The season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the series finale of Entourage on HBO last night made for an interesting study in contrasts. The former was the product of a modern comic maestro, a writer-performer who is constantly pushing himself and only commits to new seasons of his show when he has something to say. His comedy constantly challenges social norms and finds humor in taboos so controversial that half the laughs are motivated by shock at what is unfolding on screen.
The latter was the product of a writer who has admitted in the past that he's shocked when people take anything seriously on his show. Honestly, the last three seasons or so of Entourage have been so aimless and slapdash that I have only myself to blame for expecting more from this final season. I thought that with the foreknowledge that this was the end, the creators might have put in a little effort at investing the last hurrah with some sense of closure.
That wasn't in evidence. Instead we were served up sudden reversals from what would be akin to the "end of Act Two lowpoint" in most of the characters' lives:
- Ari and his wife are having season-long marital issues that send him into the bed of another woman and her running to the divorce lawyer. BAM! Fixed with a sudden over-the-top decision to sell the agency and move abroad. (If I had the strength, I'd detail that Mrs. Ari's issues with Ari fly in the face of years of previous characterization and the resolution honors neither that nor her bi-polar attitude this season.)
- Serial womanizer Vince is suddenly worried that an Vanity Fair article implies he's doesn't respect women. This is such a blow to him that he not only makes it his mission to prove the female writer wrong, but he decides in less than a day that she's the love of his life AND they head to Paris to get married. The formerly-insightful reporter played by Alice Eve is reduced to nothing more than a prop for Vince's 180 in characterization and a plot device for his happy ending.
- E's relationship with the most personality free recurring character on the show is on the rocks. He slept with her stepmother AND screwed over her godfather, but all is forgiven because she's pregnant and his friends went all out. Slone might have zero depth, but even she's too good for E, who didn't deserve this happy ending and really belongs slinging pizza at Sbarro's. Let's not forget the fact that two of E's friends lied to Sloane's face about his indiscretion.
- Oh, and Turtle's a millionaire. Sounds about right.
At the other end of the spectrum, Curb was a brilliant episode that stands alongside this season's "The Palestinian Chicken" and last week's Bill Buckner episode as some of the best half-hours of comedy ever. Michael J. Fox appeared as himself in a storyline that had Larry suspecting that Fox was exaggerating his symptoms so he could have carte blance to "accidentally" bump into him, give him dismissive headshakes, shake up a soda bottle before Larry opens it, and loudly clomp around in the apartment above Larry's. With each confrontation, Fox seemed to passive aggressively attack Larry, only to then play the victim, saying "It's the disease." Larry being Larry, he refused to accept this and his umbrage and frustration only served to make him appear more like the aggressor.
It's somewhat brilliant how Curb doesn't shy away from making "protected classes" the villains in these stories. I recall a blind man a few seasons back who took great advantage of his disability to impose on Larry far beyond what most people would consider reasonable.
I don't doubt some Parkinson's sufferers were offended by this episode, but having Fox play the bad guy in the scenario probably went a long way towards helping audiences see the lighter side.
(Honestly, the only fault I found with the plot was the fact that the "faker" element immediately reminded me of Rush Limbaugh's insane and completely indefensible statements about Fox, and how I hope that when Rush suffers the near-fatal heart attack he's long overdue, that someone may use national media to call him a charlatan. Right, because Parkinson's is SUCH a picnic, you overblown sack of shit.)
Okay, one other fault - the French street in the end was absurdly fake, but Larry getting into a shouting match with a Frenchman about parking etiquette was well worth it. That and Leon's chulupa discussion.
Writers - take a lesson from Larry David: Be bold, write things that sometimes scare you and others. But don't just cross the line for the sake of crossing it. I've seen plenty of specs that try to get by on just being outrageous and shocking - but it takes more than that. Curb didn't succeed because it made fun of Parkinson's. It succeeded because of how that premise created a trap that the protagonist was completely incapable of escaping from. It was a no-win situation and it was done in a way where we assume that Michael J. Fox was probably being an asshole.... but we're never 100% sure.
Better still, if he's not being an asshole, then Larry's reaction is incredibly insensitive and he deserves what he gets for escalating it. If he IS being an asshole, then Larry's still not helping the situation, as his aggressive defense is playing right into the "villain's" hands. If the story was just "Hey, let's make Michael J. Fox a faker," it might not have been as successful. Instead, the brilliance comes from Larry having to deal with the implications of that - in-character - and have his very nature make a bad situation worse. Long-time fans probably could predict many of Larry's reactions in this episode, and yet, that inevitability only made the writing more potent because after eight seasons, we know Larry is incapable of reacting any other way.
The difference between the two shows is that the Curb staff understands story and it knows how to put their characters in situations where their natural reactions cause conflict. Entourage understands neither of these things, so the characters are subject to complete personality reversals at any time in order to service the whims of the creator.
So if you have a choice to emulate Entourage or emulate Curb, choose the latter.