I remember catching a glimpse of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in 1999, back when it was a queasy HBO mockumentary, and thinking, This is the definition of an acquired taste. Sure, the show was on cable, but it seemed unlikely any TV viewer could tolerate living inside the head of such a whiny cretin on a weekly basis. The Sopranos had premiered just that January, with Tony still in his teddy-bear phase; it was a more innocent time, pre-House, pre–Mad Men. To find a precursor, I had to flash back to 1983, when Dabney Coleman starred in the ill-fated Buffalo Bill.
Yet that sighting marked a turning point: the first true spike of the jerk protagonist through the smooth TV surface. A welcome development, really, since television, like any art, can’t be great unless it can risk repelling you. And while the HBO sitcom that followed may not be enjoyable to watch, precisely, it is, even after six seasons, still daring, hilarious, and pioneering, the Patient Zero for the TV anti-hero.
This season, the buzz has been about the Seinfeld cast, which returns for a show-within-the-show reunion, playing, as David himself does, distorted versions of themselves participating in a Seinfeld reunion. But for all that narrative game-play, our focus remains the unchangeable psychology of the show’s world-class crank, separated from his wife (as David is in real life) and unhappily cohabiting with Loretta Black (Vivica A. Fox), who is diagnosed with cancer. “No one’s gonna buy it, the character is unlovable, he’s a jerky, schmucky little character, he’s just a buffoon,” argues Jason Alexander about David’s suggested plotline for George Costanza, the Seinfeld character based on Larry David, written by Larry David. And yet Curb Your Enthusiasm takes its own internal dare and does somehow manage to make us care about this world-class sufferer of impacted pettiness, with his endless bickering about the thermostat, the etiquette of blow jobs in cars, the horrors of vacuum-packed plastic (“It was entombed!” “Just get a box cutter!” “What am I, Mohammed Atta, I gotta get a box cutter?”).
This should be shtick by now. And yet, without going soft on us, the first few episodes dip into a well of anxious nostalgia within the monster—his rather sweet fantasy that his old cast and his ex really do want him back. Plus, the sight of him attacking that vacuum-packed plastic with a knife, stabbing it and screaming and stomping it into the kitchen floor, still speaks in some deranged and satisfying way for us all.
I wish the same could be said of Hank Moody, Californication’s smirking bad-boy novelist, a character bearable only because he’s played by David Duchovny. With his smart lizard eyes and stoner charisma, Duchovny can drawl dialogue like “Don’t be cross! It does not reflect poorly on you—or your vagina” (to a sex partner he’s fallen asleep under) and not make you want to punch him right in the face. For two seasons, the series has provided clever-enough highbrow smut, fueled by the anti-hero’s Henry Miller affectations and lines like “I love women! I have all their albums.”
This season’s plotlines looked promising—with Hank single-parenting his teenage daughter and taking a teaching job—but sadly, Californication has folded to its worst instincts, sliding from likably crass into just plain gross. Hank’s book isn’t selling because “it’s too long, it’s too self-indulgent, it’s too hateful, too misogynist, it’s too soft, it’s too mean-spirited,” his agent tells him, and while that riff might suggest a sparky Curb-like self-referentiality, knowing your flaws means nothing if you just dig deeper into them. The academic setting is played for cliché (pompous dean, uptight Brit, stripper co-ed), providing too-easy targets for Hank’s derision. As a result, even the funny lines are buried in a wave of yuck, especially a humiliating turn by Kathleen Turner rasping about rusty trombones and tube steaks.
Despite a killer cast (Embeth Davitz, Peter Gallagher, a very naked Eva Amurri, Ed Westwick!), the sourness poisons all titillation. Maybe this is because, when your anti-hero is a sex addict, you have to sink pretty low to find a dirty subplot; but even in a guilty pleasure, the characters need to make sense. These folks are about as meaningfully motivated as a pizza-delivery boy stumbling into a sorority house.
Dexter should be the most unsavory of this trio, besotted as the serial killer is with plastic wrap and chainsaws, but the story has always set his crimes in a flattering context—he kills bad guys, he protects children. This season, Dexter himself has an infant son. Among real-life mass murderers, this might be a leap, but it makes sense in the series, which is as much a stylized fantasia about male psychology as a show about murder. Dexter fakes intimacy, he struggles daily with a “dark passenger” of violent impulses, he bridles at the stultifying compromises of family life. He may be sicker than Hank Moody or Larry David, but he’s also a far richer figure, and in his own strange way, just as universal, thanks to the transcendent performance of Michael C. Hall, who deepens every sick joke and raises the stakes on every emotional twist.
Last season, the series’ weakest, was focused on friendship. This season looks much better, because they’ve picked something genuinely alarming to dig at: the way new parenthood can feel like a horrifying trap, one a person might want to gnaw his foot off to get away from. Maybe it’s because I first got addicted to the show during the second season, while on maternity leave, but Dexter’s plight this season hit me in the gut, and as the sleep-deprived character chugged Red Bull, struggling to balance work (he’s a blood-spatter specialist for the police department) with family—and killing!—the scenes had a sickening suspense. Dexter flubs court testimony; he falls asleep on a stakeout, then at the wheel. Like bad dreams, each crime he encounters reflects back some black facet of family life. And in the wee hours, as he rocks his sleepless son, he whispers, “Want to know a secret? Daddy kills people,” a moment at once chilling and hilarious.
There are also some clever structural turns. Instead of a find-the-serial-killer plot, we see our antagonist right away: John Lithgow, as the frightening Trinity Killer. As ever on Dexter, he is there to show us that there are scarier people than our anti-hero, and his crimes upset me enough that I had trouble watching them. Let the viewer beware.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
HBO. Sundays, 9 p.m.
Showtime. Sundays, 10 p.m.
Showtime. Sundays, 9 p.m.