Television

'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

Which is why we feel anxious when our prayers are answered and one of our favorite shows returns from an extended absence. Like planning to see an old friend for the first time in many years, our speculation shifts to the ways in which the reunion might disappoint us. Will the show resemble its original self? Will its return create memories I'd rather not have? Was its initial success a product of timing and circumstance, or the eternal genius of its creators?

Curb Your Enthusiasm seemed to be immune from these concerns. The show is about a fictionalized version of Larry David and his wealthy, Los Angeles friends, nearly all of whom could be described as sociopaths. Though they have staggering levels of wealth and comfort, Larry and his friends structure their lives around minor inconveniences, becoming miserable from them and trying their hardest to spread that misery.

Through its first eight seasons, the show proved it could imagine an endless number of ways to respond to that basic premise in a style that was caustic, insistent, and visually modest. As it became more popular, Curb Your Enthusiasm showed little interest in reaching for spectacle, instead clinging to its roots and becoming funnier for its stubbornness. When its initial run ended with Larry, living in Paris due to his refusal to perform a minor act of charity, arguing with a stranger over the way his car was parked, it felt right. The implication was that the show's characters would never change, that they would continue to make themselves and others unhappy for as long as they lived.

But something did change when the show resumed, after a six-year hiatus, in October. Not its characters or disposition, but its style. The ninth season's primary arc follows Larry's attempt to produce a Broadway musical based on the 1989 fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie after the publication of his controversial book, The Satanic Verses, and a similar order calling for Larry's murder. If that sounds a little broad for Curb Your Enthusiasm, you're right. Much of the season feels like someone trying to remember a great joke he used to tell, approximating its content but forgetting the delivery. There's still pleasure to be found in the show's obsession with the granular details of social interaction, but in its time off the air, David and the rest of the cast lost the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

Instead, they seem to be reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing them. Where prior seasons trusted their banality, this new season inflates its situations and how the characters react to them until the show resembles a caricature, like when Larry appeals a ticket he received for honking at an officer and gives an exaggerated, grating performance in the courtroom, committing a series of legal and social faux pas—standing too close to the judge, offering him a cough drop and taking it back, interrupting his note-taking—so quickly, there's no opportunity for a sustained rhythm or comedic foil to emerge. In its broadest outline, the scene is consistent with Curb Your Enthusiasm's comedic philosophy, but the style is wrong, as David rushes through too many ideas in too little time, turning each into a shrill exclamation. David has said he kept a notebook full of ideas for the show during its hiatus. Too often, it seems as if he is emptying that notebook onto the screen.

There are other miscalculations, including a revamped visual strategy that disrupts the source of the show's comedy, which is in words, gestures, and the structures of arguments. Curb Your Enthusiasm's characters have never needed the camera to speak for them, because they spoke so well themselves. But like much of modern television, the show has given in to the temptation to look more expensive—to have sharper edges, more elaborate camera movements, more restrictive framings. This is part of what people mean when they say television has become more "cinematic", but there's a difference between spending money and spending it well, a distinction that becomes clear in the season's opening seconds.

They begin with the camera at a bird's-eye view above Los Angeles and, a few cuts later, the camera moves across a street while suspended in the air toward one of the exterior windows on the second floor of Larry's home. This early sequence of shots is disorienting and indulgent, existing for no other reason, it seems, than to remind you of all the expensive things a big budget can buy. This sensation recurs throughout the season, drawing your attention toward a camera that has nothing to add to the show's comedy.

But for all that Curb Your Enthusiasm lost this season, Larry's central friendships—with his manager, Jeff (Jeff Garlin), and permanent houseguest, Leon (J.B. Smoove)—blossomed, their rapport deepening into the almost subconscious level of longtime friends who speak in shorthand, anticipating the other's responses before they happen. This was an opportunity the show only occasionally seized upon but when it did, its jokes became less conceptual and more personal, the sort of thing that must be seen, rather than explained.

This is true of almost everything Leon does. Played by J.B. Smoove, Leon is a minor miracle, the show's lone, regular non-white character and one who could have easily been forced into the stereotype of the brash black man (one thing that has not changed is Curb Your Enthusiasm's regressive understanding of race, gender, and sexuality), the kind of eccentric supporting player a lesser show and actor would assume could earn laughs by simply being more outlandish than everyone else.

But Smoove has always been better than that. He can surprise you with his extraordinary sense of rhythm and timing, by knowing when to speed up and overwhelm a conversation, and when to come to an abrupt halt, leaving another character grasping for a response. He has always had more than one note to play and while this season didn't represent his best work, he found new ways to make me laugh in less time than ever before. Some of his best moments pass by in an instant and cannot be done justice through description, like when he piggybacks on another character's request for Hamilton tickets, hoping he can extract a favor through sheer momentum. Or when he describes the conditions that have led him to avoid Burger King as if recounting the death of a beloved pet. In each instance, he creates surprising ways to punctuate a scene, changing its direction for a moment.

It's a shame, but not a coincidence, that these kinds of inspired performative flourishes are rare, because this new, blustering version of Curb Your Enthusiasm bears only a passing resemblance to its former self. The show's return, then, is bittersweet. It's hard to turn away an old friend, but sometimes, it's best to preserve your memories.

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