The world has radically changed since Curb Your Enthusiasm last went off the air in March 2020. Yet as the HBO series resumes its cringe-worthy run tonight (Oct. 24), Larry David remains the same impossibly combative and antisocial curmudgeon that he’s always been. Season 11’s premiere, “The Five-Foot Fence,” finds the comedian as awkwardly hilarious as ever. In a twist, though, it largely doesn’t have him grapple with the pandemic, which in light of Larry’s prior people-hating behavior, seemed like it would have struck him as a lockdown dream come true.
COVID-19 is merely a minor element of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s return, via the issue of Purell, and the hoarding of basic home goods and supplies—hand sanitizer, toilet paper, etc.—that was all the rage when the crisis first began. Before that real-world issue can factor into the season’s maiden episode, it concentrates on a different sort of catastrophe: a dead body that Larry discovers in his pool late at night, after being awakened by crashing noises that indicated a break-in was taking place. As it turns out, while trying to flee with Larry’s goods, a burglar tripped, hit his head, and fell into the pool, where he fatally drowned. More alarming for Larry, however, is the news that he’s in violation of a local city ordinance that stipulates that all private swimming pools be surrounded by a fence, which his most certainly is not.
With regard to this infraction, Larry is let off with a warning by the investigating police officer. Nonetheless, as is usually the case with Curb Your Enthusiasm, triumph is fleeting and misery is inevitable, and it’s not long before Larry receives an extortion note about the missing fence. This blackmail scheme is the brainchild of Marcos (Marques Ray), the brother of the deceased thief, who threatens to go public about Larry’s no-fence lawbreaking—and thus saddle Larry with enormous legal and financial headaches—unless Larry casts his daughter Maria Sofia (Keyla Monterroso Mejia) in an upcoming project. The problem is, Maria Sofia is merely a cook and waitress at her dad’s taqueria, with only minimal acting experience—meaning, she once starred in a school production of Romeo and Juliet—and, as evidenced by her impromptu performance for Larry, even less talent.
With no other options, Larry is forced to acquiesce to Marcos’ demands and give Maria Sofia a shot at the role, with the understanding that she already has it in the bag. Making matters wittier still, the show for which she’s auditioning is Young Larry, a Young Sheldon-esque comedy about Larry’s early years living in New York City with his wealthy uncle, working as a chauffeur and trying to be a stand-up, which Larry successfully pitches to Netflix. That HBO has allowed Curb Your Enthusiasm to create a storyline that revolves around its chief small-screen rival is a hilarious surprise. And as one might expect, it ultimately leads to a thoroughly uncomfortable sequence in which Larry has to turn up his nose at worthy acting candidates before trying to sell the amazingly abysmal Maria Sofia to his streaming-service colleagues.
Curb Your Enthusiasm doesn’t stop there in burdening its perpetually harried protagonist with frustrating complications. Larry runs into Dennis (John Pirruccello), who owes him $6,000 for a prior golfing trip, and doesn’t hesitate to demand his money back, this despite the fact that Dennis is suffering from early-onset dementia. Their squabble devolves into predictable yelling, with Larry declaring—for the first of many times during the episode—“I’m not the bad guy!” Even when he isn’t the villain, though, Larry comes off like one. Moreover, he increasingly appears to be mentally deficient himself, thanks to two successive incidents at a dinner party hosted by Leon’s (JB Smoove) new girlfriend Mary Ferguson (Ashli Auguillard), the first featuring spilled wine on a couch that he (rightfully) blames on Susie (Susie Essman), and the second involving him walking face-first into a sliding glass door.
Together, these mishaps cause Larry’s new girlfriend Lucy Liu to suspect that he’s getting a little long in the tooth—and, as a result, that’s he’s lost his virility. As if that weren’t enough, Larry also has to deal with his good friend Albert Brooks’ decision to stage a living funeral for himself, because Albert thinks that people should be able to hear the kind words that friends and loved ones generally only say once someone has died. Larry mocks this “faux funeral” as more than a bit absurd, but it immediately links Albert and Larry as kindred egocentric souls. A late revelation about Albert’s pandemic habits only further strengthens that bond, so that the episode’s closing moment—shared between friends with a common love of Purell—feels absolutely perfect.
Curb Your Enthusiasm’s eleventh-season premiere gets additional mileage out of the return of Jon Hamm, who may have moved on from playing Larry in a movie (because test audiences found the character “repugnant”), but continues to use Yiddish terms as if he were actually Jewish. Leon, on the other hand, hasn’t moved on from anything; he’s still the same foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed, me-first sidekick he’s always been. Leon is the beneficiary of perhaps the episode’s most inspired development, when—after his own girlfriend does something to neuter his interest—he begins auditioning for a replacement partner named Mary Ferguson so that an airline ticket in her name won’t go to waste.
While Curb Your Enthusiasm has long become set in its ways, it’s retained its caustic bite, thanks entirely to its impressive ability to keep concocting creative ways to torment the socially maladjusted Larry. More than one plot thread introduced in the episode remains unresolved by the time the credits roll, thereby confirming that some of these dilemmas will plague Larry for weeks to come. Regardless of what the show winds up throwing at him, however, it’s reassuring to know that no amount of paradigm-shifting, reality-altering events can stop the fictional Larry David from being a smug, screamy, narcissistic loon, and the real Larry David from being the funniest comedian on television.