Read old articles about Curb Your Enthusiasm and you’ll often encounter quotes from Jeff Schaffer, the Seinfeld veteran and Curb executive producer who’s helped Larry David plot the latter series since Season 5. Schaffer describes David’s brain as a resource that’s completely tapped out at the end of each season. When Curb came back for its ninth go-round in October 2017, Schaffer told IndieWire, “Larry puts all the ideas he likes into the season. So when the season is over, he doesn’t have any more ideas he likes, so why would he ever do another season if he doesn’t have any ideas he likes? And he’s the only person on the planet that thinks he’s not going to have another good idea.”
Despite David’s pessimism, his stockpile of ideas is a renewable resource. During the series’ six-year hiatus after Season 8, David made the movie Clear History and the play Fish in the Dark before heeding the call for more Curb. That extra-long layoff spawned so many ideas that some of Season 9’s episodes were supersized, with the last two episodes running roughly 50 minutes. At the Season 9 premiere, David promised, “If I do another season, I’m not going to wait five years.”
True to his word, Curb came back for Season 10 on Sunday after a two-year break. And judging by the first episode, “Happy New Year,” David’s idea file filled up fast. “Happy New Year” lasts a little more than 35 minutes from “Frolic” to credits, but it’s one of David’s densest episodes ever, packing in so many concepts and subplots that it could’ve become overstuffed. Instead, David, Schaffer, and cowriter Steve Leff found ways to tie them all together in satisfying, Seinfeld-like fashion, producing a slice of peak Curb that hearkened back to old episodes while delivering more than the normal Curb quota of topical commentary.
David and Schaffer have constructed episodes the same way since Seinfeld; as Schaffer said in 2017, “We take funny stories, and then we sit there with a dry-erase board trying to make it work into a show.” There couldn’t have been much white space left on the board when they were working on “Happy New Year,” considering the quantity of stories cunningly crammed into the premiere:
There’s the recurring debate about when it’s too late to wish someone a “Happy New Year” (according to David, the statute of limitations is only three days). There’s Larry’s renewed feud with Mocha Joe (Becker’s Saverio Guerra), purveyor of muffin-like scones and too-cold coffee. There’s his overprotective policing of Susie’s friend Randi’s pregnancy. There’s a #MeToo plot line, in which Larry unwittingly makes a caterer uncomfortable, accidentally gropes her, and then invades his assistant’s personal space, while a besuited, unshaven Jeff gets mistaken (understandably) for Harvey Weinstein. There’s a Trump-related subplot, in which Larry starts wearing a MAGA hat just to repel people. Amid all of that, Larry rekindles his romance with ex-wife Cheryl; casually lays waste to two modern annoyances, selfie sticks and motorized scooters; repeatedly holds forth on wobbly tables and inferior animals; and becomes both a victim and a perpetrator of talcum powder poisoning. There’s still a little time left over for another addition to the Larry lexicon of social lifehacks, the “big goodbye.”
Somehow, all of those disparate plot lines form a cohesive whole. Randi, played by the brilliant Lennon Parham, first appears in the gym at the start of the episode, pops up again in Mocha Joe’s coffee shop, and then returns in the hospital scene. The “Happy New Year” discussion carries on in all three of those settings, culminating in the last line of the episode. The talcum powder cloud Larry inhales in the gym locker room seems like a throwaway fragment of physical comedy, but it foreshadows Cheryl’s allergic reaction to Larry’s powdered privates. The wobbly table in Mocha Joe’s shop has a twin at Cheryl’s bedside. Jeff’s resemblance to Weinstein, invoked early on at a party, recurs at the comedic climax, when Larry’s assistant, Alice, enters his office to tell him off, only to have her worst fears confirmed when she finds her boss donning the MAGA hat, quoting Trump, and wearing a Weinsteinian bath robe while Weinstein-lookalike Jeff sits on his couch. Larry is wearing the robe, of course, because he spit up his food after finding a dog hair in his cereal, another plot point presaged in an earlier scene.
David’s genius derives from his finely tuned sense of the absurdity of civilized life and human behavior, and his willingness—no, need—to object to the minor indignities that most of us silently tolerate. Yet he also excels at the more prosaic process of plotting a sitcom. His observations alone might make for a perceptive stand-up set, but he’s never mastered that medium. His strength is weaving several seemingly distinct strands of humor into TV tapestries. Each intricate comedy of manners is the product of multiple interlocking gags, arranged with painstaking precision so that they meet and amplify each other at the end. HBO’s lead-in to Curb, the new Armando Iannucci comedy Avenue 5, is still feeling for that pattern. In “Happy New Year,” David handles more threads than ever before, but he doesn’t drop a stitch.
Last week, I wrote about Curb’s imperviousness to the passage of time. “I don’t think the fans who watch the show want me to be politically correct or do anything differently,” Larry said of Season 9. “So I haven’t done anything differently. It’s the same.” In most respects, Season 10 sticks to the same formula that’s served the series well for close to 20 years. Larry relies on the ensemble that’s surrounded his TV persona since Season 1 (Jeff, Cheryl, Susie, Richard Lewis, and Ted Danson), and Leon, his sidekick since Season 6, still lives in his guest house. He reaches back to the Season 7 finale for old/new nemesis Mocha Joe, and he toys with undoing the divorce that represents the most significant alteration in TV Larry’s living situation. David’s iconic character is still as strident, self-centered, and untactful as ever.
Yet although the events of the series are largely limited to West L.A. and TV Larry’s insular social circle, “Happy New Year” does reflect the concerns of the wider world. David conceived Season 9 prior to the Trump presidency, and although shooting started the day after Trump was elected, David later insisted that the Donald “doesn’t impact the show at all.” As Schaffer said in 2017, “The unique thing about Larry is that he usually doesn’t see the forest because he’s worried about one single tree. I think one of the reasons people are happy Curb is back is because there’s so much going on, and everyone is worried, rightly so, about all the big things. Someone has to worry about the little things. Someone’s got to worry about the minutia, and Larry’s our man.”
TV Larry remains a man bothered by micro inconveniences more than macro injustices: few annoyances are as minor as a wobbly table, which everyone but Larry and Leon take in stride. The real David dreams of the downfall of Fox News and yells at Trump when he sees him on the screen, but TV Larry lacks principles. On Curb, the MAGA hat is a tool for Larry to put more distance between him and human contact, be it with Phil Rosenthal in a restaurant or an angry biker on the road. Similarly, learning to navigate the new norms cemented by the #MeToo movement is relevant to TV Larry only in that it affects his capacity to clean his glasses or procure pigs in a blanket.
As my colleague Andrew Gruttadaro wrote for Complex in 2016, David “has a knack for stepping on hot button topics and gleefully turning his heel.” #MeToo is fraught territory for 70-something-year-old men, but David’s treatment of the topic doesn’t ever veer toward Terry Gilliam ranting about witch hunts and mob mentalities. David may not be woke, and he’s not tiptoeing around anyone’s sensibilities—when asked last week whether Curb’s creators stress about offending anyone, Garlin said, “We don’t think about it”—but his comedy comes mostly from ridiculing himself and his privileged friends, not from mocking others in a cruel or bitter way. When TV Larry asks, “No good?” he already knows he’s been bad.
Although TV Larry doesn’t intend to harass his assistant or the caterer in “Happy New Year,” he’s oblivious to their reasonable boundaries and the unsettling way his actions could be perceived. And while Jeff isn’t actually Weinstein, he really resembles him, and it isn’t unheard of for Weinstein himself to show up in polite company. Larry isn’t presenting his second self as the victim of oversensitivity; to some extent, his behavior is part of the problem. And while the MAGA cap is played for laughs, the aversion it engenders on the show still sends a signal about what it stands for in real life.
TV Larry’s contradictions make him a compelling character even though he hasn’t evolved. He’s a crusader with so many causes that they can’t all be virtuous. In certain scenarios, he’s unfairly framed, like Hitchock’s “wrong man.” In others—often within the same episode—he’s simply wrong. Sometimes TV Larry is way out of line: Beyond the fact that it’s not his place to tell Randi how to take care of her fetus, it’s perfectly safe for pregnant women to jog or have a cup of coffee. Sometimes the righteousness of his stances is unclear: Does he have a soft danish and a cold coffee, or is he hypercritical? Sometimes he’s truly in the right: There is a dog hair in his cereal, and Lewis lied about boycotting Mocha Joe’s.
Last week, Schaffer drew a contrast between Season 9’s high-concept story arc—which featured a fatwa and a musical—and Season 10’s return to “classic Curb.” If this season has a through line, it looks like it’ll be Larry’s feud with Mocha Joe, which prompts him to open a “spite store” next door called Larry’s Lattes. That means more opportunities for Larry to address Mocha Joe as “Mocha Joe,” which is always amusing. (I particularly liked “Mark my words, Mocha Joe,” “There are better beans, Mocha Joe,” and “I’m not quite sure you know what a scone is, Mocha Joe.”) Larry may also suffer some consequences from his actions in Episode 1. Not only are Alice and the caterer planning to sue, but Ted could discover the glasses-cleaning cloth Larry dropped by the side of the bed or spot a problem with Cheryl’s cover story, and the secret of the affair may not be safe with Susie.
“Happy New Year” reminded us that the world is wobbly, and David knows Curb can’t straighten it out. Even so, he can’t help pointing out the flaws he finds. “It’s eternal optimism coupled with eternal pessimism,” Schaffer said last week. “He wants people to be good and wants things to work out the right way, and they so rarely do. But he keeps coming back for more.” As long as Larry makes us laugh like he did on Sunday, so will we.
Before the big goodbye, let’s consider a few categories:
Best Supporting Character: Susie
I’ve always loved the Larry-Susie relationship. Although they’ve often been enemies, they share a grudging respect and understanding. Larry sees through Susie’s pretensions and, unlike Jeff, isn’t afraid to cut her down to size, while Susie knows Larry can be craven and disingenuous and usually sniffs out the underlying motivation behind his latest innocent-seeming scheme.
“Happy New Year” gave us a few vintage Larry-Susie moments. First, Larry mocked Susie’s Kate Middleton–model hat by calling her Abraham Lincoln and reciting the Gettysburg Address as she walked away. Then an out-of-focus Susie kept close tabs on Larry and Cheryl as they left the party together.
Later, Susie grilled Larry about what happened after he dropped Cheryl off, eliciting Larry’s, “I’m a nice guy—I’m a nice guy.” Finally, Susie cracked the case when she caught Larry and Cheryl in a lie at the hospital, prompting Larry to applaud sarcastically and exclaim, “Bravo, Poirot!” Great stuff from my favorite frenemies.
Loudest Jeff Outburst
Few things are funnier than Jeff’s unexpected loudness. It wasn’t quite “COCK! COCK! JIZM! GRANDMA! COCK!,” but Jeff’s unanticipated, top-of-his-lungs laughter when Cheryl said Susie’s jacket looked like the curtains made me laugh almost as loud.
Best Leon Line
I was momentarily tempted by Leon’s line about backward MAGA caps, but this line can’t be beat: “This right here? It’s called tappin’ hours. This is the hours when people are tappin’ ass.”
Deepest Larry Self-Loathing
In Larry and Cheryl’s postcoital conversation, Cheryl confesses that she likes spending time with Larry because it makes her feel better about herself. Instead of objecting, Larry—who says he hears that a lot—wholeheartedly agrees, acknowledging his inferiority and likening her sense of superiority around him to how he feels around animals, because “they’re generally so stupid.” He hastens to add, “Especially insects, I can crush them.”
Weirdest Larry Look
I’ve already praised Larry’s insight into the human condition and his skill at structuring sitcoms, but I haven’t yet praised his acting, another vital component of Curb’s long-lasting success. This week’s highlights included Larry’s blow job face …
… and his “So sorry” in the hospital hallway …
… and this image, which will always haunt my mind:
Most memorable of all, though, is Larry’s unique coffee temperature test:
As Lewis says, “What are you, a fuckin’ goose?”
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.