Early in the marvelous new season of “Louie,” Louie makes the mistake of explaining why his building's superintendent left out the most important part of a very old and dirty joke about Pinocchio.
“Why you gotta clutter it up?” the super complains. “I mean, aren't you a comedian?”
Louis C.K. is a comedian, but he's also an actor, a writer, a director, an editor and more on “Louie.” And though he wears many hats on the FX series – which returns after a one-year hiatus with new episodes tonight at 10 and 10:30 – and goes out of his way to make each episode distinctive from the one before it, “Louie” never feels cluttered. It's a wildly unpredictable show that can veer from simple gross-out humor to complicated pathos, from whimsical fantasy to unrelenting melancholy, each piece feels exactly like it belongs, because it's all so clearly filtered through the mind and voice of the one-man band responsible for it all.
So when, in the new season, he has some unexpected good fortune with a gorgeous supermodel, it plays not as the sort of wish-fulfillment you often get with comedies about pudgy middle-aged sad sacks, but as a very specifically Louis C.K. interpretation of how things might actually go between them. When he goes to a poker game with his comedian buddies (including Sarah Silverman and Jim Norton), he sits back and lets them deliver the scene's best, filthiest jokes, but it's all clearly building up to a decision Louie will make in the next scene. And when something terrifying happens when he's taking his daughters on the subway, it's still entirely a “Louie” story, because he's at the center of it.
Because he's a polymath who can do all these other jobs, and because he doesn't need any other regular co-stars – recurring characters come and go, sometimes vanishing for years at a time (next week, Robert Kelly makes his first appearance since season 1 as Louie's brother, who was erased from existence in all family scenes in the seasons in between) – C.K. is able to make “Louie” for a fraction of the cost of a typical half-hour cable comedy. In return, FX more or less leaves him alone, with executives often not knowing what an episode is about until they get the final cut. It's a unique deal in the TV business (even Larry David has lots of collaborators whenever he's in the mood to do more “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), and it's allowed C.K. to do some amazing things in the run of the show. Last season, for instance, he began dabbling with multiple episode stories, including a three-parter where he's offered the chance to succeed David Letterman as host of “The Late Show”(*), in what turns into an emotionally overwhelming talk show version of the first “Rocky” film.
(*) In addition to all his other jobs, C.K. can sort of predict the future.
After working so hard on 39 episodes over three seasons, C.K. understandably began to feel burnt out, and asked FX president John Landgraf if he could take a year off to recharge and make sure the new season was done right. Landgraf, one of the smartest executives in the business, understood that the value of having “Louie” is in the quality of it, not the frequency (FX has much bigger hits in both comedy and drama), and gave his blessing.
It's hard to guess what a fourth season would have looked like without the extra time, but the first four episodes of the new season are wonderful in that curious, fascinating, very “Louie” way. We open with a nearly wordless short film about the pitfalls of life in the big city, and it's perfect in the look and sound of it, and the way it seems to ebb into dreamlike territory while also playing out as if this is exactly the way Louie is experiencing things. Episodes toggle back and forth between collections of little vignettes and complete stories, like the shaggy dog tale involving the supermodel, or Louie dealing with the advances of a charming but overweight waitress at his favorite comedy club.
And what stands out is how great C.K. is at all of the jobs he takes on in the show. He's always had a strong visual sense, but he's also turned out to be a terrific director of actors. The model is played by Yvonne Strahovski, and C.K. gets the most relaxed, lively and human performance she may have ever given – and I say that as a big fan of hers from “Chuck.” (Tonight, Strahovski also joins the cast of “24,” and the contrast in performances and styles makes for a very strange and informative double feature.) The waitress is played by Sarah Baker, who usually gets cast as crazy people (she was the cat lady on NBC's short-lived “Go On”), and here she is this incredibly normal, charming, fully-realized character who's able to turn on a dime and become very serious when the story calls for it. (Because C.K. isn't much for story arcs, I'm not counting on her return, but would greatly welcome it.)
As always, “Louie” is funny when it wants to be, touching when it needs to be, and unpredictable always. If anything, the show is slightly less cluttered than before, as the four episodes I've seen do away with the title sequence where Louie emerges from the subway to buy a slice of pizza and do his comedy set, and uses the extra time for either more story – say, Louie and his brother engaging in a culinary exercise that you will absolutely never want to try – or more stand-up.
And after the long time away, FX is giving us as much “Louie” as possible as quickly as possible, with episodes airing back-to-back each Monday. This is no doubt because the channel has recognized that the only show that makes a good companion for “Louie” is more “Louie,” but also because airing them this quickly means that most of them will have aired before this year's Emmy eligibility window closes. So far, “Louie” has only won a couple of Emmys (one for C.K.'s writing in season 2, one for guest star Melissa Leo in season 3), perhaps because the show doesn't neatly fit either the drama or comedy categories. It is entirely its own thing, and it is one of the very best shows on television. We're lucky to have it back.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org