‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Season 12 Isn’t a Goodbye. It’s a Buttress.

There’s a scene in the new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where Larry David (played by who else but Larry David) is on the golf course, having a pretty, pretty, pretty good day. He’s swinging the club well (thanks to a casually stolen coaching session), and he’s well on his way to a high score (or low score, if you want to get technical about golf lingo, which everyone does). But when he steps to the next tee box, there’s a group of players in the fairway ahead of him. So he waits. It’s what any good golfer would do — you don’t want to risk hitting anyone with your shot — except Larry’s friends (Richard Lewis loudest among them) don’t think he can hit it that far. They want him to swing away, egging him on until he’s basically dared to take the shot, consequences be damned. Larry being Larry, his drive is perfect: straight, long, and landing square in the back of the man in the fairway.

Chaos ensues. Everyone is upset. Larry’s pretty good day is forever marred.

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There are… complications to the scene that I don’t want to get into, for fear of stepping too hard on a very good joke. Golf is an ideal playground for Larry. There are so many courtesies to follow, so many rules to be toyed with — or not. For a comedy of ill-manners like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it’s a setting ripe for disagreements, and this one is both broadly relatable and beautifully contoured to Larry’s specific mindset. Everyone who’s played golf has asked themselves if they should take their shot and risk running up on the players ahead of them, or wait patiently to make sure no one is needlessly bothered. Most people wait. Larry is not most people.

In “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Season 12, there are quite a few scenes set on the golf course, but what struck me about this one is just how common it felt; how obvious a setup it was for Larry, and the extra effort he (and showrunner Jeff Schaffer) put into this scenario to make it sing. Certainly, given all the golf played over the 110-plus episodes of the series, Larry was faced with the choice to hit or wait. But rather than spend 55 hours re-watching another HBO classic — which, believe me, I would love to do, instead of dedicating that time to other obligations — I realized it doesn’t matter. Fifty-five hours, which will reach somewhere north of 60 hours by the time Season 12 wraps, is an extraordinary amount of time. If I can’t remember a previous instance of another contentious approach shot, and this scene is still perfectly tailored beyond its starting point, and I can’t wait to go back and find out if they’ve done it before, then is the new joke diminished if an old joke began in a similar spot? Funny is funny, and “Curb” is always prioritizing what’s funny.

It’s a question you may have to answer for yourselves, dear readers, as Season 12 periodically hearkens back to the past. Some plots are drawn directly from “Curb” (like an awkward encounter with a masseuse) while others will bring “Seinfeld” to mind. (Larry’s George vibes are strong this year.) At least one callback is unmistakably purposeful — as “Curb” approaches its own ending, Larry is reminded, again and again, of the famously maligned (but actually quite good) “Seinfeld” finale — and I’ll be curious to see how that nagging disappointment factors into this conclusion. (Critics were given nine of the 10 episodes in advance.)

Still, it’s worth remembering what makes “Curb Your Enthusiasm” so special, both in its original run and its latest return. Aside from the obvious — from its origins as a foul-mouthed, L.A.-based evolution of “Seinfeld,” to Larry David’s iconic personality as an antihero whose cause(s) was so petty and pedestrian he crossed over to actual hero status — “Curb” thrives as the rare prestige comedy that’s great in small, weekly doses and long, postseason marathons.

Larry David, contemplating life's small questions, in "Curb Your Enthusiasm" Season 12
Larry David, contemplating life’s small questions, in “Curb Your Enthusiasm”Courtesy of John Johnson / HBO

Season 12, like many seasons, is a little shaggy. Certain threads are introduced early and then come full circle. Others are left dangling, never to be tied up. But rather than feel forgotten, the stragglers lend the series a sense of wonder. If Larry’s screaming match with Siri doesn’t connect to the events of that episode, sure, some audiences may be left speculating how it will come back around in the weeks to come, but the frequency of such standalone moments also allows them to come and go without suspicion. You don’t always have to be ahead of the story, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sometimes, you should just live in the moment.

That same mentality applies to the storytelling, too. Since premiering in the year 2000, “Curb” has run through sitcoms’ transition from one-off weekly episodes to heavily serialized seasons and series. It writes (and improvises) toward both, cooking up excellent ongoing plots — like the spite store or a “Seinfeld” reunion — while still dropping random, one-and-done entries each year. If you don’t watch every week, you can still pop in and chuckle along. If you do watch every week, you still can’t be sure what’s coming up next. That may frustrate audiences who always want every puzzle piece to click perfectly into place — or, as is increasingly popular these days, people who like to know what they’re about to watch before watching it — and the fact that “Curb” does construct episodes toward an ultimate coalescence, often against all odds, may exacerbate those frustrations. But that doesn’t render the surplus scenes worthless. “Curb” is a comedy. If it’s funny, there’s an argument to keep the scene instead of cutting it, no matter how you feel about being surprised. And Larry screaming is always funny.

Having a central character as beloved and well-established as Larry can be a blessing and a curse. Knowing he’s a reliable source of laughs, often just by raising his voice or repeating a gesture, can enhance great scenes just as often as it can prop up weak episodes. That means “Curb” could run for as long as David wants, in whatever way he wants, and he apparently wants it to end. The recent announcement that Season 12 would be the final season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has been met with more skepticism than anguish. David called it quits for six years after Season 8, before coming back four more times, and he’s written as many fitting series finales as not. (Larry even died in Season 5.) There’s only so many times you can cry wolf before everyone expects the wolf to saunter back into town for another meal. (That’s how the fable goes, right?)

But it really doesn’t matter if Season 12 is the end or just an end. It doesn’t matter if it’s building to a grand finale or just one more clever kicker. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has given us so much to chew on over the years, so much to savor, so many laughs, that there’s a version of Larry responding to just about anything you can imagine. Maybe it’s on the golf course, maybe it’s behind the wheel, maybe it’s in an airport or at a hotel. Each minor or major farce he concocts is a minor or major gift to anyone who’s been watching all these years. Whatever comes next just reinforces the Larry David we’ve grown to love. Season 12 isn’t a goodbye. It’s a buttress. And Larry will always make for a great butt of the joke.

Grade: B+

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” Season 12 premieres Sunday, February 4 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly.

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