Critic’s Notebook: Enthusiasm Waxed and Waned, but ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Played a Long Game

Owing to series creator-star Larry David’s unique deal with HBO, Curb Your Enthusiasm never seemed like the sort of show that would formally conclude.

Since Curb premiered back in 2000, the official line on future seasons was always some variation on: “Curb will be back whenever Larry has a story he wants to tell.” That sometimes meant months; more recently, it meant six years during which no enthusiasm whatsoever was curbed. When HBO announced in December that Curb’s 12th season would be its last, it felt like a violation of the show’s eternal Schrödinger’s comedy status according to which, between seasons, Curb was always somehow both alive and dead, its future hinging on Larry David eventually finding something fresh to be irritated by (a prospect as likely as Dick Wolf locating undepicted professions in Chicago).

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Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new Curb Your Enthusiasm season — which premiered Feb. 4 — is that, despite the show having no mysteries that require solving and no loose ends to tie up, there actually is a whiff of finality about it.

It’s a finality that’s likely to give some still-disgruntled fans flashbacks to May 14, 1998, when the last episode of Seinfeld found the main characters getting arrested in Latham, Massachusetts, for a violation of a so-called Good Samaritan Law. Jerry, Elaine and George were thrown in jail for failing to provide assistance to the victim of a carjacking. They weren’t good people, the Seinfeld gang, but audiences blanched at the idea that their narcissism was worthy of climactic punishment. The finale was widely disliked.

Critics have been sent nine of 10 episodes from this Curb run, so I don’t know if Larry wraps the series incarcerated in a similar fashion. But that’s definitely where he ended the season premiere, after delivering a bottle of water to dear Auntie Rae (Ellia English) and therefore breaking Georgia’s controversial Election Integrity Act of 2021.

Larry David having his fictionalized alter ego locked up for an actual instance of altruistic behavior proves that he’s been paying attention to the pressures of ending a television show. In fact, he’s fixating on it. Multiple episodes this season include other characters referencing that although Larry left Seinfeld for long stretches toward its end, he returned for the series finale — a fact that he consistently acknowledges with the look of a man sipping on 26-year-old milk. Will the end of Curb Your Enthusiasm prove that David has learned from the experience on Seinfeld? Or, in remaining consistent with the series’ themes, will self-awareness prove to be no competition for egomaniacal inertia?

In this way, David has turned the 12th season of Curb into something cumulative — “I hate my life. You don’t want to witness it,” Larry tells a guest star this season, a perfectly ironic summation of the series’ theme — and its ultimate destination into something worth pondering, with callbacks and returning characters along the journey.

A formal declaration of “the final season” provides us an opportunity to reflect and recognize that, in our era of truncated series runs, we won’t see many more 120-episode cable shows in the future. (FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will soon have its Schrödinger’s comedy status alone.) In its finest moments, Curb Your Enthusiasm delivered carefully crafted farce at a level the medium has rarely witnessed before. Episodes were peppered with outsized characters, both recurring and guest, whom the show sent out into self-referential orbit only to bring them back with hilarious precision. In my favorite installments — I’ll single out “Mister Softee,” with its unlikely climactic redemption for Bill Buckner  — the effect was dazzling. In my favorite seasons — season four, with Larry’s Broadway debut in The Producers, or season six, with the post-Katrina arrival of the Blacks — David and his collaborators managed to string elements across 10 episodes before cinching them tight by the finale.

Curb Your Enthusiasm often was capable of achieving an effect of cosmic cohesiveness; unlike Seinfeld, which alienated some viewers by suddenly enforcing karmic standards in its finale, Curb has always been rooted in Larry’s inevitable comeuppances. That thematic consistency was all the more astonishing given how much of the show has always been improvised.

Of course, if good farce is a miracle, bad farce is a curse, and Curb Your Enthusiasm has sometimes been bad farce. The ninth season (2017), in which David and company returned after six years away for 10 limp episodes building up to a musical adaptation of The Satanic Verses, was a miserable affair. It gave the strong impression that, in a world in which social media has made us into a nation of Larry Davids platforming everybody’s microaggressions, Curb Your Enthusiasm didn’t have a place anymore. That dip in quality introduced the possibility that we might remember Curb Your Enthusiasm less for its greatness and more for its impact on the evolving television landscape, which has been vast.

The dyspeptic satire of Curb, which I’ve always preferred to the similar sentiments running through Seinfeld, indeed has become a prevailing tone for shows examining entertainment and celebrity. Without Curb, there would have been no Louie — a series we don’t talk about anymore for Louis C.K.-based reasons (not that the cast of Curb is lacking for actors whose past behavior and current marriages are sources of distraction). And without Louie, there would have been no Atlanta or Dave or so many series that blurred reality and situation comedy, hilarity and discomfort. Some of those shows even appropriated the erratic Larry David release schedule; Dave, co-created by Curb alum Jeff Schaffer, recently transitioned into an indefinite hiatus after only three seasons.

Just as Seinfeld was birthed from a broadcast tradition of stand-up comics getting sitcoms, regardless of their ability to act, Curb Your Enthusiasm seemed to make every comic believe they were worthy of a loosely documentary-style series exposing their foibles and letting them and their famous friends send up their own images. Very few people remember The Paul Reiser Show or Dice, but I promise you they existed (and even had fleeting highlights). Even fewer want to remember that for a brief and nightmarish period in 2015, USA gave Donny Deutsch a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style comedy called Donny! If fictional Larry David ends this Curb Your Enthusiasm season in prison, it should be for Donny! 

But Donny! doesn’t define Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the misjudged ninth season doesn’t either. Subsequent seasons haven’t hit the peaks of Larry’s rivalry with Michael J. Fox or his exasperated attempts to free himself of the burden of giving Richard Lewis a kidney or the ouroboros of Curb’s “Seinfeld reunion” season (which I enjoyed more than any actual Seinfeld season). But they’ve settled into an agreeable hit-and-miss rhythm. Every subsequent Curb season has had a few precious farcical jewels, a few delicious cameos and also a few episodes or exhausted failed catchphrases that are best forgotten.

Much of season 12 follows that pattern, often with highlights and lowlights within the same episode. There are spectacular guest appearances — including an arc from a Yiddish-speaking Sienna Miller — that I adored and presumptive catchphrases that are clever enough for instant integration into everyday life. There are also stale subplots that are riffs on things the show has done before. There are episodes in which the seeds of the farce bloom in hilarious and unexpected ways, and others in which you’ll be able to guess the punchlines within five minutes. We get 10 more weeks of J.B. Smoove’s profane riffing, Susie Essman’s vicious exasperation, and annoying fans referring to everything as “pretty, pretty, pretty good.” In other words, the show’s place in television history is secure.

Will the series finale redeem Larry David for the way he concluded Seinfeld or give him something else to be chagrined about in his next show? Something tells me that whatever end Curb Your Enthusiasm comes to, whenever Larry has a story he wants to tell, HBO will leave the door ajar.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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