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Vex and Violence

Photo by Ron Batzdorff

Larry David, television’s grouchy comic genius, is back — or will be in a couple of weeks, when Curb Your Enthusiasm begins its fourth season (HBO, January 4). I suspect I’m not the only television critic who eagerly slipped the review copy into the VCR the moment it arrived in the mail.

So how is Larry? Well, if you thought he was grumpy and argumentative last year, you should see him now. Like a grand master who can play 18 games of chess simultaneously, he seems to have a running argument going with just about everyone he knows. This season’s enemies include a blind pianist, a dentist, a quadriplegic, a lesbian receptionist, an aspiring child magician, a meteorologist, several Russian immigrants, and (most bitterly of all) Ben Stiller. And that’s just the first four episodes.

Not that Larry doesn’t make some friends. He gets on famously with a deeply religious Muslim woman who turns out to be the soul of feminine warmth and friendliness (he takes her to Canter’s, black chador and all), and he also hits it off with a group of retarded men who wash cars for a living and laugh uproariously at his jokes long before he gets to the punch line.

For anyone who’s missed out on this program, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a cinema vérité–style depiction of the life of Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld and well-heeled denizen of West L.A. The story line running through this season’s episodes concerns Larry’s faltering attempts to rehearse for a lead role in the stage version of Mel Brooks’ musical comedy The Producers, in which he will be starring opposite Ben Stiller.

To say that Stiller grows to dislike Larry would be a major understatement. By the third episode he looks as if he would gladly run him over with his car — twice.

Over its first three seasons, Curb was the most unsentimental comedy imaginable. If anything, it has become even chillier. During the episode with the Muslim woman (delightfully played by Moon Zappa, not that you can see much of her), you may find a few rivulets of delectably warm multicultural feelings creeping through your heart. The shock, as it turns out, is that none of them have penetrated Larry’s. Islamic fundamentalists, Jewish dentists, famous actors, even his own wife and friends — they’re all the same to him. He treats everyone equally badly.

The lack of sentiment is refreshing, of course, and in its way, bracing. Eventually it even allows for a kind of friendship to develop between Larry and the blind pianist, if a rather harshly honest one. The pianist’s last girlfriend told him she was a model. Actually, she looked more like a cleaning lady. Naturally, Larry was the one to blow her cover. Once he discovered the truth, the pianist ditched her. Now he’s looking for a new girlfriend, and doesn’t think his disability will put anyone off.

“What matters to women is what’s on the inside of a fellow,” he tells Larry.

“You’ve got nothing inside of you,” Larry replies. “You’re the most superficial man I’ve ever met, blind or sighted.”

 

At the center of Line of Fire, an ambitious new crime series on ABC, is a bald, bespectacled criminal named Jonah Malloy. Malloy (David Paymer) is a quiet, unassuming type who happens to be okay with breaking people’s arms and, when necessary, having them tortured and killed. He also enjoys first dibs on any new girl in his whorehouse. But then, no one ever got to run a crime syndicate by being nice.

Also operating in Richmond, Virginia, the town Malloy “owns,” is an FBI office peopled with the usual assortment of absurdly good-looking young agents. The unit is run with an iron, if slender-fingered, fist by Special Agent Lisa Cohen (Leslie Hope, from 24), a tall, slim, chain-smoking redhead who looks like a bisexual avant-garde composer from downtown Manhattan. “I’m not asking you out on a date, you know,” she says when she invites Paige Van Doren (Leslie Bibb), an eager young agent, out to dinner, but of course we ardently hope she is, or will.

Line of Fire is a terrific show to watch, and it’s been directed (by Rod Lurie) with style and brio. Like 24, it does some fancy stuff with split screens, and like The Sopranos it tries to persuade us that thugs like Malloy are in most ways ordinary people with typical domestic lives. But unlike Tony Soprano, Malloy is childless and a thoroughly cold fish, and it’s impossible to feel anything but pity for his wife, Janet (Kristen Shaw). In the pilot, Malloy gave a eulogy for one of his fallen minions, but the emotion seemed utterly fake. This guy really is a bastard, and if the writers on the show think otherwise, they’re kidding themselves.

As for the FBI agents, most of them seem highly improbable. Bibb works hard to inject sincerity and emotion into her role as the rookie who joined the force because her husband was killed on 9/11, but like Malloy’s, her attempts at sincerity and empathy feel manufactured. Paradoxically, that emptiness is part of what makes her interesting and the show worth watching. Faked emotion, after all, is encountered in life at least as frequently as the real thing.