This Curb Your Enthusiasm review contains spoilers
Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 9 Episode 5
“Thank You For Your Service” represents Curb Your Enthusiasm as its best and at its worst.
The best is its madcap resolution that ties up all of the loose ends from Larry’s selfish decision-making and gives every enemy he’s made throughout the episode’s running time their chance at sweet revenge.
The worst is just about everything else.
Improvisation is a wonderful comedic tool when harnessed correctly and firing on all cylinders. It’s also frequently at odds with fundamental storytelling. It’s hard enough to improvise just one joke or one scene. Cobbling all of those disparate scenes together into 35 minutes* of television is a challenge.
*The running time itself is part of the issue. No episode of Curb this season has been under 35 minutes, making the editor’s job even harder.
It’s a miracle that any episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm not only comes together into a satisfying conclusion at the end, let alone is even coherent. “Thank You For Your Service” pulls off the miracle of turning all this disparate pieces into a satisfying conclusion. Those pieces just don’t seem like they’re leading anywhere in the moment.
Events happen in “Thank You For Your Service” because they just kind of happen. That’s not entirely unusual for Curb. A lot of disbelief must be suspended at the door just to believe that Larry can encounter this much bullshit in one day. When the improvisation and editing are working in tandem, however, it maintains its improvisational spirit and is also presents a complete story. “Thank You For Your Service” just can’t quite pull that off.
Larry has a conversation with the security guard at his golf club, Sal, that pushes him to the brink of sanity through sheer boredom. Then he argues with Richard and Jeff about whetherRichard read the John Adams biography or not. Then he asks the server if the chef can prepare his sole broiled. But first the server has to ask the chef and report back to Larry on what kind of face the chef made and if it’s unfavorable enough they can just sautée it.
These are all perfectly funny bits – particularly when the server tries to recreate what face the chef made for Larry’s decision-making process. There’s just a certain lifelessness to them. Like they were all assembled together from different episodes or filmed months apart.
Of course, a lot of that is mitigated by the episode’s third act and how successfully it’s able to draw these separate improvisational bits together into one big comedic setpiece. Still, the time we spend watching those moments matter. We can’t possibly know in the moment whether this episode is going to “pay off” so in the meantime we’re just watching some barely connected collection of scenes.
That’s not that unusual for Curb Your Enthusiasm. Certainly nothing drastic has changed in the way David and company write, produce, and prepare episodes 9 seasons in. The same process has been used to each show – come up with a loose premise for an episode, then a loose premise for each additional scene and improvise your way through it. Somehow, that process creates coherent story more often than not. This time it just happened not to.
The real issue at hand here could be that many individual scenes just aren’t funny enough. Larry getting ostracized from his golf club for saying Ken Carman’s baby looks “a little Asian” is too far out of left field (at least before the episode’s conclusion). Larry getting ostracized from Sammi Greene’s engagement party for not saying “thank you for your service” to her Afghan war veteran fiance just escalates too quickly and bizarrely.
And Larry getting ostracized from receiving mail? Well that’s just too weird. Kate Aselton is an excellent actress and it’s nice to see her leave the FX ranch for a moment (she’s appeared in both The League and Legion) but her scenes with David seem particularly listless in an episode full of scenes that could be described similarly. Curb Your Enthusiasm is now riding a two-week streak of introducing female love interest characters who only exist to occupy a literal job: realtor and now mail carrier. Nothing of note happens on Larry and Jean’s date other than the revelation that Reese’s Pieces and popcorn together are good. Really all that needs to happen for the good of the story is for Larry to realize he can’t date someone he’ll be forced to see several times a week. The “reset button” attempt on their relationship ends up being a crucial part of the episode’s eventual success but everything before that reset button attempt doesn’t justify the time we spend with it onscreen.
There are successes to be found for sure. Because for as listless as the first half or so of “Thank You For Your Service” is, the back half is pretty great.
After destroying so many relationships throughout the episode’s running time, Larry decides that he has to win at least one of them back. In this case, it’s more pragmatic than empathetic. He has to go to Sammi and Victor’s stupid wedding eventually* and he might as well try to be on good terms with everyone there when it happens…or at least as good of terms as is possible for Larry to be on with people.
*For any of his flaws in “Thank You For Your Service,” Larry gets one thing completely, incontrovertibly right: there is so good reason why people send out “save the date” letters AND invitations to weddings.
So Larry decides to bring Victor to the Revolutionary War reenactment that he heard Sal talking about. It’s all fun and games until Sal sees Larry and decides to fire some live canon rounds at him and Victor. This sets up a pretty spectacular comedic setpiece by Curb Your Enthusiasm standards in which Larry and Victor crawl through dirt and mud to the safety of a parking lot where he sees golf club owner Mr. Takahashi making out with Ken Carman’s wife in his car. “I knew that baby looked a little Asian!”
And then a triumphant Larry returns to the golf course with Victor, both of them still in Revolutionary garb. A poor, shell-shocked Victor mistakes the valets for red coats and attacks them.
The back half of “Thank You For Your Service” works because it knows how to perfectly tie together the disparate portions of the first half. Even Jean the mail lady gets her revenge on Larry as she throws three days worth of mail at him from her truck as Larry comes from the golf club still dressed as a soldier. “Welcome home, soldier,” Leon tells Larry. Thank you for your service.”
It also works because it’s just plain funnier.
Larry’s outburst at Sal after he discovers he’s been kicked out of the club is sublime. I wrote last week that Larry David might be the happiest being in the universe because he’s so unreservedly selfish but this week reminds us that he still has to live in a world with other human beings who expect a modicum of attention and respect.
“Ten years I put the window down and I talked to you and I was SUFFOCATING from the bullshit and the drivel,” he screams at Sal.
“Thank You For Your Service” ultimately averages out to a replacement player level episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. There are several potential causes and theories for the its slow start but ultimately it’s probably just the reality that for the first half the jokes didn’t work and for the last half they do.
It looks like we’ve uncovered something radical about the construction of half-hour TV comedies. Funny = good. Not funny = not as good.