John P. Johnson/HBO
Kevin P. Sullivan
November 06, 2017 AT 12:45 PM EST

A new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm was never a guarantee. Since Larry David has enough money from Seinfeld syndication to last him multiple annoyed lifetimes, more episodes of the HBO comedy were only going to happen if he felt like it. So when it turned out that he wanted more, it really felt like a gift. The show’s track record was more or less spotless and so hugely influential that it was hard not to be genuinely excited.

And then the season started. The picture quality was more high-def than any Curb episode has any right being. Hell, the first shot of the season used a drone. But settling into the first couple half hours, new Curb was still Curb. David would brush with a social norm or accepted quirk of polite human interaction and then dig the heels of his sensible sneakers in for a battle.

And yet, something was off. The episodes felt more like imitations of the highly improvised style than the genuine article. The gravitational center of Larry’s no-nonsense worldview seemed located somewhere in the early 2000s. It just wasn’t as funny. You never want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but six episodes into the ninth season of Curb, I’m starting to think something is seriously wrong with this horse.

I’ve had these thoughts since the premiere, but because Curb is a show I really, really like, I’ve been slower to call out its flaws, even to myself. It wasn’t until I saw some tweets from The New Yorker‘s TV critic Emily Nussbaum that it all really clicked.

While there have been plenty of good signature Larry David Thoughts — the pickle gambit from earlier in the season and last night’s accidental text on purpose chief among them — the arguments have a staleness to them. The divorce from Cheryl was a creative choice made partly to reflect David’s real life, but removing him from the structure of a relationship killed a lot of the societal pressure that he feels.

Now Larry, the character, is free to indulge in his worst impulses with the people he encounters during the day — usually, as Nussbaum points out, people in service jobs — and he gets to walk away with few consequences. Maybe the character comes back for some karmic justice later in the episode, but the retribution is only momentary. There’s nothing and no one forcing Larry to choose between what is deemed acceptable and what he wants to do.

The result is arguments that don’t go anywhere with an extra layer of comedic compromise. With an extra voice in Larry’s life, telling him that No, this is how things are, he immediately jumps to his way, instead of forcing some middle ground, which would invariably be funny. In “Accidental Text on Purpose,” there’s no pressure on Larry not to say anything besides exactly what he’s thinking to his seatmate. It’s a subtle change, but it grounds the show’s comedy style in a more relatable world.

And that’s the major difference this season. Whether it’s the world around us or how comedy itself has changed since Curb debuted, it’s easier than ever to see Larry as an unreasonable crank rather than a revolutionary in the war against polite insanity. He used to be the one telling it like it is. His only flaw was taking it too far. Now, in 2017, there’s much too much of that.

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