For a while now I’ve been meaning to post here about whichever too-smart-for-their-own-good schedule makers at Fox and HBO are responsible for placing the two most gleefully misanthropic sitcoms on television directly opposite each other (Sunday nights, 8:30 CST): “Arrested Development” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I missed the boat, though, and now that “The Sopranos” has returned in the same slot, my dilemma is intensified, but lacking the neat symmetry of Larry David v. David Cross.
When the Sunday night showdown was “Curb” versus “Arrested,” it was closely contested but the latter always won out. Dana Stevens’ Slate appreciation nicely invokes the set-up and some of the charm of “Arrested,” in case you haven’t watched it. The only thing I would add is my impression that, despite their epic character flaws, there is something weirdly lovable about the characters in “Arrested Development,” a deer-in-the-headlights helplessness that makes my heart swell even as I snicker and sigh at them. They wear their dysfunctions on their sleeves and have all the vulnerability–not just the brattiness–of children.
Colby Cosh’s smart reflections on Larry David this week set me to thinking more about the two shows together. At a glance it would seem that they are perfect negative images of one another. Larry David is an impossible jerk plunked down amid people like you and me to wreak social havoc; Michael Bluth is a person like you or me plunked down amid a bunch of jerks and crazies to try to impose some order. But Colby plays devil’s advocate on “Curb”:
In the world of Curb Your Enthusiasm you can’t shake the suspicion that perhaps Larry David, whatever his self-deprecating protestations, regards “Larry David” as the hero of the show, a quasi-intellectual, creative-professional Christ figure adrift amidst a sea of grasping, pleading, whining nutballs. And, in fact, if you’re inclined to view the show that way, the logic holds up remarkably well. Normally “Larry” is either being terrorized quite randomly, thanks to some farcical explosion of circumstances, or is getting into trouble by pursuing some item of his private and arbitrary social credo too far. I don’t know if the term “comedy of manners” has ever been applied here, but that’s what Curb Your Enthusiasm is; a humorous meditation about the unwritten codes governing the roadway, the dinner party, the driving range, the memorial service. I’d hate to come off as one of those prats who tries to co-opt everything for conservatism, and David’s electoral politics seem to lie left of the Clintonian, but the unstated theme of every CYE episode is the longing for a world–by implication, a lost world–of clear social expectations. Perhaps without knowing it, David has crammed some of the concerns of the 19th-century novel into the small screen.
This is compelling, and I wholeheartedly buy the comparison with 19th-century novels, but I still find it hard to squint just the right way so that Larry David appears as the hero of the show. If one could, though, he would look a lot like Michael Bluth, the one normal guy in a family tree of nitwits and screw-ups. Since I find said nitwits and screw-ups so appealing, though, maybe I have been looking at each of the show’s heroes precisely wrong, and need to own my sneaking affection for the bad Bluths. Then Michael Bluth would look like the Larry David of “Arrested Development” and Larry David like the Michael Bluth of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Hmm…any other “Arrested” fans out there? Do you love these creeps too, or is it just me?