The Los Angeles Misanthrope
A Cover of Entertainment Weekly
In my book, Engaging Film Criticism, I argue for the importance of academic critics intervening into the reception of films while they are still being attended to by the general population. One of the terrific things about on-line publication is that it allows for such interventions, since the normal channels of refereed academic publication are simply too slow to allow for it. Of course, popular film reviewing has the benefit of such contemporaneous intervention, but its function is to serve taste culture — will Roger Ebert’s readership find spending money on a particular film worthwhile — rather than to generate knowledge and understanding.
Of course, when it comes to television, there is not nearly so well developed a critical apparatus. Popular film reviews are ubiquitous, while television reviewing is limited to a few newspapers. Entertainment Weekly is really the only major popular publication that treats television as thoroughly as film. However, the same problems with academic interventions into the critical landscape of television exist as they do with scholarly film reviewing. Academic journal articles and books on television take far too long to intervene into discussions about the potential meanings of shows while people are watching them with enthusiasm. While there are websites, like Television Without Pity, which analyze each new episode of favorite shows, such as The Simpsons, the discourse on these sites is not necessarily bound by the rigor of scholarly analysis. This is not to say that the reception of shows on these web sites is without value; on the contrary, these sites provide tremendously valuable data about the reception of television, data which any film reception studies scholar would drool over were it available for, say, the 1930s films of Frank Capra.
As with film reviewing, we need a middle-ground institutional space where today’s television shows are discussed using the historical and theoretical tools of academic media studies. I think the success of FLOW will lie in its ability to produce such middle-ground criticism about shows that are usually too new to be engaged by academics at the time when such interventions would actually matter. The extensive thread that has developed in response to Jason Mitell’s two articles about Lost is, I think, a very encouraging sign about the success FLOW is having. I have been sharing these discussions with my friends outside of the academic circuit, people who love to watch and talk about Lost with me. If I were to have these conversations with these friends three years from now, when the academic articles on Lost will finally start circulating beyond the ephemerality of academic conference papers, these interventions would be far too late.
It strikes me that one of the repercussions of the academic delay in writing about television is an emphasis on the overall structure of the show rather than the individual episodes through which we actually encounter it, and about which the internet fans predominantly write. I think we’ll see a number of academic studies of Six Feet Under, for example, now that the series finale has aired, and that its entirety can be assessed. At the very least, the academic will wait for the end of a season in order to speculate on the structure of the show beyond the individual episode. For example, Mittell’s articles about Lost come after the season one finale, anticipating the premiere of season two. I am not arguing against either seeing the entire series as a complete text, nor the segmentation of television into seasons. However, I think there is another aspect of television’s segmentation and flow that can be attended to if we take our reception of television shows at their most discrete level, that of the individual episode. In order to pursue what can be gained by doing so, I want to do a close textual reading of the most recent episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Bowtie,” which aired this past Sunday, October 2, 2005. I think Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the most important sitcoms ever on television. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created in Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998) a highly literate version of George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), a comic critique of “civilized” social relations. In his new show on HBO, David strips his earlier work of its network-induced hedges, producing the boldest examination of social dysfunction since Moliere’s The Misanthrope (1666). If I were to write the typical academic analysis of the show, that is, do what I am trained to, I would select out some of my favorite episodes and piece together an argument about the show’s overarching meaning. For example, I think the show is boldest when it tackles religion in contemporary American social life. This would lead me to the analysis of an episode like “The Baptism” (aired 11/ 18/2001) where Larry stops the conversion from Judaism to Christianity of his potential brother-in-law, much to the chagrin of his wife Cheryl’s Christian family.
Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm
Academics always cheat in this way, stacking their argument with the best possible textual evidence of their position. Instead, I propose that we put our money where our mouth is and see if our methods can be brought to bear on more randomly selected material. When I teach film criticism, for example, I have students select the film that they want to see at the movie theatre over the weekend. My challenge is to then go to the film cold, select academic reading material to illuminate it, and teach that material to the students the next week. I intend my analysis of “The Bowtie” in this “put up or shut up” spirit.
“The Bowtie” begins with Larry sitting in the office of Omar Jones (played by Mekhi Phifer), a private investigator. In the season opener, “The Larry David Sandwich” (aired 9/25/05), Larry thinks he heard his father, while lying sedated in the hospital, whisper that Larry was adopted. Larry desperately wants to know if this is true, so that, as in Freud’s “Family Romance” fantasy, he can disavow his dysfunctional parents. However, Omar is a Black Muslim, and only works for “his community.” Larry comically suggests that he could volunteer calling out bingo numbers for this community, but Omar is unconvinced: “Bingo is a distraction.”
Larry then borrows Omar’s key to the restroom in his building. There, Larry has an encounter with a man in a wheelchair. Like the best of Seinfeld episodes, Larry’s encounters will all build nuance around this theme of “community,” finally culminating in an ending scene which clearly states the show’s liberal political position. In the bathroom, the man in the wheelchair chides Larry for using “his stall,” the larger one equipped with accessibility railings. Larry tries to defend himself, arguing that “I haven’t seen a handicapped person in the bathroom, maybe ever.” After a fight about the politically correct term for the man’s condition, “handicapped or disabled,” the man wheels himself into the stall, muttering that Larry is “a douche bag.”
In yet another encounter with members of a “community,” Larry and his agent, Jeff, walk through a parking lot where they discover a man walking away from his car, parked in a handicapped spot. Larry confronts the man, “What’s with the walking?” to which the man replies, stuttering, arguing that his disability makes it appropriate for him to park in the handicapped spot. Larry loses this encounter as badly as with the man in the wheelchair: this man stutters that Larry is a “fucking prick.”
Once Larry and Jeff arrive at the restaurant, Jodi Funkhouser (played by Blossom’s Mayim Bialik), treats him very nicely, rudely ignoring Jeff. When Jeff asks Larry the reason for the differential treatment, Larry explains that “The word got out that I am a friend o’ lesbians,” that they love him “moreso than any other community, including Jews.” However, Larry soon spoils this goodwill, when Jodi’s father, Marty, explains that she is now engaged to a man. Larry responds too enthusiastically to this news, causing the lesbians of Los Angeles to scorn him publicly.
In the meantime, Larry has picked out a dog at the pound. Cheryl’s African-American friend, Wanda, comes over to their apartment to see the dog. When the dog barks aggressively at Wanda and a black workman, but not at Cheryl, Larry, or the white workman, Wanda tells Larry that he owns a racist dog. Wanda hilariously observes that Larry has chosen a perfect name, Sheriff, for “a Klan dog.”
Things continue to deteriorate for Larry’s reputation with the episode’s various “communities.” At a dinner party, a table of African-American people is being boisterous. When Larry asks them to be quiet so that he can order his food, he is ignored and ridiculed. One of the men at the table accuses Larry of being a racist because of his dog. When Larry inquires as to how the man knows about the dog, he responds, “Because we talk, Larry.” Here the episode sets up its comic critique of identity politics, building a paranoid sense of Otherness in which the members of these “communities” really are in direct contact, conspiring against Larry. A bit later, Omar calls Larry, chiding him for his behavior at the banquet, having gained a direct report from the people at the table because: “We talk, Mr. David, we talk.”
However, in a pastiche of a Seinfeld episode, the narrative of “The Bowtie” redeems Larry in the eyes of the “communities.” As Larry is talking to Jodi’s new fiance Dan, he prattles on about not understanding women’s “equipment,” arguing how brave Dan is for not being intimidated by Jodi having had sex with women. “That whole area is mysterious to me,” Larry argues, directly replicating a famous conversation between Jerry and George on the earlier show. When Larry meets Jeff the next day for lunch at a restaurant apparently staffed and attended by the lesbian community, Larry is offered dessert “on the house.” Jeff observes, “You, my friend, are back in the lesbian busom.” Larry meets his friend Rosie O’Donnell on the street, who stood up for him “at the meeting” of Los Angeles lesbians. Rosie informs Larry that now “all lesbians love you” because he caused Jodi to be “back on the team,” again replicating the sports metaphor used by Jerry and George on Seinfeld to absurdly describe heterosexuality and homosexuality as opposing sides on a baseball field.
The rest of the episode is devoted to Larry’s victory over the communities’ conspiracies against him. Larry enters the bathroom again in Omar’s office building. Having learned his lesson, he waits to use the regular stall, even though the handicapped one is free. However, when the same man in the wheelchair emerges from the regular stall, Larry takes the moral upper-hand and chides him. When the man explains that the “normal” stall was free, so he used it, Larry turns the tables on his politically correct language use: “We don’t like to be referred to as normal. We’re able-bodied.”
The show ends with a bravura statement of its liberal political position and its critique of radical identity politics. After having agreed to take Larry’s adoption case, Omar emerges out of his building to retrieve his bathroom key, which Larry keeps forgetting to return. When Larry sees Omar rushing toward his dog, he is petrified that the racist canine will ruin his goodwill with the Muslim private detective. However, Omar pets Sheriff, who is gentle. The episode ends with the dog attacking Rosie O’Donnell instead! The scene itself has already made its point against the atomization of social life into a set of restrictive communities by emphasizing that the assumption of the dog’s ability to replicate human racism was built on circumstantial evidence. But even more interesting is that this entire ending scene takes place in front of what film scholar Tom Conley, invoking Derrida, calls a written rebus, a piece of writing inside the image which provides the allegorical key to its meaning. In this case, the rebus is the name of a food vending cart in the background of the image, “Selma’s.” Here the show invokes the liberal Civil Rights movement; the fight in Selma, Alabama being one of its greatest struggles-against the bowtie-wearing black Muslim, Louis Farrakhan, whom Omar clearly parodies. The show argues for the value of liberalism over the radical and false separation of people into monotheistic identity categories. The dog, alas, has more sense than the people. Whatever Sheriff’s behavior at Larry’s apartment, on the street, he has the good sense to bark at Rosie O’Donnell, the giver of craptacularly bad talk shows, over Mekhi Phifer, a wonderful actor; as acerbic, and correct, a comment as Curb Your Enthusiasm has ever made.
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