The ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ finale fixed the last episode of ‘Seinfeld’

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Well, he did it. Larry David, the co-creator of “Seinfeld” and one of the last defenders of its series finale, closed out his second hit show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” on Sunday by essentially restaging what was for many fans 1998’s worst night of TV.

The episode saw Larry facing trial in Atlanta for doing something uncharacteristically decent — only for the prosecutor to call as witnesses many of the people Larry had wronged over the course of the show’s 12-season run. The coffee store operator whom Larry competed against out of spite, the golf club owner whose black swan he killed, Trump administration whistleblower Alexander Vindman — they and many others (even Bruce Springsteen) take the stand to recount Larry’s many, many offenses (stealing shoes from a Holocaust museum, stealing flowers from a memorial, eating a dying dog’s last meal) against decorum and basic good behavior.

In the end, Larry is found guilty and sent to prison for a year — just like the end of “Seinfeld.”

The twist? One of the jurors (who looks like Joe Pesci) had run into Jerry Seinfeld in a restaurant the night before, and Seinfeld then tells the judge that the man violated a sequester. It’s a mistrial. “You don’t want to end up like this,” Seinfeld tells Larry as he picks him up from jail. “No one wants to see it. Trust me.”

The surprise of the finale may have been somewhat mitigated by the fact that the internet predicted this would happen months ago, as fans collected subtle and not-so-subtle hints that “Curb” would leave its misanthropic antihero almost exactly where it left Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer a quarter-century ago. But it’s also been clear for years that David wasn’t done with the ending of his other famous show.

What happened in the ‘Seinfeld’ finale?

The “Curb” finale’s title — “No Lessons Learned” — is an obvious wink at the show’s forebear “Seinfeld,” whose unofficial motto was “no hugging, no learning.”

Created by David and Seinfeld for NBC, “Seinfeld” became wildly popular in the 1990s by breaking the golden rules of network sitcoms. With no cute kids or admirable values on display, it focused on the trivial dramas of four self-absorbed friends. George, Elaine, Kramer and a fictionalized version of Seinfeld himself spent the average episode sniping at one another, obsessing over their insecurities, or making shallow societal observations from the general vicinity of Jerry’s one-bedroom apartment in New York. A classic early episode is set entirely in the lobby of a Chinese restaurant.

The other “Seinfeld” motto was “the show about nothing,” and its brand of breezily nihilistic humor had permeated the culture of a TV-addicted country by May 14, 1998, when an estimated 76 million people tuned in for what NBC was plugging as “the greatest Seinfeld ever, the Final Seinfeld.”

The finale was, in a way, barely recognizable as “Seinfeld.” It had different DNA: cartoon logic, zany plot twists, moral consequences. After nine seasons of not learning anything about themselves or doing much of substance, the gang of four are improbably transported to a courtroom in Massachusetts to stand trial for violating the state’s good Samaritan law — essentially, to learn a lesson.

Just about every fan-favorite side character from years past makes an appearance to help pass judgment on the four. Thus we learn about the emotional damage Jerry and friends have caused to people like the “Soup Nazi,” an authoritarian soup vendor who feuded with Elaine for a single episode in Season 7. It turns out the Soup Nazi’s name is Yev Kassem, and he was forced to close his restaurant and leave the country after Elaine published his recipes in a fit of spite. “She ruined my business!” he testifies.

It all ends with Jerry delivering a stand-up routine from prison, where he is heckled off the stage. “The show’s creators always eschewed the notion of teaching lessons through a sitcom,” Tom Shales wrote afterward in The Washington Post. But “the way it ended suggested that ‘Seinfeld’ was something of a morality play after all.”

Why might Larry David have wanted to revisit the ‘Seinfeld’ finale?

The final Seinfeld landed with a splat for many. It was “at times a trial to watch,” quipped the Boston Globe. It “amuses but is no masterpiece,” said the Orlando Sentinel. Shales was one of the outlier critics, calling the episode a “shaggy triumph” that offered fans a “rich reward of references and recurring jokes.” Yet NBC was reportedly showered with viewer letters complaining that their favorite characters deserved a better send-off.

Decades later, the episode still has a camp of defenders, but it reliably appears on TV critics’ worst-ever lists.

25 years later, America still loves ‘Seinfeld’ but some hate how it ended

Even some of the show’s stars have expressed ambivalence, or worse. “I thought it was a good episode, not a great episode, as written,” Jason Alexander, who played George Costanza, once recalled. “There was a lot of pressure on us at that time to do one big last show, but big is always bad in comedy,” Seinfeld said in 2017. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine Benes, appeared on David Letterman’s final “Late Show” episode, she cracked: “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.”

The episode’s most important defender might be David, who wrote it and took much of the blame for it.

He told an interviewer in 2014 that “I got so much grief from the ‘Seinfeld’ finale, which a lot of people intensely disliked, that I no longer feel a need to wrap things up” on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which was at that point in the middle of a six-year hiatus.

But, David continued, “I thought it was clever to bring back all those characters in a courtroom and testify against them for what they did, and then show those clips, and also for why they even got arrested in the first place.”

“Curb” resumed airing new episodes with its ninth season in 2017, and it eventually became clear that David intended to wrap things up after all. As Larry’s legal problems crescendoed in the 12th and final season, many fans became convinced that David’s alter ego was headed into some sort of redux of the “Seinfeld” closer, if not into Jerry’s orange jumpsuit.

All the hints that ‘Curb’ would end like ‘Seinfeld’

“I have a little secret for you about the ending,” Seinfeld said last year during a stand-up performance in Boston, after an audience member asked him whether he liked the “Seinfeld” finale. (That he is still asked this a quarter-century later says something.) “Something is going to happen that has to do with that ending that hasn’t happened yet,” he continued. “Just what you are thinking about, Larry and I have also been thinking about, so you’ll see.”

“Seinfeld” has always been embedded in “Curb,” which premiered its first season in 2000 and stars David as a fictional version of himself, much like Seinfeld played Jerry in the previous decade. Specifically, David plays a frumpy, socially inept TV writer who got rich off the hit sitcom “Seinfeld.”

Like his real-life counterpart, Larry occasionally dwells on that last inglorious episode. In Season 7 of “Curb,” he even makes a reunion special with the original “Seinfeld” cast — basically, he gives himself a redo.

“Larry, we already screwed up one finale. We can’t do another!” Seinfeld, playing himself, complains in a scene.

“We didn’t screw up a finale,” Larry says. “That was a good finale.”

Warner Bros.-Discovery announced late last year that Season 12 of “Curb” would be the last one, and it became obvious from the February premiere that David had not moved on from the subject.

The plot of the final “Seinfeld” was pulled from the headlines of its day. Princess Diana’s death in a 1997 car crash stirred public discussion of “good Samaritan laws,” which encourage or require passersby to offer assistance during some emergencies. Jerry and company were arrested, tried and imprisoned because they stood around cracking jokes while watching a man get carjacked.

Conspicuously, the final season of “Curb” begins with Larry being arrested for handing someone a water bottle outside a polling station in Atlanta, a spoof on a real Georgia law that prohibits distributing refreshments to people waiting to vote. The Hollywood Reporter noticed that Larry was essentially arrested for being a good Samaritan.

As the prospect of a one-year prison sentence hung over Larry throughout the season — the same sentence Seinfeld et al. got — references to his old show popped up with enough frequency that Rolling Stone critic Alan Sepinwall complained about them.

“Where once George Costanza upset a friend by stretching out the man’s turtleneck sweater due to his large head, here Leon’s aunt accidentally does the same to a pair of Larry’s glasses,” he wrote. “Like George, Larry gets into an argument with expectant parents over a name that evokes Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. And like George, Larry tries to figure out a way to date a beautiful, surprisingly interested movie star … while trapped in a relationship with a woman he can’t stand.”

On online fan forums, a loose consensus formed that all these hints were leading to their obvious conclusion.

“I bet you $100 Larry ends Curb like he did Seinfeld, going to jail,” one user wrote on Reddit.

Replied another: “Larry doing the same finale after so many people hated the Seinfeld finale is peak Larry David.”

In its finale, “Curb” joined the conversation. As they travel to Atlanta, Leon (J.B. Smoove) is starting to binge-watch “Seinfeld.” On the cusp of Larry’s verdict, he’s seen all but the finale. “I heard some terrible things,” he tells Larry.

Later, as Larry walks out of prison a free man, he tells Jerry, “This is how we should’ve ended the finale.”

“Oh my God, you’re right!” Jerry says. “How did we not think of that?”

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