can't stop laughing and since this is an improvised show, who knows if that laughter was in character?
"The Divorce" and "The Safe House" turn out to be mere appetizers for the meal that is Sunday night's episode "The Palestinian Chicken." The episode takes its title from a restaurant run by Palestinians which Larry and Jeff have heard nothing but great things about and decide to try after finishing a practice round with Ron and Eddie (Larry Miller), two of the other three members of their five-man club golf team. For some reason, their fifth member and best golfer, Funkhouser, has been mysteriously scarce of late. This does bring up one criticism that I do have of Curb on occasion. They so frequently have actors and comedians play themselves, that it throws me off when they are supposed to be a character. They've done this before with Michael McKean and Tim Meadows, here they do it with Larry Miller. As soon as I see him, I assume he's supposed to be himself so it takes a little acclimating to realize that he's playing a completely fictional character. The food at Al-Abbas' Original Best Chicken turns out to be as great as its word-of-mouth indicated, but it's definitely not a Jew-friendly place with lots of anti-Israel posters lining the walls. Larry tells Jeff that if someone who's Jewish wanted to cheat on their spouse, this would be the place to go because they wouldn't get caught. Larry spots an attractive Palestinian woman (Anne Bedian) and suggests to Jeff that perhaps she could be the next Mrs. David, but Jeff thinks that if she's going to get over her anti-Semitism, Larry wouldn't be the man to bring her around. Larry admits that is part of the attraction. "You're always attracted to someone who doesn't want you, right?" Larry says. "Here, you have someone who not only doesn't want you, but doesn't even recognize your right to exist."
When they have the dinner party where Ron's wife annoys with the "LOL" and Larry hits the Lexus, they finally learn where Funkhouser has been hiding. He tells them that he has had a midlife crisis and rededicated his life to Judaism, meeting with this new rabbi every day and wearing his yarmulke all the time. The Greenes have puzzled everyone by bringing daughter Sammi (Ashly Holloway, the same actress who has played her since the second season classic "The Doll" in 2001). During the dinner, it comes up that Al-Abbas plans to open a second location — next to Goldblatt's Deli. Susie decides to organize a protest. Some argue that they have a right in the U.S. to open where they want to but, as they've done before, Curb has sneaked some parallels to a real controversy, in this case the whole Ground Zero mosque brouhaha, into a story, but for laughs. I'm not going to spell out in detail all the twists and turns in this week's episode just so you can enjoy it all the more, but I have to say that they do give Sammi Greene more than she has ever had to do before and, as Larry says to her, "Boy, you're really your mother's daughter, aren't you?"
There aren't many series that you see churning out episodes at this high of quality in their eighth season, but so far this season Curb Your Enthusiasm is three for three with "The Palestinian Chicken" destined for inclusion on the list of their best.
Edward Copeland is a former professional journalist and critic whose career got sidelined by multple sclerosis and other medical mishaps. Now, he just writes what he wants to write about and is editor-in-chief of his own blog Edward Copeland on Film where he has many contributors and covers topics besides film including TV, theater, music and books. This piece can also be found at Edward Copeland on Film here.