About midway through Season Eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I was worrying that the show was in the twilight of its run. There wasn’t anything major wrong with the season, but it seemed like every episode had enough minor flaws—it was too long, one story was weaker than the rest, a crucial plot development didn’t make sense, etc.—to prevent the humor from really clicking like it does in the best episodes of the show.
More generally, I wondered if airing at the same time as Louie was hurting my perception of the show. Both are shows about middle-aged, bald, single, misanthropic comedians who often have trouble relating to other people—and they both aired during the summer, when there are only a few comedies airing—so it was inevitable that I would be comparing the two. And the comparison was not working in Curb’s favor. In weeks where Louie was airing such memorable episodes as “Oh Louie/Tickets” and “Come on, God,” Curb was airing uninspired efforts like “Vow of Silence” and “The Hero.” I even started to wonder if Louie was making Curb redundant.
But then Season Eight ended on a run of four straight stellar episodes, and my worries mostly dissipated. Whereas I thought the last season of Curb was a disappointment, this one largely met my expectations—which says more about the change in my expectations than any change in the show’s quality. The last two seasons of Curb have both been the kind of season that long-running shows tend to settle into in later years: The formula of the show is so entrenched that the plots seem to run on autopilot; the episodes seem alternately brilliant and strained.
The lull in the beginning of Season Eight seemed to come from an abundance of strained plots. Larry David is at his best when his grievances are somewhat justified: the dishonesty of insisting on “no gifts” at a birthday party; the unfairness of having to meet at someone else’s office all the time; the annoyance of being followed around a store by an employee, etc. The show is at its best when Larry is behaving reasonably but tactlessly. But too many of this year’s stories involved Larry doing something that was impossible to defend. Either he was firing his lawyer for not being Jewish, or he was squabbling with Jeff over the size of a bite of Pinkberry—he was not exactly confronting the absurdity of social norms with these episodes.
Also making Larry less sympathetic in Season Eight was the absence of Cheryl. Though she appeared briefly in the first episode, Cheryl was nowhere to be found afterwards. And while some of Larry’s interactions with women this season were great—particularly in “Mister Softee” and “Palestinian Chicken”—he no longer had someone he had to justify himself to. Almost everyone Larry interacted with in Season Eight was either someone who accepted his behavior completely (like Jeff or Leon), or a clear antagonist for Larry (like Ricky Gervais, Wanda Sykes, or Michael J. Fox). In other words, there was nobody who Larry had to explain himself to, which often lead to the show’s best scenes.
But while some episodes felt like they were sorely missing someone like Cheryl to keep him in line, others came together nicely in a typical Larry David confluence of events. In fact, the string of four great episodes to end the season all centered on some high concept idea was critical to the episode’s climactic joke: In “The Bi-Sexual” it was the Viagra/steroids parallel; in “Car Periscope” it was an homage to “The Fugitive”; in “Mister Softee” it was the plight of Bill Buckner; and in “The People vs. Michael J. Fox” it was an elaborate callback to his original reason for going to New York. All these episodes worked very well (even if the last scene included one of the worst “Paris” locations ever used on television) with an idea that could have been really hackneyed if it had been executed poorly.
Such ambitious plotting and a few great touches—like a therapist who is uncomfortably liberal with other patients’ names, or a “pre-gay” kid with an affection for swastikas—helped compensate for a Larry who was a little more smug and a little more absurd than he has been in the past.
If and when Curb comes back for a Season Nine, I hope he grounds it in something more concrete than an open-ended trip to New York. A Larry with no responsibilities and no motivations leads to a Larry that’s a little hard to empathize with, and it makes for broader and less original episodes of Curb. Having said that, I will still eagerly await the return of our national social assassin…