Sunday, May 11, 2014

After a 19-month hiatus, Louie is still unlike any other TV show, and better than almost all of them

It's understandable if for a while, you forgot that Louie existed.  After all, the last episode of season three aired on September 27, 2012 -- eons ago in the TV world.  On top of that, it decided to take a break during a year where there was a surfeit of good television, so it was easy for that loss not to be felt.  But now that it's back for a 14-episode fourth season, it's very clear that we were missing an important piece of television.  During its first three years, the show was celebrated as a sui generis marvel, delivering stories with a level of experimentation and depth seen in few other corners of the television landscape.  With a program like Community, you never know what kind of genre riff you're going to get from week to week, but with Louie it feels like a different show each episode.  It's as if FX just let him tell whatever kinds of stories he feels like telling on a given day, and the result is a serious of shorts that range from absurd hilarity, to profound beauty, to soul-crushing despair.

This year, FX has decided to air two episodes every Monday, the first of those being "Back" this past week.  Though named after the random back pain Louie is afflicted with, the episode also serves as a nice reintroduction to the show's worldview and internal logic.  It opens with a stand-up bit about Louie realizing that he had thought he was turning 45 on his 46th birthday, and when a friend corrected him, he recalled feeling liked he aged two years at once.  The story is an example of Louis C.K.'s gift as an observer, able to take slices of life and turn them into something funny and achingly real.  "Back" then transitions to show another one of Louie's best qualities: its delightful surreal humor.  Trash men come to pick up the garbage in front of C.K.'s apartment, and the amount of noise they make reaches an absurd level, to the point where they literally break through his window and start banging cans together in his bedroom.  Later in the episode, we also see the return of Louie's daughters (Hadley Delaney and Ursula Parker, two of television's very best child actors), along with a scene of Louie playing poker with many of the comedians we've seen pop up over the last three seasons.

At first, "Back" feels a little shaggy, nothing more than Louie going about his day, ambling from one place to another.  But it's actually held together by its themes of pain and aging, two ideas that pop up endlessly on the show.  All of the stand-up bits that run throughout the episode are about getting old and tired: Aging twice in one year, being so tired you could sleep all day, 31 feeling old until you hit 46 and realize what old really is.  When he goes to the doctor after hurting his back in the middle of the episode, the doctor tells him that there's no cure.  It's a bit of absurdity that actually highlights the show's ethos.  Pain is just something that happens; we all have to endure it.  The last bit of stand-up shows Louie talking about how life moves on even when you die ("For one, there's a Super Bowl that happens every year.").  To him, and by extension, the show, happiness and comfort are hard won.  The best you can do is eek out a little bit of joy while you can.

"Model," the second episode, structures itself around its two guest actors.  The first of them is Jerry Seinfeld, who offers Louie an opening gig at a benefit for heart disease in the Hamptons.  Seinfeld appears in a way that almost seems magical, popping into frame to place this fantastic opportunity on Louie's lap after he fails miserably while trying to pick up women at a bar.  As is the natural order on this show, things go wrong almost immediately, as he arrives at the benefit and realizes he's woefully under-dressed.  Things get even worse from there when he has to go on stage and absolutely bombs, due to his inability to read the room.  His jokes about the rich basically being slave owners is the last thing to talk about in a room full of trillionaires ("There are trillionaires now?," asks Louie.  "Yes," says Seinfeld), and only generates one laugh from the crowd.

But this episode is all about the interesting chain of events that causes successes and failures to bleed into one another.  Just like Louie's failure to flirt with women at the bar leads to the opportunity to open for Seinfeld, his bombing at the benefit leads him to meeting the one woman who was laughing in the crowd (played by Yvonne Strahovski).  She's everything that a guy like him would dream of having, but could never get: blonde, skinny, rich, mysterious, a model, she laughs at your jokes, and is willing to have sex with you.  Strahovski's performance is the best she's ever given, warm and relaxed in a way that makes her character seem approachable but unattainable at the same time.  Like his arrival at the benefit, Louie stumbles as soon as he enters her world, this time literally slipping on her floor when he walks in.  The whole time, as she takes him for a ride in her fancy car and invites him into her lavish house, we're expecting the other shoe to drop.  And it eventually does.  After a session of improbable-for-him sex, this dream woman starts tickling Louie, and he accidentally knocks her out cold.  It's almost as if the episode sets up this fantasy and then punishes him for having the fantasy in the first place.

He takes her to the hospital and calls Seinfeld for help, only for Seinfeld to wash his hands of the whole ordeal and do nothing more than recommend Louie a lawyer.  The lawyer informs him that the model's family plans to sue him for a million dollars, money that he could never dream of having.  Even though they're rich and he's poor, the lawyer tells him that's just the way things have to be.  Much like the back pain in "Back," he's just going to have to deal with it.  What makes the show so special though, and what saves it from just being surreal misery porn, is that it doesn't end things there.  Instead, it concludes with Louie getting some sympathy from one of the women at the bar who rejected him earlier, after she hears his story.  The cycle of success and failures continues on.

Both of these episodes do that wonderful Louie thing where they just wash over you, leaving you with this mixture of exhilaration and melancholy.  It's a feeling that it makes it optimal to view the show in isolation, which initially made me worried about two episodes being aired back-to-back, but "Back" and "Model" show two different sides of Louie and they mix well together.  Though they tell different stories and have different tones, both episodes arrive at the same conclusion, one that drives the entire show: Life is unfair...but you do what you can.  It's great to be reminded of that.

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