When FX sent out the first four episodes of “Louie” season two for review, I couldn’t help noticing that three of the four were fairly dark and/or serious, and that the one overtly comic episode also featured a storyline about Louie despairing over the meaning of life after watching a bum get decapitated by a garbage truck. At the time, I wondered whether creator/star/writer/director/editor/etc. Louis C.K. – whose comic sensibilities have never been all that sunny to begin with – had decided to deliberately take the series in a more sober direction, or if this is just the way the distribution had worked out. It was possible, I thought, that the next batch might have been much sillier, along the lines of Louie’s trip to Alabama or bad marijuana experience from season one.
Instead, the episodes since then have involved, among other topics:
• Louie introducing his daughters to their elderly great-aunt, who turns out to be a bitter racist who dies a few minutes into their visit;
• Louie getting his heart broken when his confession of love to his friend Pamela isn’t reciprocated;
• Louie and Dane Cook having an uncomfortable argument about Cook allegedly (in real life) stealing his jokes; and
• Louie being visited by an estranged, bitter friend from his early days as a stand-up, who announces that he’ll be killing himself in a few days and just wanted Louie to know.
So, no, I don’t think I should be holding my breath for a run of 2 or 3 all-comedy, all-the-time episodes of “Louie.” The show has evolved from a comedy with surprisingly profound moments into a half-hour drama that sometimes pauses to make you double over with laughter.
And I’m entirely on board with that. Because however you want to categorize it, “Louie” is now one of the best shows on television – quite possibly the best, period. Whatever C.K. wants to do, he does, and does it brilliantly.
“Louie” is essentially a one-man show – though it’s made very good use this season of guest stars like Cook, Joan Rivers and Pamela Adlon – but even if you didn’t see C.K’s name plastered all over the opening credits, or didn’t know about his unusual deal with FX (in exchange for a much smaller than normal budget, FX leaves C.K. completely alone, and execs don’t usually know anything about the episodes until they’re finished), it would be clear that “Louie” is the vision of one man, with every moment and detail informed by his experiences and outlook.
I recently spoke with Adlon, who works as a producer on the show in addition to playing Louie’s never-gonna-happen love interest, and who has known C.K. going back to their days playing husband-and-wife on HBO’s short-lived “Lucky Louie.” In talking about how C.K. controls every aspect of the series, she compared it to the dolls you see at a renaissance fair that move on wood and strings – “that’s the way he creates the show.”
So there’s this sense of honesty and reflection that permeates every minute of the show, whether it’s something fairly light like Louie enthusiastically rocking out to The Who’s “Who Are You?” while his daughters sit mortified in the backseat or something more grim like Pamela listening to Louie’s eloquent declaration of love and being moved by the sentiment even as she knows she’ll never feel the same way about him. Episodes can all be built around a single story (the visit to the great-aunt’s house) or a collection of little vignettes, like the marvelous silent movie-style sequence from a few weeks ago with Louie in the subway contrasting the beauty and ugliness of New York (a homeless man bathing himself while a classical violinist plays on the platform).
The two episodes that aired last week neatly captured everything that “Louie” is about and can do.
In the first, Louie appeared on Fox News’ “Red Eye” to debate the merits of masturbation with a pretty, blonde, born-again Christian activist. (Louie’s addiction to self-love has been one of the more reliable running gags of both the series and C.K.’s stand-up career.) What seemed like it was going to be a set-up for C.K. to attack the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism – the direction virtually any other TV show would go with this material – instead did something very unexpected: it took the other side’s viewpoint very, very seriously. The woman, while unswerving in her beliefs, never judged Louie, and seemed to enjoy his company, and when she explained her vision of what she thinks sex will be like with God’s approval, it sounded vastly better than what we know of Louie’s desperate, sweaty, uncomfortable love life. (And because C.K. is still a comedian at heart, her eloquent monologue became a set-up for a hilarious, filthy final joke about how Louie reacted to that speech.)
The second was the one with Louie’s suicidal friend Eddie, played by comedian Doug Stanhope(*), and it was again both thoughtful and unflinchingly honest. We see that Eddie probably doesn’t have anything worth living for: his career never went anywhere, he has no friends or family, and he lives out of a car filled with “gas station porn.” When Louie tries to change Eddie’s mind by offering a bit of the philosophy that permeates the series – “Life is bigger than you, if you can imagine that. It isn’t something you possess, it’s something you take part in.” – Eddie laughs at Louie’s belief that he can be the hero here and tells him, “This is not about you, Louie.” In the end, it’s unclear whether Eddie will actually do it, or if this is just part of their long, painful, passive-aggressive relationship, but it’s another reminder of how much despair Louie encounters every day, and how hard he has to work just to be a functional father to his girls.
(*) I also thought it a nice touch that when Eddie does his stand-up at the open mic night, he’s the only person we hear get laughs from this audience. His delivery’s sweaty and uncomfortable, and you can tell why he didn’t make the big time like Louie did, but the show also suggests the promise he once had when the two were young pals.
Because Louie’s worldview is so specific, and so apparent from nearly two full seasons of this show, it allows him to take old, familiar subjects and make them seem new. In his career as a stand-up (“the comic’s comic,” as he’s often described on the show), Louie doesn’t break new ground or cover topics no one else will touch; he just finds a take on them that’s uniquely his. (What was impressive about the Dane Cook episode wasn’t just that Cook was willing to do the show and air out this old, familiar feud in a fictionalized setting, but that Louie actually wound up defending Cook in a way, and the appearance itself was a way of ending the beef.) In broad plot outlines, nearly every “Louie” episode could be compared to a “Seinfeld” storyline (Jerry did, after all, struggle to remain master of his domain), but the execution is so clearly, hilariously, movingly “Louie” that the show never feels like it’s mining territory others have gotten to first.
When I revisit a show at mid-season, I generally like to do it when I’ve seen a copy of the next episode, just to be sure I’m not about to wildly praise a series right before it airs an uncharacteristically weak episode, or vice versa. But “Louie” is on such a tight production schedule that episodes are being completed too late to send out in advance. So I just have to take it on faith that tomorrow night’s episode (it airs in the show’s original 11 p.m. timeslot for once, because FX is airing a bonus “Wilfred” at 10:30) will live up to what I’ve just written.
Based on the previous nine episodes of this season, I’m not too worried – even if I’m talking about a show whose hero inevitably gets hurt whenever he lets himself think things will work out for him.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org