After a two-year hiatus, Larry David wastes no time reasserting his credentials as the most and least relatable character on television.
In the first episode of the 10th season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he dives headlong into confrontations with a relish that most people, certainly those of us with an aversion to confrontation of any kind, find both appalling and morbidly fascinating.
Within two lines, the opening episode assuages any fear that “Curb” had reached its peak after a Season 9 story arc that included Larry being the subject of an Iranian fatwa and asking his girlfriend to sign a pre-sex non-disclosure agreement.
“Let me ask you a question,” Larry says to Leon Black, his long-term houseguest, played by J. B. Smoove. “Are you happy with your skin color?”
For the sake of clarity, we will refer to the protagonist of “Curb” as Larry and the actor playing him as David. That distinction is important. A prerequisite for enjoying “Curb” is the knowledge that David would never do or say many of the things that Larry does.
David would never, for example, deliberately topple a row of those electric scooters that have become so ubiquitous in many cities these days. David would never grab a selfie stick out of the hands of a couple on the street, smashing it across his knee. Larry does all of those in the opening scene.
And that’s why we love him. He’s a train wreck of a human being – notwithstanding his hugely successful career as the creator of a hit TV show. He’s irascible, contrarian, petty and petulant. He says what we can’t and he does what we wouldn’t dare.
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Who’s he skewering?
A lot has happened in the two years since “Curb” last appeared on our screens, and the writing team – David, Jeff Schaffer and Steve Leff – incorporate many contemporary issues in this episode.
The #metoo movement, inevitably, is one such issue, but David’s approach is far more nuanced than most. Although Larry ends up being the subject of sexual assault allegations – all of which were caused by Larry just being his oblivious, obnoxious self – you’re never sure who David is skewering.
Is he taking aim at those men who are still unable to understand that their intrusive behavior, while not intended to be threatening, is unacceptable?
Certainly that is the case when Larry berates a pregnant woman for using the treadmill and, later, the same woman, for drinking coffee. David knows enough about mansplaining to know better and, presumably, knows that neither of those activities is harmful during pregnancy.
But he also has something to say about people who conjure up sexual harassment from thin air. The waitress whose breast Larry ends up inadvertently grabbing – yes, I know how that sounds – imagined that he had been ogling her all night, when, in fact, he was lusting after the pigs in a blanket she was handing out.
David also took full advantage of the striking similarity between Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry’s manager on “Curb,” and disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The gag, which was repeated a couple of times during the 40-minute opening episode, was employed not just as a visual joke, but as a plot device and a punchline in itself.
The same ambiguity that David brought to his #metoo references was evident in his handling of Trump hatred.
In order to get out of lunch with Phil Rosenthal – the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond” – Larry decides to wear a Make America Great Again hat as a “people repulser.” From the moment he dons it, his greatest wish comes true: people keep away from him.
Clearly, this is Larry at his diabolical, inventive best. This is the same Larry who hired a prostitute so that he could use the car-pool lane. It’s also a wonderful nod to David’s ongoing gig as the go-to Bernie Sanders impersonator on “Saturday Night Live.”
But the reaction of fellow diners when Larry puts on the hat in the restaurant seemed to be saying something about the culture of hatred the Trump presidency has nurtured. If we, David seems to be saying, fall into the same trap of disdain for the other, are we any better?
Two years away from our screens have given Larry time to brood on some pet peeves and develop new ones. His “coffee nose test” is quintessential Larry: How can you tell if your coffee is too cold? Dip the tip of your nose in it. So simple, so stupid.
And Larry even introduces us to a new social convention, in the grand tradition of the “chat and cut” and the “accidental text on purpose.” This time, it’s “the big goodbye,” wherein, after ignoring someone all night at a party, you give them an effusive farewell as compensation. David’s execution of Larry’s godawful social graces is a work of art.
The narrative for the upcoming season appears to center around Larry’s attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife, played by Cheryl Hines. Needless to say, one of their first amorous encounters after rekindling their relationship ends with Cheryl in the ER after an allergic reaction to the “emergency talc” Larry has generously applied to his privates.
This kind of farcical twist, coupled with David’s sharp eye and sharper wit, bodes well for the rest of the season.