Not much has changed.
The primary takeaway from “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” long-awaited ninth-season premiere, “Foisted!,” is that the show — its style, its characters, its tone — is almost exactly what it was when it aired its Season 8 finale in 2011. It’s welcome, but a little strange, too. Could six years really pass by quite so seamlessly? Could so little, really, have changed? The opening scene of “Foisted!” sweeps into Larry (Larry David)’s home to reveal the show’s star, creator, and showrunner singing a musical theater number in the shower. He picks up a brand new pump bottle of some product. It swivels, but doesn’t unlock. He tries it again. And again. He bashes it against the shower wall. But it won’t pump. Presidents and hurricanes come and go, but Larry David’s petty grievances stay the same. It’s a sobering view of our time on earth.
But then again, that’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a show about how wildly ridiculous it is to be a social being on an overpopulated planet. Larry David (the character) is all of us; we are with him in every frustrating parking situation, every absurd cocktail party conversation, every furtive trip to the bathroom. Who hasn’t been stymied by a difficult-to-open pump bottle? Larry elevates our trivial inconveniences to epic struggles of the human spirit. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a show about a total lack of serenity — that ability to accept what cannot be changed. Instead Larry is in a constant state of striving, a circular and useless state that comes out in the show’s narrative structure. So many “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes arc in a complete loop, with the consequences chasing the characters until they end, uselessly, right back where they started. Some of the show’s seasons, even, follow that structure. No wonder they can pick up right where they left off; in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” nobody gets anywhere.
Weirdly, it’s comforting. It probably shouldn’t be, but it is. HBO’s promotional material for the show, fittingly, puts David’s face spotlit over a city like it’s Batman’s bat-signal. A desperate cry for help from a needy populace.
At the same time, it is possible that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is not the cure-all it once was. The show may not have changed, but the world around it has. In the past the comedy has seemed ageless because of how firmly it places Larry himself as the butt of the show’s humor, pretty much regardless of where the plot ends up going. But in the two episodes released by HBO — the premiere, and the fifth episode “Thank You for Your Service” — that doesn’t always come through. Partly that’s because David himself is having a good time in his scenes; a back-and-forth with Richard Lewis (Richard Lewis) that could have played as heated opposition ends with both comics laughing a little at themselves, in rare acknowledgement from David’s character of how silly his own poses of moral indignation can be. And partly that’s because at least one subplot from “Foisted!” seems half-baked. Larry’s hesitation to hold the door open for a butch lesbian pivots, awkwardly, into a scene where he tells her she doesn’t look like a bride, even though she will be wearing a white dress for her upcoming wedding. The door bit works, because nobody knows how to hold open a door for someone else. The bride bit doesn’t. The audience is expected to know exactly what Larry means when he says a woman doesn’t look like a bride, but honestly, I think more of the audience has moved well past traditional ideas of brides and grooms than “Curb Your Enthusiasm” realizes.
On the other hand, Larry’s ability to piss off everyone around him is a crucial element of the premiere — his proposed musical, “Fatwa!,” so angers the Ayatollah that Larry incurs upon himself an actual fatwa. (That this plotline might itself incur an actual fatwa has crossed the producers’ minds.) But the Ayatollah is across the world, while Twitter is right here: “Curb Your Enthusiasm” may not be prepared for the modern-day Internet scrutiny of provocative comedians.
That being said, it is hard to imagine anyone giving Larry as much s–t as Susie Greene (Susie Essman) does on a regular basis. Essman is the show’s beating heart, especially now that Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) is less regularly in Larry’s life. Her quickly accessed disgust with him is a fine instrument that can be played in so many different keys; if Larry seems a little more relaxed with Richard than he once was, he is exactly the same as he ever was with Susie. In the show’s titular “foisting,” Larry realizes that Jimmy Kimmel foisted his incompetent assistant Mara (Carrie Brownstein) onto him because it was easier than firing a woman with a limp and a tragic childhood. Larry tries the same method on Susie — pretending that Mara’s a great assistant, so that Susie’s eager to hire Mara away from him. It works, but when Susie realizes what Larry’s done, she gets her revenge — in the form of a fist to the face. And karma, eager to show Susie up, delivers its own blow: When Mara leaves, Leon (J.B. Smoove) steps into her role. He is very bad at it. It is very funny. “Larry David’s office,” he answers the phone at one point. “Who the f— is this?”
All told, there is plenty to be enthusiastic about. The season’s storylines are only just getting into place, and standalone “Thank You For Your Service,” the fifth episode, is an elegantly structured comic episode that suggests the season will just get better. It is fitting, anyway, if “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” long-awaited comeback is not exactly great, but pretty, pretty, pretty good.