Out of the Comfort Zone with Louie

During this season’s special, extra-long Louie episode, “In the Woods,” Jeff Davis, a drug dealer played by guest star Jeremy Renner, attempts to give his ailing cat eye drops in a humourous and touching scene, whereafter he snuggles and kisses the cat; its light touch and sweetness makes the scene a short while later, wherein Davis physically threatens young Louie (played wonderfully by Devin Druid) to deal with his “man shit mess,” all the more frightening.

Such a jarring tonal shift just about sums up this season of Louie, the FX series created and starring comedian Louis C.K.; touching at times, absurd and verging on surreal, never willing to let us get entirely too comfortable. Lack of comfort is a subject that many comedians explore, but for Louis C.K. it isn’t played for shock value or mere button pushing (though in the season four episode “Pamela: Part 2”, he hilariously has a piece of modern art literally provoke patrons upon the push of a button). In his TV series, which I decline to label a comedy series since this latest season has gone a long way to dismantle such a simple description, a sense of comfort is usually a sign that either one’s perceptions are wrong or that the other shoe is about to drop.

Louie season four has also pushed beyond the comfort zone of what we can safely contain under the definition of television. FX, the channel that airs Louie on Monday evenings, has given Louis C.K. pretty much free rein to explore different kinds of serial storytelling this year, expanding on the possibilities of season three’s three-part episode, “Late Show,” and almost completely abandoning the vignette and sketch work of the show’s early episodes. It’s almost as if Louis (Note: I use “Louie” to refer to the show title and main character, and “Louis” to refer to the actual person of Louis C.K.) got too comfortable with the format and decided to push against the boundaries of what he had created. FX’s decision to show two episodes per air date certainly helps the show move beyond what would normally be possible in the 22-minutes of a standard half-hour scheduling slot.

After three solid one-off episodes, the remainder of season four is comprised almost entirely of a series of short films: the six-parter, “Elevator” the extra-long two-parter I alluded to above, “In the Woods,” and the three-part, “Pamela,” which really continues ideas and characters from “Elevator” and is interrupted after one episode by “In the Woods.” “In the Woods” is even closer to a short film. It’s designated as two episodes of the season, but FX ran it over a single hour-and-a-half time slot, with an actual runtime of over an hour. Thus, despite the conventions of 30-minute time slots and weekly air dates, Louie season four is really something more. I would argue it is maybe some of the best filmmaking being done today, regardless of whether it reaches its audience in weekly installments or in a theatrical setting.

One of the reasons that Louie fans such as myself tend to make the claim of cinematic status for the show is the remarkable level of artistic control that Louis C.K. is given over the show. In addition to writing and starring in the show, Louis also directs the show and supervises the editing and all other technical aspects. This challenges the normative television model of a show-runner overseeing a team of writers and directors as hired guns (though prestige shows such as True Detective have had sole writers and even Game of Thrones has moved toward having singular writing teams guiding the stories). Instead, Louie is more like an independent movie. The scale has remained at a level that Louis can actually have input at every level of the production. One is tempted to compare Louis’s show to the cinematic output of Woody Allen: personal stories, humour, and some existential musings, all produced under a single artistic vision. The difference is that Louis’s production so far has been more consistent in vision and output than Woody’s hit-and-miss yearly output. I say this with a great deal of affection for Woody’s work, but Louie is something else.

And the way that Louis controls all aspects of the production is definitely germane to the way he approaches his subject matter. The kinds of issues that Louie touches on—I don’t want to say “tackles,” as that suggests that Louie is interested in some kind of didactic message, and I don’t think it is—are the kind that are definitely attention grabbing and uncomfortable, to use that word again: fat girls, the privilege of the rich, drug use, communication in relationships and family, date rape. Dealing with those subjects could come across as haranguing and finger-wagging, yet Louis deals with them simultaneously making you feel you’ve engaged with the ideas in a substantive way while never masking the personal and surreal aspects of everyday life. The lack of comfort that Louie creates isn’t alienating, but instead makes us realize how insane our day to day world is.

To come back to how the structure of the show revels in a complex interactions of ideas, take how the narrative order of the show affects the viewer’s understanding. “Elevator” has Louie going through a sweet relationship with his Hungarian neighbour’s niece, whom he cannot communicate with since she only speaks Hungarian. In the follow-up episode, “Pamela: Part. 1,” after going on a date with Pamela, he attempts and fails to force himself on her, in what is essentially an attempted “date-rape.” It’s a hugely discomforting sequence, not only because we’ve been conditioned in the previous story to take Louie as essentially a good guy. It doesn’t square with what we expect from our protagonist. It also isn’t a “teachable” moment about how fundamentally screwed up our society’s dating and sexual mores are (though it kind of is that too) but it comes out of a totally honest portrayal of what even a person who sees himself as good is capable of.

That kind of complexity returns in the aforementioned “In the Woods” sequence when Jeff Davis threatens young Louie. It’s a wonderful portrayal of complexity, fleshed out in only a minimum of narrative action, but it speaks so much. “In the Woods,” which could be the greatest episode of Freaks & Geeks never made, with a touch of David O. Russell’s screwball antics for good measure, manages to both touch and break your heart in the space of just over an hour. I can’t stop praising Skip Sudduth’s performance as Mr. Hoffman (the episode is dedicated to Philip Seymour). Louie’s subsequent betrayal of him is one of the saddest parts of the episode.

Some people may find Louie’s fourth season a bit uneven after the nearly perfect third season, but I would argue that the way that it pushes us out of our comfort zone in terms of both what we expect from personally-based humour and the borders between television and auteur-based cinema makes it perhaps the most valuable show we have on television today.

Louie (FX)

Created by Louie C.K.; starring Louis C.K., Pamela Adlon, Hadley Delany, Ursala Parker, Susan Kelechi Watson, Eszter Balint, Ellen Burstyn, Jerry Seinfield, Charles Grodin.