Monday, September 12, 2011

Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage - an HBO study in contrasts

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.


  1. The thing you should note about Curb is that all the dialogue is improvised, and that "all" Larry does is create an outline with the basic plots & subplots of the show.

    In this respect it's unfair to compare any show to Curb, because he's the only showrunner who gives his cast such freedom (and btw it's a fantastic cast), and it's that freedom that enables the performances.

    You can only choose to emulate Curb if you have the performers to make it work, and imho it's a one in a million kind of cast. The Seinfeld cast could do it, I don't think the Friends cast, as good as they were, could.

  2. As I understand it, Larry's outlines are extremely detailed and cover every beat of the story - which was the subject of the post. The improv doesn't alter the story movement at all.

    The dialogue is a different matter, and there were a number of gems in last night's ep. I particularly like Jeff's "Why the fuck does she have to stick her nose in everything?" with regard to his wife. Leon's "He'll be Michael J FUCKED-UP!" was another gem.

    So that's why I say emulate Curb - it starts with a good story.

  3. There's this joke, "Careful Icarus!", that's been making the rounds (came from Craig Ferguson). And that's how I feel about this.

    The danger that comes from emulating Curb, is that if you don't have a truly outstanding cast, then you end up with wax wings, and will crash and burn very messily. The degree of difficulty is so high, I'm not sure many people would know where to start.

    I agree with the sentiment regarding the quality of Curb's plots, and that *is* something to be emulated, although it's clear, from what Robert Weide said, that some of the scenes, if not many, are based on a simple premise ("Do what you'd normally do").

    Fundamentally, it still comes down to the performances and the characters (Here's a youtube link with Larry David talking about his acting on Curb:

    What they've done in this show is take real people, asked them to behave like themselves, creating wonderfully rich, natural and *effortless* performances. This show has fully formed, 3D characters, and no-one had to lift a finger to do it. It's astonishing, imho, and not something to be blase about.

    Is there any doubt that the real world Larry David is almost identical to his character on the show, or the same isn't true of Cheryl Hines, for that matter?

  4. Hey Bitter, great post. Couldn't agree with you more. Fantastic season finale for Curb. One of my all-time favorite episodes.

    How about that "pre-gay" child? What a brilliant little actor and subplot.

    Pliny - you sorta missed the boat on what Bitter was saying... twice.

    However the final product comes together (and I completely disagree with your "no-one had to lift a finger" beliefs), writers should aspire to reach the same degree of humor, bravery, authenticity and clever nuance in their scripts.

  5. Trevor - Thanks for the comment. "Pre-gay" is absolutely another instant catch phrase for sure. And I laughed hard at Leon's "That shaking shit might come in handy in a fight!"

  6. Trevor, all due respect...

    The point I'm making about Curb, is that because it's unscripted, most, but not all, of the good stuff that happens on screen is, by definition, out of the control of the writers, and in the hands of the performers. Particularly character development.

    And wrt plot points, and "dark" humor, Larry did it all before with Seinfeld. That's his voice.

    What I'm saying, respectfully, is that Zuul is overstating just how much up front preparation is going on. It's clear, from the clip, that the level of detail in a scene is something like "a, b and c need to happen, preferably in that order", and not "you need to say this kind of line, here"

    My fundamental point is that not every actor is Jessica Alba, who doesn't need a script or writers, and that although Larry and Robert make it easier, the set of actors who could successfully do what this troup does, week in and week out, is small. The only group I can think of are the guys who work on Christopher Guest movies.

    Emulating Curb is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The unwary and unskilled are going to get burnt. Badly.

  7. Okay, I think I see where the disconnect is here. I'm saying that something as sharp, complex and multi-layered as the end result of a Curb episode is the sort of effort that everyone should strive to achieve in their writing. Pliny keeps getting hung up on how the sausage is made.

    (And I still think he's selling short the work on story and structure that Larry and his writers do before the scene goes before camera. As much as Curbs subplots criss-cross and intertwine, the dialogue is the EASY part. This is particularly true of the seasons with overarching stories that have clearly been "built backwards" starting from the end point)

    Analogy - I could praise Casablanca as one of the greatest films ever made and say that the character work, the dialogue and the emotion is the kind of standard every writer should set for themselves. That DOESN'T mean I'm saying the only path to a brilliant film is by hiring teams of writers to constantly revise the script, not only before production but throughout the entire shoot, to the point where the ending is pretty much in doubt until the moment it was shot.

    So work to write something as brilliant as "The Palestinian Chicken" - but don't take that as a suggestion to show up on set with the actors and attempt to "find the scene" on the day.