Review | Larry David isn’t sorry

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“Curb Your Enthusiasm” died as it lived: jovially shadowboxing the “Seinfeld” fans who love it via a dizzying barrage of subplots, riffs and recycled jokes. Some bits were great. That plenty were duds is true — and typical of many “Curb” episodes — but doesn’t matter. The point was always to deliver what the show had heavily foreshadowed and what most viewers predicted: a finale that would reprise and defend the widely reviled end to “Seinfeld” in which the four protagonists, having been arrested for violating a made-up version of a good Samaritan law, are tried for various social crimes, convicted and consigned to a cell. Their greatest punishment (the older sitcom implied) would be having to listen to each other mull over minutiae for the duration of their sentence.

The “Curb” finale, aptly titled “No Lessons Learned,” clarifies early on that it’s an absurdist exercise in unrepentance. “I’m 76 years old, and I have never learned a lesson in my entire life,” Larry David (the character) says to a child being forced to apologize by his mother for hitting Larry with a ball. Irritated that the mom expects his cooperation, Larry refuses, happily siding against himself if it means he can side against her — and against lessons, generally.

So sure, Larry David (the writer) doubled down on that old finale. By producing a similar trial, illustrated by a similarly damning set of clips, he was obviously thumbing his nose at his critics and refusing to learn or grow. The one change to the finale he does make is not conciliatory. (You might even call it spiteful.) In this version, the antisocial protagonist faces no consequences at all. Everyone may be against him. The public might vote to convict. It doesn’t matter: Unlike Jerry, Larry — the guy who wrote Jerry’s ending and who people want to see apologize — gets to walk out of jail scot-free.

It feels a little like a declaration of independence. The man who spent the very first episode of “Curb” apologizing for things that weren’t actually his fault — and much of the series begrudgingly bowing to pressure to mend fences he thought were fine as they were — has a message for a society he, a centimillionaire for whom the world is a playground, sees as spoiled by an overdeveloped sense of injury: I owe you nothing!

That anti-carceral outcome breaks with the “Seinfeld” finale in one other important respect: It remains resolutely amoral. One reason some audiences resented the original ending in prison was that it felt like a quasi-parental corrective to all the high jinks that came before, effectively chiding viewers for loving the foursome by amassing and presenting evidence that they were terrible people. Fans whose enjoyment had slipped into affection had (the show implied) committed a moral error. And the show’s creators were judging them for it.

“Curb” has no similar ethos. It never seriously tries to instruct or punish. If the series has an ethical framework, it falls somewhere between amnesty and amnesia. (Consider how, in scenes after Larry and Susie’s epic fights, both act as if they never happened.) This is a forgiving and forgetful universe that, in lieu of the rigors of redemption, offers endless redos. “If I f— up the apology, then I’ll apologize for the bad apology,” Larry says when his manager Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin) scolds him for jeopardizing the “Seinfeld” reunion by insulting the head of NBC in Season 7; he suits the action to the word and the reunion is saved. Only on “Curb” could Michael Richards joke — to a Black character (J.B. Smoove as Leon Black) — about the defining scandal of his career. Only on “Curb” could Lori Loughlin — who served time for bribing a university to accept her daughters — play herself as a golf enthusiast and habitual scammer. The vibe enabling these reintegrations into polite company is less prosocial than indifferent. No one in these elite and vapid circles cares much about either the offender or the offense.

While “Seinfeld” judged and jailed its principals, “Curb,” far from cosmically convicting Larry, makes his slightly offensive orientation toward the world instrumental to his release. Consider that weird restaurant scene in the finale in which Jerry runs into and snubs the businessman who (earlier this season) hired Larry to be “cordial” at his party. Jerry — usually portrayed as the more conciliatory and amiable “Seinfeld” co-creator — is strikingly unpleasant, intrusive and even reactionary, inveighing against accents and mocking people for celebrating birthdays. It feels like he’s channeling Larry but overdoing it: He’s too blunt. Too mean. Too cold. But familiar: The impulse to inform a stranger he looks like Joe Pesci is pure Larry. And that observation (because the guy in question turned out to be a juror who should have been sequestered, not out at a restaurant) is ultimately what gets Larry off.

Larry does have some regrets about the “Seinfeld” finale, in other words; they just aren’t what folks want or expect. He has learned one important lesson, and it’s that lessons aren’t worth learning. Or teaching: His speech to the kid who biffed him with the ball amounts to a repudiation of his decision, in “Seinfeld,” to saddle a funny premise about moral reprobates with correct but dreary ethical footnotes. The Larry of the future will neither receive nor impart moral instruction.

It’s popular to observe that the “Curb” oeuvre captured the extent to which hell is other people. That’s always seemed wrong to me. The quality that makes the Larry David of “Curb” tolerable — and that would have sunk the character and show alike if he’d remained the genuinely grim and beleaguered version of himself he played in the 1999 HBO mockumentary — is his radical immunity to misery. The Larry of “Curb” was the perfect opposite of the depressive neurotic Woody Allen made into a recognizable Jewish type. Larry’s neuroses were mild and pretextual. They never seriously soured his mood. He’s always got that faintly skeletal skip in his step, the hint of a smile on his face. Even when he’s shouting, he’s jaunty.

David has always been a mass of contradictions. He’s a deeply strange, wildly wealthy oddball who got the public to hail him as an Everyman precisely when he’d gotten as rich and remote as it’s possible to get from ordinary human experience — and made a show about precisely that. Ostensibly a misanthrope, he’s so fascinated by the humans he theoretically hates that he can’t help prolonging his interactions with them via endless interrogations. On the show, he’s an etiquette maven who spends half his time disciplining people for violating “unwritten rules” (such as taking more than their allotment of caviar at a party) and the other half violating rules himself. He’s the liberal who annoys rather than slays liberal sacred cows, usually by approaching taboo subjects from an angle that starts off seeming familiar and drearily reactionary but ends up in a place that’s simply odd. Regarded as the kind of “comedian’s comedian” so indifferent to public opinion that he was known for bombing onstage on purpose, or deriding audiences by referring to them as “you people” when he didn’t simply walk away from them in disgust, David was also (and remains) notoriously hypersensitive to criticism. As Jerry Seinfeld put it in that old mockumentary, “he has tremendous conviction about what he thinks is funny, and at the same time, he’ll just crush like an egg.”

As perhaps the only creative in Los Angeles with no interest in cameras, shots or aesthetics, David has spent two decades trollishly filming the richest and most beautiful parts of Los Angeles — a city Hollywood loves to cinematically fetishize — in a stripped-down way that emphasizes the blandness of its wealthiest settings. The restaurants in “Curb” are forgettable and the mansions feel unappealing and mass-produced, with architecture that recalls nothing so much as an Olive Garden if the aesthetics of the place register at all. Not that any of it matters, since characters change houses so frequently that no one really notices or cares.

Unconstrained by questions of continuity (remember when Susie was pregnant for an episode?) or any other reality principle, the show people describe as an ode to neuroticism was functionally freewheeling and airy, functionally at liberty to build an episode around whatever the joke needed to work. The total absence of stakes — the sense that Larry was whimsically wandering a world governed less by the rules of the sitcom than the impunity of a video game, where he was blessed with endless lives, bottomless resources and no actual worries — made watching a show about bad people feel pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Mostly. I’ll note, a little heretically, that some jokes didn’t benefit from all that freedom. Does it matter that no airline would require Larry to turn his cellphone off — a plot in the finale — or that the premise, already an anemic one, doesn’t pay off? Not really. It’s improv! Plenty of other stuff happened. Does it matter that “Curb” recycled material constantly — from itself and from “Seinfeld?” Not necessarily; you could muster a chuckle and see it as a cheeky callback. Does it matter, however, that the whole pool fence plot made no sense? Specifically, that Larry’s plan to get the law repealed would have no effect on his liability? That might rankle a little more if you’re anything like me and found the Irma storyline that flowed out of that — which required one to accept that Larry cared enough about another human’s recovery to cohabit with someone he found repulsive — hard to believe, unamusing and interminable.

But “Curb’s” unpretentious and messy approach to process — its loud focus on improv, in particular — functionally shielded it from that kind of nitpicking. You were never supposed to take it literally or seriously (unless you were praising it as brilliantly original, genre-busting comedy gold).

That’s as cushy a setup as you can get as a creator and a comedian. And it’s to Larry David’s credit that he found a way to frame the curmudgeonly side that makes him — not sympathetic, exactly — but the kind of entertaining provocateur the series (in a subplot about bad dinner parties) calls a “good middler”: familiar enough with how normal people work to sit in their midst and throw out a topic he knows will get the table loudly and happily disagreeing. Just as “Seinfeld” was never really a show about nothing, “Curb” was never really about Larry’s distaste for a society with flaws he can’t abide. His compulsion to squabble is fundamentally social.

Larry David — the character — is essentially merry, quintessentially secure, and startlingly untroubled by self-hatred to the very end. And the only thing that delights him more than a fiddly observation about some aspect of the service industry is a juicy and thoroughly trivial conflict — especially one that illustrates human hypocrisy. Forget that Season 5 finale where angels (played by Dustin Hoffman and Sacha Baron Cohen) send him back down to earth. Larry David has always been in heaven.

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