Curb

What ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Is Getting Right About #MeToo

Larry David's HBO cringe-com has lampooned the male terror of being outed as a creep

The series finale of Seinfeld was, in its time, frequently cited as one of the most disappointing in TV history. No doubt the dark premise was partly to blame: The core foursome of the cast are arrested under a “good samaritan” law for watching and laughing at a mugging instead of helping the victim — then subjected to a trial in which everyone they’ve ever wronged shows up to testify against their characters. Finally, they are all sentenced to a term in prison, where they continue the petty discourse that was the show’s defining mode. It’s like they barely notice their grand comeuppance.

These days, a Seinfeld fan is more likely to defend the finale as the logical conclusion of a sitcom about venal jerks. You could only be surprised by their fate, the reasoning goes, if you hadn’t been paying attention. I’m inclined to say the same of Season 10 of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which star and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David dares to make light of the #MeToo moment. Although reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, a handful of critics and viewers have dinged David for lumbering clumsily into the conversation, missing the mark or running up against the limitations of his cringe-based craft.

And it’s true that watching the new episodes of Curb feels uncomfortable in a way we haven’t experienced before. Season Nine put Larry in the absurd position of hiding out from a fatwa for doing an impression of the Ayatollah; by comparison, the threat of sexual harassment lawsuits is grounded in plausibility. 

 

The knocks against the current story arc aren’t unfounded, and they boil down to a pair of objections. One of Larry’s problems is that he’s single, and extremely neurotic about whether his flirtation or physical advances will be construed as predatory. This is in keeping with a slew of bad takes we saw as soon as #MeToo got traction — the ones written by guys who felt they “couldn’t even date anymore,” when all they actually had to do was listen to women and not be creeps.

The other sticking point is a mainstay of half-hour television comedy: the misunderstandings. Larry’s assistant Alice takes legal action against him for behavior he considers innocuous, and each time he tries to resolve the issue, he makes himself look sleazier, and then he’s left shouting that it was all a big mistake, crossed signals, a pure coincidence. Because the show takes place from his perspective, it can cause the women appalled by him seem unforgiving or hysterical. If they were only willing to hear him out, they might drop their outrage.

Except this presumes that we’re on Larry’s side, or think of him as innocent. No, he’s not a Harvey Weinstein (though people keep mistaking his agent and best friend Jeff for the notorious rapist). But, as with the climax of Seinfeld, we’re watching a fundamentally bad person struggle as all his bullshit catches up with him. It’s unusual for Larry to get away with any single transgression from episode to episode, yet only today is the wider culture aligned to hold him financially and morally liable. This isn’t a case of someone falsely accused by disingenuous or calculating women — he’s been violating personal and social boundaries since Season One, sexual norms very much included. (Last night I rewatched “The Nanny from Hell,” in which Larry alienates a business partner by complimenting him on his son’s large penis, having caught a glimpse at the family’s pool party the day before.)

We are never asked to believe that Larry is not perverse. He is!

Larry’s troubles this time around begin with two obvious breaches of professional conduct. First, when reading something over Alice’s shoulder, he reaches down and grabs part of her blouse to wipe his glasses, asking “May I?” while already engaged in the gesture. The second mistake is hectoring her to reveal the meaning of a tattoo that she insists is personal and none of his business.

Either could fall into the so-called “gray area” of misconduct; regardless, they are offenses. Next, she walks in on him wearing a bathrobe in his office, wearing a MAGA hat (an unrelated scheme to avoid people he dislikes) and delivering Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” monologue for a laugh. Again, “misunderstanding” or no, this is evidence of a hostile workplace. The situation escalates further when Larry and Alice meet in a restaurant to try to smooth things over. As he notices Ted Danson, his longtime frenemy and romantic rival, walk into the establishment, Larry hastily decides he needs to “side sit” closer to his accuser in order to back up a lie he told earlier. She objects and tells him to sit across from her instead. He refuses, then grabs her by the wrist and holds her in place as she tries to flee.

Playing this humorously is a dangerous art, as David must know. Your willingness to laugh at it is dependent on your own experience and your tolerance for Curb’s excruciating style of farce. If it lands as vicious satire, however, it does so by making shitty men the butt of the joke. It is not some zany mix-up that Larry is physically restraining a woman lunging to escape his reach, and the series of “accidents” that prefigure this are absurd enough to demolish the “miscommunication” defense regularly offered by #MeToo skeptics. You could say that David is showing us just how little credence to give those arguments, since they rely on a profoundly unlikely chain of catastrophe you find in narrative art, not real life.

And, again, despite his protests, Larry is guilty of abuse on some level. When, in the following episode, Alice begins choking in the elevator with him, Larry stops himself from performing the Heimlich maneuver, for fear that this bodily contact will be added to a list of allegations. Alice slumps to the ground, unconscious, while he holds his hands up high to show he has not touched her. That he’d rather potentially let her die than take a microscopically small risk in helping her is as brutal a metaphor of men’s uselessness and selfishness as you could ask for.

That’s why, for all its surplus edginess and the occasional error (a subplot where Larry’s hunger for hors d’oeuvres is taken by a waitress for leering eye contact falls flat, and it turns downright hacky when a bit of slapstick causes him to grab her breasts), I don’t find this Curb run to be politically reactionary, or dismissive of sexual harassment. Larry is not the victim of a “witch hunt” but of his continued dickishness and refusal to observe a basic code of propriety.

There’s a scene where Larry hooks up with a date while recording audio in the room, so he can verbally confirm her consent for every move he makes, and soon she is more disgusted by his awkward, tedious descriptions than the prospect of having sex with him — as if to drive home that the male terror of #MeToo shows they still don’t understand the purpose of the movement. Larry imagines a war of attrition between men and women, same as he always has, but with additional obstacles, and that is what traps him in a cycle of disgrace and cancellation.

We’ll have to see the rest of the season play out to know the full arc of the commentary David (the writer) is using Larry (the character) to express. It helps to remember that the TV alter-ego is supposed to be the ultimate schmuck: If there’s a bad decision on the table, he’ll seize it. The show is walking a fine line as it pushes that conceit to the max, and not always successfully. But there’s a chance Larry will fall farther and harder than ever before, in a culmination of all his boorish wrongdoing to date.