“When trafficking with men,” Nietzsche once wrote, “we often need to practice a benevolent dissimulation; we have to pretend we do not see through the motives of their actions.” But what if there was a man who operated without benevolence, without pretension, without patience for dissimulation, or without even a desire really to traffic with men at all? There is, in fact, such a man, and he will return to our TVs on Oct. 1 for the first time in six years.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is about to enter its ninth season, tells of the fictionalized day-to-day life of Larry David, the celebrated creator of Seinfeld. And if asked why people love the show—why there is such fanfare after a six-year hiatus when other shows would have easily vanished from our consciousness—most will contend that Curb is about a man reacting justifiably to onerous everyday social entanglements.
It’s a tempting explanation. But it’s also wrong.
Prodding at why we actually enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm is unnerving because almost immediately it reveals something more sinister in us. Curb is, and has always been, a show about anarchy, in which Larry David is an agent of chaos. And what I have learned since I first started watching Curb Your Enthusiasm more than 10 years ago in eighth grade is that the world can, at any given time, tolerate small doses of anarchy, and sometimes you get a chance at it yourself.
The truth is that Larry David routinely finds himself in situations that no one on this planet could ever possibly replicate. And for every universal social injustice he correctly identifies—people cutting lines, people you dislike trying to stop and chat with you on the street—there are a dozen more that have bothered nobody on the planet except Larry David: shoelaces that are too long, women with conspicuously large vaginas using their orifice to steal your cellphone, two different people on consecutive days borrowing your jackets and then immediately taking your jackets to the bathroom. If we see ourselves in these situations, it’s not because we have actually ever experienced them; we haven’t.
If one of the flaws of modern narrative art is a relentless need to create characters that its audience is eager to relate to, Curb succeeds because it does the opposite. It weaves us into a sort of complicity, against our own better judgment and moral positions, with someone we would probably never even want to share a ZIP code with.
It’s easy to see Larry as some sort of public advocate against social conventions because he does, occasionally, in his war on everything, take aim at those too. Larry doesn’t shake hands with people who have sneezed in them, he doesn’t tip people who haven’t served him, he doesn’t sit in the front seat when someone is driving him, or praise children, or be polite to his friends’ wives. He refuses to do the things that most of us feel compelled to do, either due to socialization or because we are afraid of confrontation. And if it seems at first glance that Larry is simply a schmuck incapable of performing even the smallest of social niceties, it’s important to remember that the popularity of Curb shows exactly how burdensome these niceties can become. If we love Larry David, it’s because being a part of society is awful, and for 30 minutes at a time he shows us a way out. Larry David is John Keats’ nightingale of social fatigue. Curb, even at its most absurd, is proof that the world is just as irritating as we secretly think it is.
What this show, which could just as accurately be called Civilization and its Discontents, offers viewers is not an alternate universe in which we could have behaved differently in similar circumstances, but rather a world in which we get to entertain our desire for total noncompliance, where with a single inscrutable shrug we are able to open up a portal to a world where rules exist only for other people.
Most episodes of Curb are about Larry’s guerrilla war against the people who participate in the rules of society. Part of the show’s magic is watching Larry take on people like us, watching him destroy the part of us that defers not to impulse or instinct or desire, but to rules that couldn’t be any sillier. It’s like a war between the Dionysian and the Apollonian where the nebbishy Jewish Dionysian always finds a way to run the Apollonian over with his Prius. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that we hate the part of ourselves that relentlessly complies with society, but it’s less of a stretch to say that at times this part of us can certainly be a massive pain.
Larry operates from a commitment to dissolving the glue that holds society together. He also shows us what even this low dose of anarchy is capable of doing. In one episode, with very little art and even less guile, Larry manages to ruin a golf tournament, two marriages, a mother-daughter relationship, and instigates a religious standoff. At this point, someone who has never seen the show might wonder why anyone in their right mind would ever want to follow the life and times of Larry David, why would we subject ourselves to hours of chronic misbehavior, as if the answer isn’t simple enough. The truth is, there’s a part of us that always wants to misbehave.
Somewhere in the back of every episode, you can hear Larry David the writer asking one question of the world: Do I have to? And this question is asked even when presented with reasonable things that don’t even really bother most people ever, like waiting for someone else’s food to be served before eating your own or handing out candy on Halloween to people older than you think is appropriate. He takes moral stands on things that are fundamentally immoral. Having once picked up a prostitute and taken her to a baseball game so that he could drive to the stadium in the carpool lane, Larry David is a man who at his most law-abiding is still deftly circumnavigating law and order, substituting one crime for another.
I’ve always had a sense from some other version of myself stuck in an alternate universe rewatching episodes of Curb that occasionally, in some situations, I could actually get away with and be totally forgiven for misbehavior. And if done sparingly without going full-Larry, I could probably avoid detection, too. Curb teaches us that sometimes the social contract can be treated like a one-way street.
At a certain point in the late 2000s, Curb received some criticism for changing its premise. Larry David stopped being a victim of circumstance and instead, started just being an asshole. It’s true, there was a shift in tone. From earlier seasons to later seasons, we saw Larry’s behavior go from complaining about doctors who can’t see you at the appointed time, to crunching on pistachios while making an apology over the phone and racing home to break up with a girlfriend before a doctor could hand down her cancer diagnosis. But this new Larry was always there, lying silently beneath it all, idly doodling swastikas in public on magazine covers because it’s funny.
By now, viewers should have started to wonder how someone who isn’t an asshole can also become a victim of seven or eight circumstances in any given day, as if at some point victim of circumstance and asshole are not, in fact, essentially the same.
The charm of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which has allowed it to remain quotable in almost all social situations for more than 15 years, is not in nuanced social criticism. In fact, it’s incredibly straightforward. If I could choose only one metaphor for describing the version of life that Curb rebels against, it would be standing at the back of a long, snaking line in an un-air-conditioned DMV. I think, somewhere in Curb, there’s a lesson that the numbers, the line, the rules of motor vehicles are all illusory. Or, alternatively, they’re very real but all suck and you can probably flout it all, and people might even cheer while continuing to stand in line themselves. Do these rules even exist, and if they do, does it really matter? Either way, whatever the answer may be, Curb exposed a small void in the world that can be filled only by anarchy, where the distinction is ours to make, where it all depends on our interpretation of the noises around us, on whether we choose to traffic with men at all, or merely to pretend to just so that we can continue to exist alongside them. If Nietzsche were alive today, he might even call it the art of malevolent dissimulation.
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Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.