This column, like many viewers, approached the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Sundays, HBO/Crave and on-demand) with some trepidation.
The show’s ninth season, airing in 2017 after a long hiatus, misfired terribly. In the context of the 2016 election and the victory of Donald Trump, the cringe-inducing antics of a misanthropic, rich older white male no longer induced cringe. Instead, there was something repulsive about the Larry David character. He was just a jerk, being rude to a lesbian who was about to get married, mocking a sex worker and being obnoxious to hotel staff.
The show seemed tone-deaf, as Larry demeaned and attacked the less privileged. Often, it looked like misogyny disguised as slapstick. David as creator just didn’t get that, in a polarized United States – traumatized and self-questioning after the election – he wasn’t being funny. That wasn’t a funny time, at all. It’s worth remembering that in the period when that ninth Curb season aired, the biggest, most profoundly praised and embraced show on TV was the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale. In that context, the ornery incivility of Curb Your Enthusiasm was toast.
Now, miraculously, David seems to have rescued the series. (There are references to a key incident here, so beware reading on, if you haven’t seen this season.) It looks much more attuned to the current climate. The fictional Larry David creation we’re looking at on the show is funny because he’s ignorant, idiotic and spiteful. He’s even been called out on his privilege. Asked to create a celebrity doodle for a fundraising event, he lazily scrawls a pen across paper. He’s lambasted for using his male privilege to think he can get away with barely doing anything.
The shift is subtle and audacious. Already three episodes in, he’s in trouble for touching a waitress, cleaning his reading glasses on a female assistant’s shirt and failing to hug transgender actor Laverne Cox. Teasing humour out of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment and gender issues is a high-risk endeavour. But it’s working so far by nimbly presenting the Larry character as the sort of oblivious fool who needs to be taught a lesson. The comic sensibility is also made more weirdly complex by having Larry’s manager, Jeff (Jeff Garlin), moan about his life being hell because he’s often mistaken for Harvey Weinstein.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is famously improvised, with the actors working from a rough outline provided by David. The improvising seems diminished in this new season. According to a report in The Hollywood Reporter, Larry’s bizarre interaction with Cox, in which he asks a lot of stupid questions, was created with Cox’s direct input. She told David and his team about “a lot of the really annoying and stupid questions that people in the trans community get" and they went directly into the script.
Yes, Larry is still being rude to people, often in the service industry, but now there’s a comeuppance. Yes, he thinks he’s being clever when he’s wearing a MAGA hat to keep other restaurant customers away, but there’s a downside to that – it attracts the wrong sort of admirers.
What’s happening is that the main character is no longer presented as a lovable curmudgeon. He’s more an imbecile. Otherwise, the attempt to find comic mileage in the #MeToo movement should fail miserably. The viewer can find the situations funny, but simultaneously loathe the imbecile who is intent on digging himself deeper into a hole. A comeuppance is coming, and the viewer knows it. If the Larry character is full of aggrieved masculinity – something that is often subtly celebrated on U.S. TV – he is going to get sympathy, comedic or otherwise. This Larry is not hilariously self-sabotaging; he’s just despicable.
There is audacity in that, too. It takes nerve and skill to turn a champion of churlishness, one that inspires empathy, into a figure who’s not lovable, but someone you love to hate. The power of humour to affect change is often overrated, and Curb Your Enthusiasm never attempted to be relevant. Now it is, acting as a safety-valve – the appalling, imbecilic Larry David character is getting precisely what he deserves.