By Raja Sen
Larry David doesn’t like most people and most people don’t like Larry David. That ethos guides Curb Your Enthusiasm, the malevolent, masterful comedy now in its 11th season and streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar. The series about a millionaire misanthrope sneering at societal niceties while demanding niceties from society thrives on contradiction—between preaching and practising, most notably. The Watermelon, the fourth episode of the new season, is a stunning take on prejudice. As with any Curb episode, several plots and subplots are in play, but the most remarkable contradiction this time features Larry David striking up a friendship with a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the episode, Larry walks out of an optometrist’s office with his eyes dilated and bumps blindly into a Klansman, spilling coffee all over his white Klan robe. Larry is immediately aghast at having inconvenienced the guy who has major hate-rallies coming up, and promises to get it dry-cleaned. The Klansman, who doesn’t know Larry like the rest of us, decides to trust him—not that he has a choice.
Larry encounters immediate resistance from the dry-cleaner, who—like Larry—is Jewish and doesn’t want the hateful garment in his store. Here Larry asks that those of us who know better should not do what the haters do, that we should not be bigoted against the bigoted, and pleads that we should turn the other cheek.
“He’s a decent Klansman,” Larry defends.
“A decent Klansman is…a Klansman,” says the horrified dry-cleaner.
The episode is about preconceived notions. The title refers to the hateful slavery-era stereotype of black people loving (and being paid in) watermelon, due to which Larry’s friend Leon (played by the superlative J.B. Smoove) has to eat a fruit he loves on the sly, alone and ashamed. “Even black people don’t want to see black people eat watermelon,” he explains. Stung by this ridiculousness, Larry accompanies Leon to the supermarket and grandly proclaims it is not a crime for a black man to eat watermelon. The scene is a triumph, during which Larry buys gefilte fish to eat with a bagel, thereby making fun of Jewish stereotypes.
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This is also a White-Saviour moment, only Larry can’t see that. The metaphor is underlined by Larry’s visit to the optometrist (played by a sharp Kaley Cuoco), where he wavers indecisively between different-powered lenses. He emerges apologetic towards a Klansman—and concerned about his hate-rally schedules—yet mercilessly unforgiving about the optometrist dropping a cheesy snack on the floor and not picking it up. Both his vision and judgement are impaired.
The episode comes perilously close to humanising the Klansman. Klansman Joe, as Larry calls him, is played by Marc Menchaca with a broad smile. He’s tickled at the thought of being invited to dinner with the Grand Wizard, and when Larry requests an elaborate favour—to pretend that Joe’s farm and cow belong to Larry in order to hoodwink Woody Harrelson—he obliges good-naturedly. At this point, Larry appears to be showing us it may be possible to bridge gaps across hatred.
Harrelson—who parodies Joaquin Phoenix’s 2020 Oscar acceptance speech almost word for word—plays a holier-than-thou nature lover who not only chooses not to buy cream from markets, but actually enjoys berating those who do. “I cream-shame too!” says a gleeful Harrelson, the True Detective actor sounding, after ages, like Woody from Cheers. Here Curb points to the shallowness of celebrity activism. Larry’s motive behind the ruse is getting Harrelson to act in his upcoming streaming series, “Young Larry”.
This 11th season is principally about Larry David getting old. There are senior moments everywhere. In one episode, he walks into a glass door, in another he hurts his back from carrying his bags, and the fact that he’s making a TV series about his own youth indicates how desperately he’s scrambling down the rabbit-hole of nostalgia. Walking around the sitcom stage, he is uncharacteristically tickled by the recreation of his home from ages 8-25, a time he has left far, far behind.
Yet while Larry David the character flails catastrophically, Larry David the creator is only better and braver. Curb started in the year 2000, and seasons show up whenever Larry feels like making them. The Seinfeld co-creator has repeatedly emphasised that he doesn’t know whether this terrific ongoing season will be his last, and while it is understandable for the 74-year-old to tire of a series he has played with since his early 50s, that will be a massive loss. We need Curb Your Enthusiasm to question and mock the arbitrariness of our boundaries and conventions. As Seth Rogen tells Larry in this week’s episode: “You are not an everyman. You are a singular man.” Amen. The clan of Larry David is a clan of one.
The Watermelon is a divisive, fearless episode of television. Larry, buoyed by his fruity heroism, goes to great lengths to help out the Klansman, but despite his sincerest attempts to turn the other cheek, it is eventually revealed that Klansman Joe is indeed a dangerous maniac foaming at the mouth, out to beat Larry up. Some dialogues aren’t worth having. No soup for the Nazis.
STREAMING TIP OF THE WEEK
Jane Campion’s new film, The Power Of The Dog, a Western with Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch, released on Netflix on 1 December. The meditative, melancholic film won Campion the Silver Lion for Best Director at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.
FIRST PUBLISHED03.12.2021 | 07:47 AM IST