By Gillian Flynn
Updated September 23, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Squatting between the do-gooders of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the extravagant rakes of Nip/Tuck is Larry David, a master of selfish, Everyman pettiness. In the opening scene of Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s fifth season, Larry has a carefree frolic in the sea that’s reminiscent of the late Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia — in which the author, on the verge of completing his quest for a Perfect Moment, wrecks it with worry of sharks and wallets on the beach and other plagues a neurotic brain can think up. Larry’s Almost Perfect Moment is ruined by a giant, mischievous wave. How typical that it’s an external force at fault, rather than Larry’s own strange little psyche. That’s how the man’s universe works: Larry is perpetually shy of bliss, since all of the world’s idiots act on their own impulses instead of giving him exactly what he wants.

Which is great. Recovered from that stunningly unfunny Producers finale last season — which capped a sprawling Larry-does-Broadway story line — Curb feels nicely compact. The closest thing to a running theme is the idea that Larry might be adopted, based on the words that (he thinks) came out of his dad’s mouth following a stroke. ”Maybe he said, ‘You’re a doctor.’… But why would he say I’m a doctor?” Larry puzzles, in one of the funniest misreads since When Harry Met Sally‘s Pictionary fiasco. (Three words: Baby Fish Mouth!)

Watching Larry, the ultimate narcissist, become involved in the ultimate narcissistic search for Larry has the potential for brilliance but leaves room for his ritual foolishness: In the first two episodes, he scalps tickets for the Jewish High Holiday services and insults lesbians, African Americans, and disabled people with his baby-needs-a-nap frankness. The always grand Wanda Sykes appears in an abbreviated bit about Larry’s racist dog that’s not as funny as it should be. Still, it’s a testament to Curb‘s cleverness that what’s now rote — Larry offends, we cringe — can still be so surprising. And really, really funny. We know Larry’s going to outrage Susie (Susie Essman), the Vesuvian wife of his manager (Jeff Garlin). But we don’t know he’s going to defend himself by explaining she has ”the Al Capone hat on.” Of course Larry’s going to offend the Islamic, African-American detective (guest star Mekhi Phifer) who’s looking into Larry’s possible adoption. But we don’t know it’ll be as easy as two little words: ”They are?” he says patronizingly and dubiously when the man tells him Muslims are a very forgiving people.

This partly scripted, partly improvised comedy boasts some deeply talented players who make all the annoyance and effrontery bounce. Cheryl Hines is both long-suffering and smartly dismissive as Larry’s spouse. (She sets the tone for the show — if Larry can hold on to this pert babe of a wife, he must ultimately be an okay guy.) Best, however, are the scenes in which Larry plays opposite old-school comedian Shelley Berman as his dad. Watch closely and you can see a series of suppressed, satisfied chuckles rolling beneath Larry’s grumpy surface. It may be as close to a Perfect Moment as he’s going to get.

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