Has it really been 20 months since Louie, a strong contender for the greatest show currently on TV (half-hour meta-comedy about a stand-up that runs on FX division) graced our airwaves? How time flies when you're busy watching long-running sitcoms disappoint their fans with so-so finales and chemistry teachers-turned-drug lords go out in a blaze of glory. The return of Renaissance man Louis C.K.'s brilliant, Beckett-like series is a cause for celebration, and as the back-to-back episodes that kicked off its fourth season last night confirmed, the time off has paid off, writing-wise and everything-else-wise, in spades. Here are five takeaways from the first two offerings.
Things have not improved for "Louie" since we saw him last.
As Rob Sheffield pointed out in his most recent column on the show, there's a big difference between Louis — the man who writes, directs, edits and stars in his own TV show, and is widely considered to be the premier stand-up comic working today — and "Louie," his sad-sack fictional alter ego. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone begging for a half-hour comedy every week about a wildly successful, borderline workaholic comedian being showered in accolades (the world doesn't necessarily need a cross between Entourage and Extras), but the rise in C.K.'s stock seems to inspired a proportionate downward plunge for the character.
In the first premiere episode, "Back," Louie is rudely awakened, told that he's messed up a horrific Pinocchio joke, is informed that his kids "suck," is bearted by said allegedly sucky kids, violently throws out his back and is given exactly zero percent help from a doctor (viva Charles Grodin!) on how to fix it. In the second, "Model," victory seems to follow personal and professional humiliation when a beautiful woman takes him back to her place after an East Hamptons gig; suffice to say, that does not end well either. Most people say that comedy is tragedy plus time. In Louie's world, that gap can be measured in nanoseconds.
It's possible to milk an AIDS joke for non-exploitive moment.
Nestled somewhere between Holocaust jokes and prison-rape jokes on the go-to comic taboo-shockometer, cracks about a diseases that has killed roughly 36 million people and has decimated communities and regions have long been low hanging fruit for stand-up comics to score easy aren't-I-so-edgy points. In "Back," however, C.K. employs one during a scene with his daughters that somehow works wonders without making you feel the need for a steel-wool shower afterwards. Helping his older kid with her homework, Louie is informed that her assignment is to write a letter to AIDS. It's just the sort of ridiculous, realistically WTF school essay that should make many a Park Slope parent do a spit-take with their evening glass of Syrah, and Louie immediately goes into mockery mode: "Dear AIDS, please cut it out. How are things in AIDS-land?" To which his daughter replies: "Come on, Dad, that's not funny. This is serious." The joke is not an attempt to land easy points by using the disease itself as a flippant or hurtful punchline. Instead, C.K. uses it as a zing against touchy-feely ways of teaching current events to kids (a letter to AIDS?!?) and a rather poignant way of underling Louie's inability to do something as simple as connect with his child or help her with her homework. Kudos.
Men like vibrators.
Louie fans love to point to the poker game sequence from Season One as a show highlight, so the reprise of comedians sitting around the card table, shooting ths shit, inspired the same feeling you get when your favorite band launches into the first chords of your favorite song in concert. This time, instead of quizzing Rick Crom about gay sex, the stand-ups begin discussing masturbation — specifically, Jim Norton's use of a vibrator when he's getting off. No, he claims not to use it the way you'd assume; yes, it invotes the affectionate ribbing of his fellow comedians, including Sara Silverman. In the next scene, Louie decides to stop by a sex shop to browse for his own little friend, leading to an immortal throwaway line from a clerk — "Who the hell restocked these cock rings?" — and the set-up for the first episode's wonderful climactic sight gig. The pun was unintended.
Few Shows Capture What It Feels Like to Live in New York Better Than 'Louie'
Lots of movies and TV shows use New York City as a backdrop or, occasionally, even as a character. But no show — not even Girls — captures what it's like to live day-to-day in this teeming, crowded metropolis than Louie. The first episode of the new season opens with a brilliant set piece in which a slumbering Louie tries to drown out the sound of garbagemen on the street outside his window. Soon, the sanitation workers are literally bursting through his window, smashing things left and right, banging their metal lids together and driving Louie from his tiny apartment. An exchange about a dirty joke with his building's super will be familiar to any Gotham resident; a café dweller on his phone robotically runs into Louie and keeps walking forward, like a wind-up toy who's encountered a wall. (In what is arguably the show's best visual gag to date, Louie gently resets the walker's path without stopping his conversation and sends the guy on his way.) It's an absurd version of the Big Apple circa 2014 that feels spot on. If we didn't like Louie's theme so much, we'd suggest the show replace the opening music with this song.
Louie Is the Most Cinematic Show on TV.
Oh, surely this can't be right, you say. What about the moody, movie-star-filled vistas of True Detective, or the apocalpytic Romero-on-steroids scope of The Walking Dead? Those shows borrow the scale we associate with movies, definitely. But the genius of Louie is partially in the way C.K. has borrowed the rhythms and tone of filmmaking, specifically the Sixities explosion of European art-house flicks and the Seventies' glory days of American movies, and grafted them on to a show that also works as TV.
Even if you haven't seen the comedian's shorts from the late Eighties and mid-Nineties, you probably picked up on the fact that he's a fan of guys like Fellini, Buñuel and Woody Allen. (His use of Allen's editor, the great Susan E. Morse, last season gave some of his the series' most on-point episodes.) Both of the premiere episodes are full of what you can only call cinematic flourishes, and position this show, intentionally or not, as a bridge between two mediums. In the next few episodes, you'll see a lengthy, one-shot monologue and a scene that might best be described as every parent's nightmare — one of them, anyway — that wouldn't feel out of place in a feature film at all. That these ambitious, ellipitcal, tangential, oft-kilter and incredibly affecting sequences don't feel out of place on a half-hour show either is a testament to why Louie feels so unique. It's not television and it's not the movies. It's just Louie.