The comedy writer hasn’t changed—but the world around him has. Does the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm come off?by Lucinda Smyth / November 29, 2017 / Leave a comment
After a six-year gap, this autumn saw the return of long-running HBO sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. (The finale airs at 10pm on Sunday on Sky Atlantic in the UK). The programme follows Larry David, comedian and co-creator of 1990s television series Seinfeld, playing a fictionalised version of himself as a semi-retired screenwriter in LA.
Now in its ninth and possibly final season, the hiatus makes the series unusual (each previous season has been either one or two years apart). When the last series aired in July 2011, America was a very different place. Obama hadn’t started his second term, Snapchat didn’t exist and no one knew who Edward Snowden was. Fast-forward to 2017 and America is governed by a man who, in addition to holding a number of questionable views, is rude and privileged, with no filter or social awareness. While David’s curmudgeonly schtick was funny in a different political landscape, now it might cut too close to the bone. Could it be that the Trump era has surpassed Curb, and put an end to the white privileged man comic archetype? In other words, is Larry David still funny?
For long-term fans of the show there is much in the new series to enjoy. The writing is as sharp as ever, the structure is tight and the unexpected recurrence of earlier characters (including the Big Vagina and Krazee Eyez Killa) help contribute towards a satisfying conclusion. There’s also still something inherently funny about Larry David. It’s not just his outlandish behaviour or distinctive tone of voice, but his physicality. The long skull that pokes out of a ring of white hair, the bow-legged walk, the sagging shoulders and non-plussed expression: any of these are enough to raise a laugh.
The first episode opens with a shot of Larry singing Mary Poppins in the shower: the camera zooms along his wrinkly man boobs, his white hair slicked against his scalp like a molerat, his sinewy arms grappling with a bottle of shower gel that he can’t seem to open. In the 17 years since Curb first aired, Larry not only behaves but looks near-identical to how he did then—he appears not to have aged at all. This opening makes it clear: he is still exactly the same guy.
Although Larry hasn’t changed, however, the world has. Some viewers will notice unnerving similarities between David and the man in the White House. In one episode this season, Larry refuses to accept a Romanian Uber driver’s assertion that his country’s women are the most beautiful in the world. “Let’s be honest about it, they’re not the most attractive!” he explodes, in his distinctive nasal staccato. “I’ve seen plenty of pictures of Romanian women, and the Hungarians and the Bulgarians. No beauties, come on!” In writing, that could almost be a Trump tweet. On screen, with Larry’s splayed hands, an unapologetic shrug, and the edges of a pout curving his mouth—he not only sounds but looks disconcertingly like Trump as well.
“Sometimes the show’s satire on how middle-aged Hollywood men see women teeters into complicity”
In one recent episode, Larry pressures his girlfriend (Lauren Graham) to sign a “non-disclosure agreement,” as he’s concerned that if they break up she’ll gossip about their sex life. She understandably freaks out and leaves the room, but Larry is unable to understand why she doesn’t find it erotic rather than creepy and clinical. “ORGASMS GALORE!”, he squawks, dashing after her. “THAT’S WHAT I’M PROMISING YOU BABY! ORGASMS GALORE! YA WON’T REGRET IT!” Viewed in a certain light, Larry’s refusal to acknowledge other perspectives reflects a similar lack of self-awareness and sense of entitlement as the man who once bragged: “I’m attracted to beautiful women—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss.”
Curb has always had a bit of a problem with women: the ugly old men all have beautiful young wives, and when they don’t it’s either remarked upon (see the Popcorn episode of series eight) or they’re depicted as ball-breaking broads, like manager Jeff’s wife Susie. Part of the point is that Larry is disconnected from the rest of the world — I get it. But sometimes the show’s satire on how middle-aged Hollywood men see women teeters into complicity.
This series tries to emerge from David’s manicured bubble and hints at a harder-edged political dimension. The results, however, are largely problematic. Season 9’s underpinning storyline is that Larry, having pitched Fatwa: The Musical, has a death sentence issued on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini. While this provokes a few worthwhile laughs—including a cameo by Salman Rushdie— for the most part it’s a contrived diversion. Islamic State isn’t mentioned and Khomeini died in 1989—the result feels like dated slapstick rather than wry deadpan. Again, this outdated news is part of the point, but it culminates in a bizarre and unfunny depiction of Muslim clerics, which lacks the usual knowing wink of self-awareness.
Seinfeld was David’s first success. The strength of that show was that it was, famously, “about nothing”: a 22-minute escape from the real world into one where characters argued over trivialities. Curb Your Enthusiasm can be very funny, but only when it also sticks to the unimportant minutiae of everyday life—and when Larry is clearly the butt of the joke.