How ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Perfected the Comedy Structure That’s Taken Over Streaming
Last week, HBO and comedian Larry David announced the return of the comedian’s much loved, semi-scripted comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unceremoniously, Larry David described the comeback by “quoting” Julius Caesar, saying “I left, I did nothing, I returned.” However, despite David’s extremely true-to-himself insistence that he has “done nothing” since the last episode of Curb, he has quietly influenced an entire style of television comedy in his absence, the “season serial.”
Having already contributed to revolutionizing comedic television once before, it’s not hard to believe that David could have had a role in doing so again. In 2000, when the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm aired, before Arrested Development, before either iteration of The Office, season-long story arcs in sitcoms were still a novel idea, if not completely uncharted territory. Nevertheless, the freedoms of HBO’s programming style — half-hour scheduling with no breaks, the liberty to include mature content — and the truncated episode orders — just 10 per season — allowed David and company to tell adventurous, streamlined stories that worked out as standalone seasons. Essentially, Curb was the first binge-friendly comedy series, even pre-dating streaming services themselves.
Take the archetype for any one of the show’s past eight seasons. The model is fairly formulaic: Larry gets in over his head by taking on a big project for the wrong reasons and then stumbles his way through each of them, one social faux pas at a time. Despite its simplicity, this formula has culminated in some amazing television moments. Larry’s venture into the restaurant business in season three ends as a chef with Tourette’s, the last chef in the city still willing to work for Larry, leads the way in shouting a cacophony of obscenities with patrons at the restaurant’s opening night. In the show’s eight and most recent season, David’s repeated flimsy excuses to get out of a charity event lead to his banning from the city of New York by Michael J. Fox and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And, most iconic, Larry’s season-seven decision to produce a Seinfeld reunion show in an attempt to win back his estranged wife leads to an actual Seinfeld reunion show couched within an entire season of his own program.
Since 2011, the date of the most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the shows that have most overtly shadowed Curb’s serial season structure are those appearing on the platform most conducive to standalone, serialized seasons: Netflix. Like HBO, Netflix’s lack of commercials, leniency towards flexing creative control, and, unlike HBO, their release of full seasons at a time, provide a specific landscape — among producers and audiences — ripe for the serial season.
After a strong first season tracking its titular character’s struggle to write his autobiography, Netflix’s BoJack Horseman returned last year with a completely new story to tell. And while the show grew outward in an effort to capture nearly the entire show business zeitgeist, the main storyline of the new season revolved around BoJack’s starring role in a Secretariat movie. In this sense, the serial season works twofold: it provides a static backdrop corralling the action, while allowing individual episodes to explore different facets within the season’s well-defined borders. It’s a form of carefully constructed storytelling vocabulary on which the show can rely.
Netflix’s other major comedic player, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, showcased a similar use of structure in its first two years, focusing its first season on Kimmy’s transition from bunker to normal life, while giving the second equal weight to each of its main character’s, as well as widening its scope. In the case of Kimmy Schmidt, though, each season’s unifying aspect becomes the looming presence of an undefined character, the Reverend in season one and Kimmy’s mother in season two, rather than a plot point. Even the service’s recent series Love, despite its length issues, plays out in its first season much more like a ten-part movie then what we have come to identify as a season of television.
Meanwhile, Larry David and Curb’s influence extends beyond those Netflix original series back into the world of cable television. The League, co-created by Curb Executive Producer and Director Jeff Schaffer, employs many of the same season-structuring tactics as its predecessor. In addition to exhibiting a fondness for improvisation and coining an endless number of clever terms for common social phenomena, The League followed in Curb’s footsteps by how it structured each of its seasons around a season of fantasy football. It’s a small, seemingly obvious touch, but it let the show string together plotlines within a season without sacrificing much airtime to rather inessential storytelling, often a second-thought to the show’s casual hangout intentions. The show’s digestible season construction also lent itself an early second life between seasons as a standout on Netflix streaming before the service ventured into original programming.
Most notably, though, David’s DNA can be seen all over HBO’s run of comedy programming since he took his own show on hiatus. This year, Executive Producer and Director of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Seinfeld before it, David Mandel took over showrunning duties for HBO’s political office comedy Veep. As a result, the show, in its fifth season, has featured its tightest episode-to-episode storytelling, concentrating on a narrow window between President Selina Meyer’s campaign to break a tie in her reelection and her potential re-inauguration.
Coupled with Veep, HBO’s younger Silicon Valley is also run by a Seinfeld alum and Curb Executive Producer-Director, Alec Berg. So far, the show has used the serial season structure by aligning each of its three seasons with a different phase in the development of a tech business, from development to funding to, currently, implementation. Concurrently, on a molecular level, the show’s commitment to Seinfeldian stinger endings and its willingness to emotionally beat-up its protagonist echo Curb Your Enthusiasm’s own treatment of its fictional Larry David, and make an argument for Silicon Valley as simultaneously one of the funniest comedies and most heightened dramas currently airing. And if any other connection between the shows needed making, any one episode of Silicon Valley features a bevy of familiar Seinfeld and Curb bit players.
The serial season structure seems like the natural progression of television comedies as they segue from networks to streaming services, but Larry David established the architecture with Curb back in 2000, before #PeakTV or any notion of streaming. The season-long frame story creates a vehicle to tell shorter stories while keeping a cohesive thread that can be comprehensively tied up by season’s end. This also affords the show’s creators as much time as necessary between seasons, crafting a uniquely defined story without having to include a conclusion for the last season’s now all but necessary cliffhanger. And, in a time of increased communication from fans and critics, this structure tamps down the burden of lengthy anticipation, as well as the mindless speculation that accompanies.