A review of the Curb Your Enthusiasm finale coming up just as soon as I scapegoat tits…
A couple of months ago, I published a column with the headline “TV Revivals Are a Bad Idea. The Curb Your Enthusiasm Revival Isn’t.” Writing before I’d seen a single frame of this ninth season, I laid out a case for why this was an exception to the rules that have dragged down nearly every revived series we’ve gotten over the last few years. Curb would be different, I insisted, not only because its circumstances were different (it had vanished and come back before, albeit not after this long a hiatus), but because it was simply better than almost any other show resurrected during this era of Zombie TV.
In hindsight, I realize I was engaging in the same kind of magical thinking I usually try to protect others from when they get too excited about the return of an X-Files or 24, knowing they’ll inevitably be disappointed. Curb wasn’t an exception to the rule, but just another illustration of the pitfalls of coming back after too much time away. Nearly every TV show is a product of a specific time in the lives of the people making it, the people watching it, and the characters on it, and if you change that for any or all three, things will inevitably feel off.
I was hope-watching in the early stretch of this season, forgiving shaggy storytelling because a scene here or there involving Leon or Susie would make me laugh like the good old days, or because I recalled that season eight was also pretty dire at times, while still giving us “Palestinian Chicken” and “Mister Softee.” But the deeper we got into things, the harder it became to ignore how often the show seemed to be missing its targets, especially because those periodic belly laughs all but went away.
I spent these last two episodes staring at the TV in hopes of finding something funny in the interactions of these many incredibly gifted comic actors and… nothing. There were times when I couldn’t even tell what the joke was supposed to be for a while, like the finale’s running gag about the marriage of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cousins Valentina and Ernst — specifically Larry and Leon’s inability to believe that Ernst wasn’t gay. Even 25 years ago on Seinfeld, that might have seemed on the hacky side; here, I couldn’t believe David and company would be doing this bit without embellishment, so it took me a while to even realize that’s what was happening.
The two swingers trashing his house at least led to the duel with Lin, which also combined Larry’s paranoia about F. Murray Abraham’s outfit tracking, along with Larry’s desire for a FICA-sized refund from Nick Offerman’s Cody, in a rare instance this season of many plots converging at once in vintage Curb fashion. But too much still felt like setups with no payoffs, or with the wrong payoffs, which has been the case throughout a season that had more ideas than it knew what to do with, leaving nearly all of them under-developed from beginning to end. There was also no big payoff to the distractingly buxom sign language interpreter (Susie just kicks her out of the wedding), nor did the season ever do much with the idea of Cheryl and Ted Danson becoming a couple. And Larry asking Casey Wilson’s professional stand-in to deliver his wedding toast in his absence also felt like a joke badly in need of fine-tuning, if for no other reason than that it’s something an understudy would do, and not a stand-in.
The glimpses of the Fatwa! musical were fun, in that we got to see Lin and company (including Abraham and Chris Sullivan from This Is Us) perform a few Hamilton-esque songs. But the whole thing, down to Curb intersecting with the plot of Hamilton with the duel, felt like a rehash of something Curb had done before, and better: when Mel Brooks’ attempt to use Larry to kill The Producers in season four backfired in the same way that opening night of Springtime for Hitler did for the characters in the play.
The season’s final joke was one of its more telegraphed, with Larry being attacked by a man who didn’t know the fatwa had been called off, exactly as Jeff had predicted early in the episode. It was also a rare instance this season of Larry experiencing any real consequences for his actions. Among this year’s many problems has been the utter lack of comic stakes, since Larry doesn’t really care about anything anymore, and his friends let him off the hook even when he commits a grievous sin like starting Kenny Funkhouser down the road to his death (which Marty brought up at the restaurant, then promptly forgot about), ruining Sammi’s wedding reception (which Susie largely shrugged off by the next scene), or costing all his friends a lot of money by killing Fatwa! at the rehearsal stage. Cheryl was never the show’s funniest character, but that marriage forced Larry to worry at least a little about social convention and not offending other people; the series made plenty of great episodes after they split, but the degree of difficulty has been a lot higher, because it’s so hard to find karmic punishments that would actually matter to Larry.
It’s also an issue at this late stage why anyone, and Susie in particular, would trust Larry with anything of importance. Based on decades of experience, they should have no expectations that he will come through on anything, which makes situations like the wedding toast ring false above and beyond the sketchiness of the punchline with the stand-in.
Susie and the others should have no expectations for Larry David the character at this point. Even though Curb had been gone for years, and even though the previous season was mostly not good, I went into the revival with high expectations for Larry David the writer/star, and was mostly left as frustrated with the work of the real man as the characters are by the behavior of his fictionalized self. High expectations weren’t the only problem, large swaths of this season were slow and mirthless by any standard, never mind one of TV’s best comedies ever, but all the creative struggles feel more frustrating because I know what Curb can be, and this mostly wasn’t it.
The low-key nature of the final joke and the comments made by Jeff Schaffer and others suggest David has plans for more, and soon. I’ll watch, because I can’t let go of the belief that Curb can, and should, be better than this. But it’s still a revival, and even a show this great isn’t immune to the problems that come with almost every revival.
What did everybody else think?