Sundays, 9:30 p.m. (HBO)
If you have been resisting HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm because you'd read a few reviews and suspected you might find Larry David's form of virulent, meticulously detailed misanthropy off-putting, all I can say about the new, fourth season is...stay away!
For the rest of you, however, let it be known that time has not mellowed our bald, bold, selfish hero -- nor has it enlarged his heart, which remains as small and hard (but not nearly as sweet) as a Skittle. There are 10 new episodes about the oh-lordy-I-hope-it's-fictional life of the Seinfeld cocreator; they include jokes involving blind people, a Muslim woman's burka, dental plaque, the New York City production of The Producers, and a scratched retina. You will feel guilty for laughing so hard, which is, I suspect, precisely the reaction David wants.
Things begin very promisingly this week with this premise: Larry and his wife, Cheryl (Cheryl Hines, recently robbed of an Emmy award), are approaching their 10th anniversary, and he is ready to collect on an old promise. Long ago, in an effort to get the marriage-averse Larry to commit, Cheryl told him that when the decade mark arrived, he could ''have sex with someone else.'' Naturally, Larry has remembered the pledge, even as he now admits that he's very bad at attracting women: ''This is the thing that I'm the worst at in the world,'' he tells his manager-pal Jeff (Jeff Garlin). ''This and drawing.''
Know that the sex promise lingers for a couple of episodes, even as other subplots are set in motion, such as Mel Brooks (in the wrinkly, adorable flesh himself) hiring Larry for the Broadway version of The Producers, with Ben Stiller (in the smooth, muscled flesh himself) as his exceedingly skeptical costar. (David manages to insult Stiller -- always inadvertently yet inevitably -- numerous times over just the first two episodes.) No edition of Curb Your Enthusiasm would be complete without a fit of rage from our protagonist, of course, and in the premiere, the scene involves a man in a wheelchair talking on a cell phone, who swerves in front of Larry's car. One thing you have to grant David: He certainly gives the physically challenged their righteous, even splenetic, dignity.
One recurring story strand involves the Producers rehearsal pianist, Michael (Patrick Kerr), a blind man who says he only wants to go out with attractive women. Naturally, such up-front snobbery intrigues Larry. ''You're the most superficial man I've ever met, be it blind or sighted,'' he declares with frank admiration. The scene in which Larry, dining with Michael, blithely steals cake off the poor devil's plate ranks with W.C. Fields for shameless hilarity. Like Fields, David gets away with tasteless jokes of elaborate intricacy, such as the third-episode debacle that finds Larry arranging a semiliteral blind date between Michael and an Islamic woman he chances to meet. (Larry's idea of hubba-hubba salesmanship: ''She's quite a Muslim!'') That this woman is played by an unrecognizable Moon Zappa only enhances the thoroughly peculiar place Curb Your Enthusiasm has come to hold in sitcom land -- it's the only series in which the original Valley Girl and Mel Brooks can appear with equal believability.
As usual, though, the emotional center of Curb's comedy can be located in David's marriage to Cheryl, whom he describes with ruthless honesty in the season premiere as less a partner in life and ''more like a rival.'' Although this is an exaggerated, self-pitying interpretation, there is a sense in which Cheryl is ever present, either physically (usually as a witness to her hubby's tantrums or craven subterfuges against people he feels have wronged him) or in Larry's thoughts (as a kind of overriding conscience -- a what-would-Cheryl-do? superego that, as often as not, he chooses to defy).
David has also shrewdly picked up on the fact that many fans find Hines attractive, and worked this into the show...in, of course, the crudest way possible. Get set for the third episode, in which Jeff tells Larry that Cheryl has replaced porn star Jenna Jameson as his usual, ahem, sexual fantasy of choice; it's no coincidence that this half hour also places Cheryl in a very becoming I Dream of Jeannie Halloween costume. Why Larry feels duty-bound to try and follow through on his promised anniversary promiscuity when he can have Cheryl's navel peeking at him at home just proves what a dumb-lucky schmuck he is.