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The Familiar, Necessary Comforts of a ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Episode

The second installment of the new season revisited a handful of ‘Seinfeld’ era concerns—mailmen, horrific paintings, and private bathrooms. On a difficult Sunday night, that was more than welcome.

HBO/Ringer illustration

In the second episode of this season’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David makes several references to “this climate,” but he doesn’t mean global warming. It’s more so a hand-wave, a vague allusion to his distaste for all of this these days, but it’s also a more pointed nod to the fact that his character is currently being sued for sexual harassment. The resulting “climate” is one of uncertain skies for Larry: How to flirt? How to date? How to make out? How to test out the dating pool without being swept up by the rising tides of #MeToo?

He frets over how to get ass while saving his own. Sitting on the sofa next to a receptionist for the law firm representing him against his assistant’s accusations, Larry films the whole interaction for evidentiary reasons. He asks for consent before touching a rib cage; he specifies right and left hands like it’s all just a chaste game of Twister. (Larry is better at listening to this “no” than he is when his lawyer denies his motion to use his private bathroom, that’s for sure.) All of this is understood to be a function of “the climate,” as Larry puts it. And as with actual global warming, though it may feel urgent, that doesn’t necessarily make it new.

In 1993, a Jeopardy-style SNL sketch featuring Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, and guest star Shannen Doherty was called “Is it Date Rape?” and featured categories like “Off-Campus Kegger” and “Halter Top” and showed teams of couples practicing asking for express permission to smooch. (The sketch was a reaction to the affirmative consent policies at the progressive Antioch College, which became national news.) In 2004, Chappelle’s Show plumbed the same well with its look at “The Love Contract,” a bit involving Rashida Jones, a bedroom, and a legal document.

If this Curb Your Enthusiasm episode worked, it wasn’t because of its groundbreaking material. It’s because it delivered material grounded in so many years of its own familiar tradition.

Take that would-be sex scene, which had almost explicitly Seinfeld-ian framing, with two people shot awkwardly side by side (not to be confused with side-sitting!) on a small couch in a cramped apartment. That footage could have been of Puddy and Elaine, or George and Susan, or Jerry and any number of his rotating girlfriends. Consider the mailman content: Newman strode so that Lionel could creep.

Or take another central plot line in last night’s episode: the private bathroom in Roger Swindell’s office, a loo that not only brought Larry and his date together in the first place, but also provided the dramatic deposition cliffhanger that ended the episode. That was ripped from the old Seinfeld headlines in a number of ways, including George Costanza’s mental map of all the best public bathrooms in the city, some of them “magnificent facilities,” or Costanza’s admission about how he lost a job in real estate: “I quit because the boss wouldn’t let me use his private bathroom,” he says in a job interview. (This was apparently based on Seinfeld writer Larry Charles using a private bathroom in David and Seinfeld’s office.) In an early season of Curb, David sneaks into a restaurant investor’s private bathroom, and in the fictional Seinfeld reunion from a 2009 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, George gains and loses a fortune with an “iToilet” can-locator app.

Finally, there’s the true prize of the episode: “It’s magnificent,” gushes David’s nemesis, Susie, as she beholds a large painting of herself that for some reason he’s given her as a birthday gift. (As opposed to a … camera? Talk about a Seinfeld-era ask.)

HBO

“It’s a work of art,” she crows. This cursed image of Susie, with corkscrew curls and a fur collar, presides over the dining room and eyes everyone from its great dimensions. And its presence is immediately reminiscent of another famous, haunting portrait from many years earlier in the Larryverse. In the third season of Seinfeld, a stuffy uptown couple stood in an art studio and regarded a similar work. “He is a loathsome, offensive brute, yet I can’t look away,” said the gent to his madam as they admired a large painting of a disheveled Cosmo Kramer. That episode aired in early 1992. Later that year, James Carville would famously instruct Bill Clinton’s campaign staff what to harp on: “The economy, stupid.” These days, it’s “the climate.”

Last night, browsing the discussion of the Curb episode on Twitter, I noticed a repeated refrain: people looking forward to the show, or appreciating having watched it, as something of a familiar escape from the shocking day of news surrounding the death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in the L.A. hills. Curb Your Enthusiasm takes place in Los Angeles, too, but last night’s episode in particular was wholly ensconced in the parochial world it has developed through the years, in a way that was almost a comfort. In the span of a few hours yesterday, I went from watching live, horrid news, to tuning into the (really fun!) Grammys, to waiting for 10:30 p.m. ET to hit so I could hear the “bump bump bump” of the Curb theme song and lose myself, just for a few minutes, to a bunch of despicable folks.

“He transcends time and space,” says the woman looking at the Cosmo Kramer portrait in that Seinfeld episode from ’92. “He sickens me,” her husband says. “I love it,” she gushes. “Me too,” he agrees, repelled and enthralled. It’s the same way I feel about this show. They bought it, and so do I.

Best Supporting Character

He takes “a holistic approach” to compensation and has thick monogrammed hand towels for the use of no one but himself: Meet the aptly named Roger Swindell, Esq.! (It’s just too bad his character wasn’t named Ira, just to open up the tantalizing possibility that Curb Your Enthusiasm and Billions take place in the same universe. I can see it now: Larry and Wags bonding at the sushi counter … Bobby Axelrod in a golf cart … Susie introducing everyone to her visiting half-sister, Wendy … Chuck showing up as Richard Lewis’s guest at poker night … Larry borrowing some outerwear from Mafee during a rare cold snap and then being mistaken for Bernie Madoff as if he’s Jeff looking like Harvey Weinstein … limitless potential here!!!)

Loudest Jeff Outburst

A truly stacked category this week. For a while, the front-runner was Jeff’s passionate treatise on the value of money in David’s most-eligible-bachelor appeal. “Rich beats old and bald,” Jeff says, then gets more specific: “You could have muttonchops and wear a cartoon tie of Felix the Cat,” he stresses. “You could be painted blue and wearing an Abe Lincoln hat, and you’d be fine. Trust me!”

Then it was Jeff’s righteous anger over Larry’s chosen birthday gift for Susie. (“It stares at me!” he yells, describing the painting as if it’s that doll that looks like Estelle Costanza. “It’s just there! I go for a snack and it’s staring at me!”) But ultimately and obviously the winner here was when Jeff channeled the Outburst God herself—his lovely wife, whose fits this season continue to deliver and confuse, with a sequined “FEMME” getup this week—and delivered a diatribe at the dinner table that was worthy of his mouthy beloved. “You piece of shit motherfucker,” Jeff roars, only one “four-eyed fuck” shy of a Susie Yahtzee. “Who does something like that? Where the fuck do you get off? That was the prized possession of this household.” You can tell the play-acting is cathartic for more reasons than one.

Best Leon Line

Not nearly enough Leon in this episode, but I did appreciate his “I Gets Mine” necklace and his stony philosophy on maintaining active friendship during catastrophic illness: “Don’t fuck with me, I won’t fuck with you.” (If this isn’t a missing “I Am a Rock” lyric, it should be.)

Deepest Larry Self-Loathing

I detected pretty much none whatsoever? As with his test results, Larry was clean as a whistle in that regard! When Cheryl rejected his side-sitting advances, his reaction wasn’t to turn his gaze inward as much as it was to have no gaze at all: Who gives a fuck about what’s on the menu anyway? And rather than obsess over why he doesn’t merit cancer friendship, he just blames his buddies for not inquiring about test results. (I thought they had set clear boundaries about their limitations!) I guess the clearest instance of self-loathing might have come in the form of projection. The way he sneered at Lionel the mailman’s federally issued shorts-sock game did have a whiff of some sort of deep past trauma involving the sight of his own bare legs. (Remember: We have seen him wear socks in bed.)

Weirdest Larry Look

HBO

Larry’s pitch to his paramour reads like something out of a Kristen Roupenian short story: He’d like to take his hand, he says, “place it on your inner thigh, and slowly inch my way up in a crablike fashion.” At least this time, contrary to that lost-in-the-mail excuse, he’s being honest.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.