Larry David and Jeff Garlin in Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO
Borrowing a line from his Frankfurt School colleague Leo Löwenthal, Theodor Adorno once derided the mindlessness of the idiot box as ‘psychoanalysis in reverse’, a backwards medium enforcing conformity, distraction and the programmed life. Yet with today’s crop of complex, multilayered shows, driven by cable channels in the US such as AMC and HBO, television has become one of the rare places wherea properly psychoanalytic or critical mode of thinking is able to develop, and on a popular scale. As if to announce this ‘reversal of the reversal’, the first of these great series, The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007), began in an audaciously Freudian manner: a gangster-on-the-couch dreaming of a bird stealing his penis. I would argue, however, that the key reference for understanding the new television is Honoré de Balzac rather than Sigmund Freud: like La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy, 1845), the current generation of TV dramas combines page-turning soap-opera intrigue with painstaking sociological analysis. The comparison with the 19th-century realist novel is also apt given the pronounced literary character of these shows: the best and most socially engaged writing is no longer on the big screen but the small one, where the ‘author’ is not the director but the writer/producer.
Many of these landmark series are reaching their dramatic apexes; among them, three stand apart as especially worthy of one’s viewing hours. Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, which premiered on AMC in 2007, transports us to a time just distant enough to throw our own into sharp relief. Like a dramatized version of Adam Curtis’s 2002 documentary The Century of the Self, its tale of the glory days of the Madison Avenue advertising industry in the early 1960s charts the birth of the modern capitalist subject.
Even that trivial comedy about nothing, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which premiered on HBO in 2000 and last year finished its eighth season, has a fundamental sociological dimension. Star and creator Larry David is not so much the prickly, narcissistic asshole he is often made out to be, as a kind of self-appointed enforcer in an asshole world where civility has broken down and the rules of common life need to be constantly renegotiated, from parking etiquette and appropriate phone-calling hours to the rate of hors d’oeuvres consumption at your friends’ anniversary party. David is disturbingly democratic, treating all people – kids and parents, waiters and guests, celebrities and nobodies, Palestinians and Jews – exactly alike, not in the mode of condescending respect but of radical annoyance. This strange ‘aesthetic equality’ with its principle of universal aggravation is the most fascinating aspect of the show and, if anything, David’s role as ‘social assassin’ has grown more exaggerated as the world around him turns meaner. If the Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s jokes were a highlight of the last season, the lowest moment was no doubt the meeting with Ricky Gervais, the two comedians having zero on-screen rapport (unlike, for example, David and Richard Lewis). But even this botched episode produced a classic line: to a shocked stranger whom Larry asked at a dinner party how often he has sex per week, the great anthropologist of quotidian life explains: ‘I’m just trying to elevate small talk to medium talk.’