“Mister Softee” is a bold, ambitious episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, one that begins as so many do—with Larry and the gang dining at a nice restaurant—but ends somewhere no one could have predicted: with infamous loser Bill Buckner catching a baby tossed from a burning building. Along the way, Larry loses a softball game, revisits a painful moment from his adolescence, and brings two different women—including Susie—to orgasm with his malfunctioning car seat. That's a whole lot of ground to cover in just over 30 minutes.
Part of the unique viewing experience that is Curb Your Enthusiasm is watching and trying to predict how the show will tie together the disparate plot strands. Sometimes, everything comes together perfectly, and it feels like the entire episode was just an elaborate, circuitous build-up to a single punchline. Other times, the ending may be a bit ragged, the various subplots linked too tenuously, but the careening storyline is so enjoyable, it doesn’t really matter if it doesn't wrap up neatly in the end. “Mister Softee” is one of the latter, a flawed Curb episode that contains some flashes of utter brilliance.
“Mister Softee” is certainly one of the more inventive Curb episodes ever. The flashback sequence was something of a departure for the series, which tends to stick to a pretty linear narrative structure. As Larry explains to his shrink, the maniacally cheerful Mister Softee music conjures painful memories from his adolescence: After losing a game of strip poker to a cute girl from the neighborhood, Larry is kicked out of her father’s ice cream truck and forced to walk home naked. The incident had a profound psychosexual effect on Larry, who declares, “I feel like if she had taken her top off, my whole life would have been different.”
For the faithful Curb viewer, of course, the flashback offers one worthwhile revelation: the moment that “prett-y, prett-y, prett-y good” was born. This episode, and in particular the flashback sequence, reminded me of “The End,” the season five finale in which Larry meets his Gentile “birth parents” and pays a visit to the pearly gates. “Mister Softee” felt like it could have been a season finale, as it dealt with such central Curb preoccupations—sex, death, masculinity, Judaism—and ended with a totally over-the-top action sequence. It makes me wonder what will happen next week, when the actual season finale airs.
Now, speaking of that last scene: My knowledge of baseball history could fit comfortably on a single index card, but even I know who Bill Buckner is. Having doomed his softball team to a loss with a stupid error, Larry instantly shares a bond with the former Red Sox player, but I think the affinity goes deeper than baseball: Larry identifies with Buckner because he too knows what it’s like to be publicly humiliated, to be hated by many. As ludicrous as it was, the ending of “Mister Softee,” was also sweet and redemptive: 25 years after Buckner missed the ball, he catches the baby. The ultimate schlemiel finally gets to be a winner. It doesn’t get any more heartwarming than that, does it? (Kudos are in order for Buckner for being such a good sport—and a pretty good actor, too.)
For me, though, the highlight of this episode is Fred Melamed’s guest appearance as Dr. Thurgood, Larry’s New York psychiatrist. His character is such a delightfully weird comic invention: velvety-voiced, accommodating, and preternaturally calm, yet also wildly indiscreet and patronizing. I loved the supremely neurotic discussion of whether Larry can put his feet on the coffee table, and Dr. Thurgood’s confident assertion that the Mister Softee theme song is “deeply disturbing, there’s no question about it.” But clearly the best part is when he casually tells Larry that George Lucas likes to frequent prostitutes and that it only takes him "four or five minutes to get the shot." I was reminded just how great Melamed was playing villainous Sy Abelman in A Serious Man. I think it all comes down to that voice, as uncannily smooth as a Vogue cover photo—so perfect for making insults sound like compliments!
The one thing that really didn’t work for me—and I know that many of you will disagree with me—was the car-as-dildo bit. I found it overly broad and cartoonish (also, confusing: just what was wrong with the car seat, anyway?), but Leon’s brilliant observations (“This chair is a fuck machine!”, “This chair is the other fucking man”) mostly made up for these problems.
So, there was a lot in “Mister Softee” to like. If anything, there was too much of it. So many inspired ideas, not enough time. This episode was very A.D.D., full of plot fake-outs that seem like they’re going come up again later in the episode, but don't: Jeff’s decision to keep the chicken instead of splitting it with Larry, Jennifer’s dislike of baseball, Larry’s altercation at the minyan.
As entertaining as Larry’s move to New York has been, this season has suffered slightly from a lack of momentum. The last four or five episodes could have aired in virtually any order, and they’d still make perfect sense. Last week, Larry and Jeff were, for some reason, taking meetings with inventors. This week, Larry suddenly has a new girlfriend and a crazy mechanic/coach named Yari. Though this season has contained some wonderful episodes, there’s been a disconnect from week to week. You might say the same thing about “Mister Softee”—that it’s loaded with classic scenes, yet somehow the whole is slightly less than the sum of its parts.
- Let’s put Larry’s theory to the test. Black people with glasses: Denzel Washington, Malcolm X, Colin Powell, Steve Urkel.
- That baby was supposed to look completely fake, right?
- Every time I see Melamed, I think, “Oh, look, it's Francis Ford Coppola. Or is it Chuck Close?”
- Larry is really getting around this season, huh? I have to say I find it mildly impressive that he actually dates grown women and not college co-eds. Sure, they’re all 20 years younger than him, but at least he's not pulling a James Woods.
- What’s with all the baseball stuff this season? Anyone got a theory?
- I have never played a game of strip poker in the back of an ice cream truck, but I, too, find the Mister Softee theme deeply menacing—or at least just really, really annoying.
- One last thing: What is Larry doing with a car in Manhattan, anyway? We’ve got hybrid cabs here.
- “Whenever I see a woman who’s happy, she’s married. Whenever I see a man who’s happy, he’s single.”
- “Steinbrenner owned a baseball team. You own 12 t-shirts!”
- “We will fuck their sisters in the cunt. Are you listening? Fuck these people.”
- “Don’t let the door go through your legs on the way out.”
- “You try to put a noodle in a woman; women hate that man.”
- “No wonder she didn’t come upstairs. She was coming downstairs.”
- “I don’t want to see your stupid minyan anyway. I hope there is no afterlife.”
- “When you first start dating, you always do things that are distasteful. That’s part of the process.”