Television now has a long enough history to entertain programs that are about the medium itself. How television looks at itself in a mirror is what fascinated Mark Clamen in this thoughtful post.
|Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld: Curb Your Enthusiasm|
Last month, I wrote about the recent Showtime sitcom Episodes. This dark comedy stars Friends alum Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc, and tells a story as old television itself: the trials and tribulations of making a television show. In this case, it was the story of a married British comedy writing team who had the misfortune to have a hit series of theirs optioned by an American network. As I wrote, Episodes, for the most part, works well (in large part due to the talents of the BBC television veterans who play the show’s leads), and is definitely worth checking out.
But some of the weaknesses I identified in Episodes have got me thinking about just how tricky it can be to make a television comedy about making television comedy. It’s one thing to dramatize or satirize the process (from Singin’ in the Rain to The Player, Hollywood has long been its own favourite subject), but it is quite another to film a comedy about how empty and compromised sitcom production can often be. Episodes mostly held its own, but it’s swimming next to some big fish: The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Extras. Here we're going to look at why I believe these shows, in particular, are so successful.
|Garry Shandling as Larry Sanders|
The most recent season of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (also on HBO) – which climaxed with the filming of a Seinfeld reunion show – took this deconstructive conceit one step further. Though in many ways Curb has perhaps always been implicitly about turning one of American network television’s most successful sitcoms inside out, this last season clearly demonstrated the genuine affection for the product that David clearly feels. The premise of Curb’s seventh season is that Larry (the real-life co-creator of Seinfeld), in a bid to woo back his now-estranged wife Cheryl, finally agrees to bring the old Seinfeld cast back together, which reopens a standing debate over that series’ controversial final episode. Playing out Larry David’s own ambivalences about uncynical endings (he loves the original Seinfeld ending, and the fictionalized Jason Alexander expresses his dislike), this season of Curb re-writes and doesn’t rewrite that most classic series. You just have to watch the brilliant “table read” scene in that season’s penultimate episode (“The Table Read”, Season 7, Episode 9) to see how brilliantly the show can walk that fine line between parody and sincere tribute. Though Larry’s ambivalence over the process is made quite clear, the scene still plays like a master class in TV comedy-writing. Whatever distance Larry David puts between his audience and this new “episode of Seinfeld”, the fact is that what we see of its script is a perfectly feasible and actually very funny show. And the pride that both the real and fictional Larry David feels for Seinfeld is tangible and inescapable, despite the fun Curb has in tearing it apart – which is arguably what the first 6 seasons of the series had always already been.
|The cast of Extras|
What these three shows have, and what the first season of Episodes I feel often lacked, is a genuine love for television itself. It is a delicate game to satirize a world and continue to show real affection for it. As dark as these shows are, Garry Shandling, Larry David, and Ricky Gervais ultimately reserve their greatest criticism for the conflicted characters they portray, and never fail to respect their audience. In the end, these series are ironic love-letters not only to their fans, but to the medium these artists have devoted their creative lives to.
- original published on April 10, 2011 in Critics at Large.