Midway through the third episode of the new season of “Louie” – which was and continues to be one of the very best shows on television – Louis C.K. is introduced to a Spanish phrase that, loosely translated, means, “Say you don’t know, and then you learn everything.” As hard as it is to apply any motto to a show as idiosyncratic and unpredictable as “Louie,” that’s a pretty good one.
Though each episode of the series is in some significant way different than the one before it, they’re all connected by C.K. – who writes, directs and stars in every installment, with almost no creative input from FX – and his personality and worldview. And though it’s easy to define that personality as one driven by self-loathing, there’s always much more to “Louie” than the story of a middle-aged bald guy who isn’t his own biggest fan. There’s a level of inquisitiveness to C.K., and to the show, that ties right in with his awareness of how little he actually knows.
In one way or another, you can look at every episode of the series and see in its genesis that C.K. – whether the real man, his fictionalized counterpart, or both – acknowledged he didn’t know something and set out to learn. C.K. had tried unsuccessfully to do sitcoms before; what would happen if he was given total creative control in exchange for a smaller budget? How would C.K. react if he went on a USO mission to Afghanistan? Would it be possible to turn his real-life feud with Dane Cook into material for the TV show?
C.K. is a man curious about this world, and about the entertainment business where he makes his living, and that curiosity is palpable throughout the show’s third season, which premieres tomorrow night at 10:30.
The third episode featuring the Spanish quote involves Louie befriending a Cuban-American lifeguard during a business trip to Miami, and at times turns into an extended travelogue about life in that city’s Cuban neighborhoods, then turns into an analysis of the difficulty of making new male friends as an adult. The second episode, in which Louie is set up without his knowledge on a date with a woman played by Melissa Leo, seems designed in part to test just how far the Oscar-winning character actress would be willing to go for a laugh. The fourth and fifth episodes are something new for a show that’s never been interested in episode-to-episode continuity(*): a two-parter, in which Louie goes on a date with an attractive but inscrutable stranger (Parker Posey, as terrific in her own way as Leo), as the episode is constantly questioning the nature of this woman even as it’s taking us on a tour of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
(*) Late last season, for instance, Louie became temporary guardian to his teenage niece; that episode was the first and last time we ever saw the girl, and C.K. has said he’s not interested in revisiting that story.
The five episodes aren’t appreciably different from what we got during the show’s landmark second season, but only because by now C.K. has conditioned us to assume nothing and just go on whatever journey he’s interested in that week. Some episodes are funny (the Leo episode in particular), some are dark (the second half of the Posey two-parter takes several unexpected detours) and some are simply warm and human. (Like last season’s Afghanistan trip, the Miami episode barely even needs a story; it just wants to visit this place and these people.)
And even the episodes that aren’t heavy on jokes inevitably generate laughs whenever we cut away to the stand-up comedy segments. In one, he suggests that being an attractive woman at a bar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: you may get a lot of free drinks from men you otherwise wouldn’t want to be around, but, “What is that, a sixteen dollar savings a week?”
Not every episode is an instant masterpiece. The season premiere is a pretty thin outing (albeit with some good jokes); if C.K. hadn’t made it clear how little he cares about continuity, I would assume he only put that one first because it features Louie buying something that’s prominently featured in the next episode. But even that’s not surprising at this point. Season 2 may have been one for the comedy pantheon – or drama pantheon, or however you try to categorize this uncategorizable show – but even it didn’t bat a thousand.
In an odd way, by making a show that’s so unpredictable, so varied in content and style (and, at times, execution), Louis C.K. has made one where nothing seems all that shocking about it in hindsight. “Louie” viewers don’t know exactly what they’re getting in any given week, but the show is so elastic that nothing it tries feels like something it shouldn’t.
Say you don’t know, and you learn everything. I have no idea what I’m going to see in any episode of “Louie,” and that leaves me open to learning a lot about the show, the man, and way he sees the world we share.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org