Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm are returning to HBO (specific timeline: TBD) in a significantly different cultural landscape. Season nine of Curb will arrive in a world with either the first female or sentient hairpiece in the Oval Office. It’ll experience the internet’s reactionary take machine for the first time. It will also return to a much different world of TV, one where viewers’ options for scripted TV have essentially doubled since Curb last aired in 2011, and one where HBO isn’t the sure-fire, unimpeachable bastion of excellence and spending. In fact, if you’re looking for one of the bigger surprises about Curb’s reappearance, it’s that HBO actually needs Larry David and his acerbic show to come back.
Even with all the praise, awards, and tweets for shows like Game of Thrones, Veep, and Last Week Tonight, things aren’t going so well at HBO. The pay cable behemoth has always had a meticulous, fickle development process, but recent years have seen an inordinate number of awesome-sounding projects starring big names never make it past the pilot stage. Multiple David Fincher projects stalled out before they could get to the pilot; an expensive historically-driven project about Lewis and Clark was shut down during production, per The Hollywood Reporter.
Meanwhile, a number of the projects that survived HBO’s rigorous developmental pipeline—many of which followed the patented HBO strategy of giving a lot of money to famous people—didn’t hit as successfully as the channel hoped. Low ratings and horrible on-set accidents sank David Milch’s high-profile Luck in 2011. The Newsroom couldn’t survive a toxically bad “re-explain the news” premise and flamed out in 25 episodes. Boardwalk Empire never lived up to enormous expectations (and costs) in its five-year run. The Leftovers is one of the more divisive shows online, but next to no one watches it. True Detective season two would be an even bigger embarrassment if it weren’t for Vinyl, a $100 million sinkhole that probably only got renewed because HBO doesn’t like to admit failure so quickly.
The comedy, miniseries, documentary, and news portions of HBO’s programming have fared far better since 2011, but there are some ugly blemishes and poorly-rated good shows in those sectors as well. When you’re HBO, you shouldn’t be renewing very bad shows like The Brink, only to change your mind and say, “nah, nevermind.” It’s not a good look. Things took such a sour turn that channel president Michael Lombardo stepped down last month, replaced by Casey Bloys, a well-liked executive from the comedy development side.
Don't get me wrong, HBO isn't in an all-out collapse. The channel has experienced unbelievable financial and critical success with Game of Thrones. Its comedies are very good. As a corporation, HBO makes so much money on subscriptions—even as you share your ex-girlfriend’s dad’s password—and also made the smart decision to position itself as open to cord cutters with HBO Now. But HBO is all about branding and optics. The competition with Netflix (and everybody else) is very real, but to a certain extent, the more pressing issue is that HBO always has to live up to HBO’s reputation. That there’s been a glut of stories online and in the trades about potential turmoil at HBO is a problem that the channel needs to solve.
Bringing back Curb, one of the most beloved and the longest-running scripted series in channel history, is a way to move the conservation away from those supposed problems. While never a massive hit even for HBO’s lowered expectations, Curb actually had higher ratings in season eight than it did for the much-discussed Seinfeld-infused season seven in 2009. It’s fair to speculate that the increase had something to do with the show’s wider availability on HBO Go and the general move toward binge-viewing on streaming platforms. Since 2011, HBO Go and binging have only grown more prominent in their own ways, and the show has been available to Amazon Prime and HBO Now customers since last year as well. The show’s manageable running time and subject matter make it a prime candidate for an all-encompassing catch-up, whether that happened between 2011 and now, or occurs between now and season nine’s premiere after HBO promotes the heck out of its return. Point is: the audience could be even bigger this time around.
Likewise, while Curb’s return from a self-imposed creative hiatus is far different than Netflix hitting us with Fuller House, the ultimate result is the same. Returns, revivals, and retreads can be very bad—and Curb won’t be, obviously—but when promoted effectively, they become tremendous events. In a competitive environment where HBO is competing with Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and Showtime for subscribers and awards just as much as social media trends and blistering takes, welcoming back a familiar, beloved show at least gets people interested that first week or two, which is more than half the battle in 2016. It helps that season nine of Curb, unlike Fuller House, won’t be based on originally bad material or some misplaced sense of nostalgia.
There are other reasons why this makes a lot of sense for HBO—it establishes the new boss Cloys’ bonafides as a facilitator of great projects without much risk, it’ll bring in additional awards attention, etc.—but they all funnel back to keeping HBO’s brand strong in the face of tumult, real or manufactured. Curb’s return won’t replace Game of Thrones and won’t silence the chatter that HBO isn’t alone at the top of the TV food chain anymore. It will, however, give HBO another good, respected show at a time where it desperately needs more of them.