Best Since ‘Seinfeld’

By David Bianculli

The title of Larry David's new HBO comedy series based on his similarly named special from last October, is the sarcastic, self-deprecating phrase Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Truthfully, though, it's hard to do. With this delightful and boldly distinctive new series (which launches Sunday night at 9:30), the co-creator of Seinfeld has managed to accomplish two seemingly impossible things at once: He has given HBO its best sitcom since The Larry Sanders Show, and given all of television the best sitcom since Seinfeld.

Not too shabby for a show that isn't even scripted.

Last year's Curb Your Enthusiasm special was a high-concept affair in which David, like Garry Shandling in Larry Sanders before him, mounted a show about the making of a show. In David's case, it was to film the development and staging of a standup nightclub act, from the initial pitch meeting with the network to the final concert.

Perversely, that special ended without showing any of the concert — in the end, David decided not to do it — but its Sanders-ish mixture of realistic characters and real-life celebrities clearly demonstrated that David's comic approach had legs. It also had guts, since each outlined scene was fleshed out with largely or wholly improvised dialogue.

That's the formula for Curb Your Enthusiasm as a weekly series, which follows David around in what purports to be his everyday life. Like Ozzie Nelson, he doesn't seem to do much actual work; like Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers, everything he touches turns to either anger or embarrassment, and often both.

The four episodes previewed attest to both the range and depth of this freewheeling concept. Co-stars Cheryl Hines (as David's wife) and Jeff Garlin (as his manager) are wonderful; the arguments between Larry and Cheryl, especially, sound so real and so absurdly comic precisely because the rhythms are so natural.

Guest stars playing themselves get into the game nicely, too. Richard Lewis, as Larry's best friend, clearly enjoys the freedom this scriptless concept allows; so do Mary Steenburgen, Ted Danson and Kathy Griffin, all playing themselves with impish abandon. (In one episode, Larry develops a serious, and totally understandable, crush on Steenburgen.)

Even the actors who portray characters other than themselves score big in this format. In a future episode, Bob Odenkirk, a recurring character for years on Larry Sanders as smarmy manager Stevie Grant, plays a former porn star and spins a story involving tabasco sauce that, once heard, likely will never be forgotten.

As in Seinfeld,even the small roles are brilliantly cast and offer delightful surprises: The father of David's manager is played by old Steve Allen cohort Louis Nye, and he's so dryly funny that you want to see more of him immediately.

Sunday's premiere involves movie manners and an alleged erection. If that sounds like a show about nothing, just think of what David did with that concept last time around.

Last time, David stayed behind the scenes. This time, by coming front and center, he has beaten all the odds and struck brilliance again.

Curb my enthusiasm? No way.

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