Like a bald, tirelessly kvetching Batman, Larry David returns to us right when we need him most. Curb Your Enthusiasm hasn’t graced HBO’s airwaves since 2017, and the last three years have given the people of America much fodder for the withering David touch. The 10th season premiere invoked the name of Trump right off the bat with an inspired plotline involving the infamous red Maga hats. Larry (the character, the man himself heretofore referred to as “David”) begins wearing one upon realizing that it’s a foolproof way to keep friends and strangers alike from interacting with him, the kernel of the gag being that he’d rather be left alone out of scorn than bothered by favor. It’s the essence of Larryism, honed to a single gesture and filtered through the day’s big headline.
That’s typical of the show’s philosophy, which has always looked on misanthropy and self-interest as cleansing, righteous forces. David’s refusal to assign his onscreen avatar a side other than his own when he gets tangled up in any conflict bigger than himself may be his secret to success. Larry, for instance, refuses to take a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because on the one hand, he’s a Jew through and through, but on the other, he’s recently been having very good sex with a Palestinian woman and he likes their local chicken joint. The only political allegiance that Larry has is to himself, and this regularly allows him to get his yuks in without veering into righteous sermonizing or outright reactionary thought. This tactic generally works, as long as Larry ends up the butt of the joke, but its application to the touchy subject of #MeToo humor this season has amplified both its strengths and limitations.
For someone seemingly intent on finding the funny in the day’s hottest buttons, the recent revolution of exposure and cancelation would be too tempting a challenge to pass up. So David and Larry grab on to the third rail with both hands in the season premiere, launching a multi-episode arc that sticks a stubborn, boorish man in a highly delicate situation. Through a series of misunderstandings – Larry uses a tassel on his assistant’s shirt to clean his glasses without her permission, and later grazes a cater-waiter’s chest in an effort to get to her food – Larry lands in potentially career-ending hot water.
Just as he brought the first two incidents on himself through social impropriety of a milder degree, he also ruins every opportunity to make good, insisting on an overly intimate “side-sit” on adjacent ends of a dinner table at what should be an apology meeting with his assistant. The key is that this is all Larry’s fault, right down to the culminating mishap, which sees the assistant choking to death in an elevator because Larry would rather let a woman suffocate than risk further accusation by giving her the Heimlich maneuver.
David successfully threads the needle between over-earnest “very special episode” commentary and defensive wrongheadedness by detaching entirely. Where Brooklyn Nine-Nine attempted to broach the subject by awkwardly inserting one-liners between po-faced discussions of workplace power dynamics, Curb holds the imperative to get the laugh above all else. But he’s not laundering the unsavory opinions of those dinosaurs decrying the #MeToo movement as an overcorrection or overreaction, either. The show simply imagines the comic potential of the worst apologizer in the world ending up in a scenario that requires the world’s most delicate apology. (Later, Larry makes a bid at saving face by speaking at a conference with Laverne Cox, and his refusal to hug her because she has a cold comes off as transphobia.)
But there’s also a solipsism in this tack, one that necessarily involves removing the political dimension from staunchly politicized material. David enjoys a significant degree of comfort both financially and professionally, qualities about which the show has never been shy. In this respect, it’s probably easy for David or co-showrunner Jeff Schaffer to place themselves above the fray, having as little personal skin in the game as they do. The lack of statement can be a glaring statement in itself, betraying neutrality as the ultimate privilege in times of crisis. Curb never hits the nihilistic lows of South Park and its steadfast belief that everyone else is stupid; at least David’s a good enough sport to admit when he’s being a schmuck. Even so, these episodes leave a feeling of insubstantiality. David has managed to return year after year without losing his way, upholding a steep standard of comedic excellence year in and year out. As he gravitates toward the deep end of discourse, however, that may not be enough. It’s just a bit jarring to see a show approaching its most talked-about topic with nothing to say — beyond “oy gevalt,” that is.