CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM...: Image A Sound A
"The Car Salesman," "Thor," "Trick or Treat," "The Shrimp Incident," "The Thong," "The Acupuncturist," "The Doll," "Shaq," "The Baptism," "The Massage"
THE ANNA NICOLE SHOW...: Image A Sound A Extras D
"House Hunting," "The Introduction of Bobby Trendy," "The Eating Contest," "The Dentist," "Las Vegas, Pt. I," "Las Vegas, Pt. II," "Pet Psychic," "Cousin Shelly," "The Driving Test," "NYC Publicity Tour," "Paintball," "Halloween Party," "The Date"
by Walter Chaw The way that white people behave badly runs the social gamut from being impolitic to being uncouth--it can be calculated or just the product of bad breeding, but find in a pair of television series that would at first glance seem miles apart dual examples of Caucasians running amuck in their natural upper-class habitat. Larry David's HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has won critical hosannas and the "Seinfeld" demographic, while Anna Nicole Smith's "The Anna Nicole Show" has been heralded as the dawn of the apocalypse. Both, however, are vignette sitcoms based on slightly fictionalized versions of semi-celebrities positioned as the ass in various Byzantine and embarrassing situations. While David's sense of humour is self-conscious, his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" an example of the self-aware media hybrid, it would be a terrible mistake to presume that Smith is as stupid as, say, Jessica Simpson, and "The Anna Nicole Show" is so carefully calculated that with a little tweaking it could be as post-modern and oppressively-scripted as "Law & Order: Courtney Love Unit".
It actually took a few episodes for me to plug into the vibe of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", a Jewish "Mr. Bean" reliant on the abhorrent behaviour of its protagonist ("Seinfeld" co-creator David) and the chagrin of Larry's adorable wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) and bear-like manager Jeff (Jeff Garlin). Once I did, I went from irritated to amused and irritated. What the episodes wash out as are something like what you remember Woody Allen films being like once upon a time: clouds of circular, neurotic aggression, much of it in the spaces between gentile and Jew (one of the best episodes of this second season concerns an interrupted baptism; another David whistling a little Wagner, thus offending a particularly sensitive son of Abraham), which highlights that these shows are actually about identifying an outcast and, through our mutual disdain for their behaviours, allowing us to pretend to be a member of the ruling party to which the series' stars (by demeanour, if not income bracket) clearly do not belong. If you wag your finger at Larry David for tripping Shaquille O'Neal from his courtside Lakers seats or at Anna Nicole Smith for eating food out of the refrigerator of a Beverly Hills mansion she's looking to buy, then you pretend you're in a position of superiority to these fabulously rich, relatively successful people. It's association by unctuous superiority, and it's not only a fascinating mirror held up to our own venal desires and prejudices, but also smart insight into the mind of people skilled at degrading themselves in just such a way as to reward their audiences enough that they want to give them money.
The unexpected and wonderful thing that happened with "The Osbournes" is that what was first set up for ridicule ultimately resolved itself as a couple in Ozzy and Sharon who were sympathetic, competent, and loving. Alas, the same can't be said for either David or Smith. Though the seasons are ridiculously short for these shows, an episode or two gives you more than enough time to mark the general pattern they're going to follow. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" will see David reacting--more often overreacting--to some minor apocalypse, or undermining audiences with various studio heads while pitching a new series starring one of his old "Seinfeld" mates (Jason Alexander or Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) where they would essentially play themselves having trouble getting a new project off the ground. Trés postmodern, no? "The Anna Nicole Show" clothes itself in a complete lack of sophistication, drugging Smith up like a wild Brahma bull and setting her loose in various and sundry china shops to remark about her tits falling out of too-small tops, "taking a shit," and how her disgusting little dog likes to fuck stuffed animals. Instead of a husband and manager, her cohorts are alarming-looking lesbian assistant Kim--who obviously has a crush on her boss and thus allows her to bully her into getting her tongue pierced and riding a rollercoaster that terrifies her--and lawyer Howard "Not That Howard" Stern, who embodies the gold-digging, sycophantic qualities generally ascribed to Smith.
Episodes involve Smith moving, freaking out at the dentist's, hiring a bunch of strippers to attempt to summit her, arguing with a nightmare queen of an interior designer, and calling Henry Miller "porno" that "makes me want to start reading!" It's too calculated not to be calculated, if you know what I mean, the occasional interview buffers with Smith offering recap and commentary so lucid in comparison to her behaviour during the show proper as to function a lot like a confession we're being preyed upon for our ugly schadenfreude. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" does the same thing with less artifice (it references Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia where Anna Nicole references All About Eve, making this a battle of dorks vs. queers)--presumably because it's more socially acceptable to chortle at an extremely successful Jewish entertainer than at a trailer-park cookie who parlayed dangerously inflated breast implants and an unusually beautiful face into the same sort of rarefied environment.
But where the nastiness of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" seems trapped in its snarky self-awareness, the real danger of something like "The Anna Nicole Show" is this gathering sense--impossible to fake--of resentment and depression for everyone asked to participate in the charade. I'm not saying that it's all staged, I'm saying it's a lot like pornography in that men can't really "fake" ejaculation, but they can be manipulated into artificial situations with other professionals to simulate ardour. "The Anna Nicole Show", by constantly rubbing your face in your own instinct to hate people to whom you feel superior, ends up a lot more misanthropic than the poor folks buying the series out of camp appreciation. John Waters was once asked if he'd ever cast Monica Lewinsky in one of his films, to which he replied: "Well, she's never done anything witty, now, has she." There's a difference between a camp aficionado and an asshole--and if there's a place we can locate the wellspring for the likes of Napoleon Dynamite, it's "The Anna Nicole Show".
HBO presents the second season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on two DVDs housed in a cleverly-engineered cardboard case: pull on one end and both platters creep forth like the world's best cheap thrill. Image--fullscreen and DV-bright--and sound--DD 2.0 stereo--are what you'd expect from a well-funded television series shot in this millennium.* Aside from the handsome main menu design, special features are nil--the episodes aren't even separated into chapter stops, rendering casual stopping and starting almost impossible.
Keeping true to its content, "The Anna Nicole Show", on the other hand, arrives on the format tarted up like a whore, with oodles of new content as well as the promise that the things E! had to digitally obscure are no longer blurred-out. This is true of everything except for the urn that holds the ashes of Smith's dead billionaire husband, the whys of which I leave to the people haggling over his estate. The lack of censorship reveals the tired breasts of the hookers Smith hires over a two-episode "Las Vegas" arc to rush blood to her "area" but is generally as bad an idea as not bleeping the copious profanities, which were, let's face it, funnier the other way around. All three discs feature a quartet of "Anna Nicole Speaks On..." interstitials the E! network used to promote the show during their endless loops of "Talk Soup" and "Wild On", while every episode is supplemented with one to three "Deleted Scenes" that are composed without exception of human desperation. The level of misery exploited for condescending laughter here is truly horrific, especially when Cousin Shelly comes calling with her sob story and three teeth.
Closing out the third disc is a "Holiday Special" guest starring Rip Taylor, Margaret Cho, a woman pro wrestler with the good sense to threaten Howard, a karaoke machine, two dwarves dressed as elves, and Kathy Griffin, natch. Everybody gets drunk while flashbacks about how hard it was to organize a drunken bacchanal form the body of the episode. Chief revelation: If you're rich as sin, something called "Dr. Christmas" will gladly decorate your house for a drunken bacchanal. Trying to push that depressed relative over those last hard steps into suicide during the long festive season? Simply slide that ol' pink platter into their DVD player and leave a few sharp objects lying around. This is pure conjecture, mind you, but the extent to which Howard is upset by the guys from "Puppetry of the Penis" (and his jarringly unpleasant burlesque of designer Bobby Trendy, the aforementioned nightmare queen, in an elided passage) suggests that the source of Howard's massive insecurity problems has something to do with his being a self-hating, closeted gay man. The sight of Smith shoving her tongue down Margaret Cho's throat has, incidentally, gone a long way towards pushing me into the sweet embrace of homosexuality, myself. Not incidentally, the misadventures of Cousin Shelly as she gets drunk, flashes her tatas, and starts fights filled me with a sense of self-loathing I can't articulate.
Adding to the fun is an episode-long commentary from Smith that isn't nearly as clueless as you'd expect--with a moment or two where she gives a shout-out to the friends she's left behind ("I don't hate you, but I know you probably hate me") actually ringing that pathos bell. The bulk of it, though, is a recap of the special's narrative. Be a-feared. Be very a-feared. The Lions Gate release is packaged in a gatefold with a slipcase bearing a lenticular design. Originally published: April 25, 2005.
*Ditto "The Anna Nicole Show". return