'Curb Your Enthusiasm': Larry David's return is a little rusty

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

If you were waiting six years for a new episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, could Sunday night’s return episode, titled “Foisted!,” possibly have been the answer to your hopes and dreams? There are a lot of reasons to love this show, and to look forward to its return. Curb is one of the great second-acts in TV history: Having co-created, in Seinfeld, one of the crucial sitcoms of all time, Larry David took both his achievement and his wealth and did a bold, often savage, parody of himself. The Larry David he created for Curb is a striking comic character — a rich jerk who’s never asking for the audience’s sympathy; a crank with the means to indulge his worst instincts.

David pulled off a very neat trick with this HBO show: He had TV-Larry do the sort of bluntly rude things in social situations most of us would like to do but never have the nerve to do, and then, having invited us to identify with his character, he pushed situations even further, into scenarios in which TV-Larry must be punished for behaving outside the norms of decent behavior. Whether he was stealing a golf club from dead man’s casket or accusing the occupant of a nursing home of fixing a Bingo game, the Larry David character is intemperate and grouchy but also exhilaratingly unconcerned with the false politenesses of everyday life.

All of which would seem to make the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm for a ninth season after an absence of six years a happy event. The country has now caught up with the character’s rudeness by electing the rudest man ever to occupy the White House; this should be Larry David’s golden age, right? Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. To be sure, this extra-sized, 38-minute Curb was ultra-Larry David. He took offense; he caused offense. He found fault in nearly everyone around him, and nearly everyone found fault in him. Picking up where he’d left off, featuring the same core cast, it felt as though he’d never left. But after the sixth or seventh lesbians-look-masculine joke, I felt as though he ought to have stayed gone a while longer. For Larry-the-character’s offensive behavior to work comically, it has to be rooted in a conflict we recognize as common — universal. But Larry-the-writer’s opening gambit — failing to hold the door for a woman he initially mistook for a man — was just jarring: Does any woman in 2017 become irritated if a man a few steps ahead of her doesn’t hold a door open? Maybe, but if you have to pause and think it through, you’re not laughing. I didn’t buy this very first premise of Larry David’s new batch of episodes, and it got the proceedings off to an awkward start.

Also awkward: the Richard Lewis gag about his parakeet dying. We were supposed to laugh because… Lewis was so upset? Because David wasn’t? Add to this the spectacle of Lewis being unable to keep from cracking up while delivering his lines (shades of bad Saturday Night Live sketches). The storyline that gave the episode its name saw Larry realizing that the terrible assistant he has (played by Carrie Brownstein on a crutch) had been foisted on him by Jimmy Kimmel. So Larry, in turn, tried to foist her off on Susie (Susie Essman). The comic repetition of a word — in this case, “foisted” — until it begins to sound ridiculous is itself a classic Seinfeld strategy in the manner of, say, “sponge-worthy.” But Brownstein wasn’t given enough to do to establish her character’s mediocrity, and the action felt rushed.

I’m worried about what will apparently be the organizing joke for the season: the fatwa called against Larry by an ayatollah angry at our anti-hero’s insults. I wasn’t really believing that manager Jeff (Jeff Garlin) really had investors lined up for Larry’s new play Fatwa! Who wants to see a Broadway show about Salman Rushdie? He ain’t no Max Bialystock in The Producers. I groaned a little seeing Larry sitting in a restaurant in a disguise at the episode’s conclusion. The joke is that he’s facing a more immediate threat than the fatwa — the ire of an angry lesbian, played by Nasim Pedrad — but this only suggested the thinness, the lack of comic elasticity, in the whole fatwa premise.

Maybe Larry David will prove me wrong, and a Larry-in-hiding — Larry with a death sentence hanging over his head — will be hilarious. But as the show surged past the half-hour mark and became more and more frantic for its laughs, my enthusiasm was curbed.

Curb Your Enthusiasm airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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