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October 10, 2015

'Louie' Makes the Leap to Greatness in Its Essential Second Season

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 7th 2011 1:45PM
It's not often that a show gets me to think differently about the possibilities of television. But that's just one of the side bonuses of the brilliant season of 'Louie' (10:30PM ET Thursday, FX) that concludes this week.

Generally speaking, I'm predisposed to like mythology, the meatier the better. But 'Louie' doesn't feature characters traveling along a particular timeline and doesn't develop interlocking stories over the course of a season. This increasingly assured comedy takes a few ideas and examines them from a variety of angles with a thoughtful blend of rigor, humor and innocence.

Yes, innocence. Sure, 'Louie' devotes large amounts of screen time to topics like masturbation, awful sex and self-loathing, but there's something innately winning about Louis C.K.'s dedication to the truth of a situation, no matter how strange or squirm-inducing. And in terms of craft, 'Louie' has proven in recent weeks that its creator, Emmy nominee Louis C.K., has an incredibly astute grasp of how stories work, how to pace them and what makes them interesting.

He can take a slight story, like trick-or-treating after dark with his daughters, and make it into a suspenseful little slice of life. "What's this particular vignette going to be about?" I wondered as I watched the episode. Will it be about the fact that his daughter is wearing blackface? Will it be about them getting mugged by costumed weirdos? Will it be about the way his young daughter gave the weirdos a stern talking-to? Or the way Louie resolved the situation by breaking a window, which launched the burglar alarm that finally chased off the attackers? It was about all those things; it was a tense, deft short story that made a lasting impression over the course of 10 minutes.

The episode in which Louie met an old comedy buddy who was considering suicide took up a whole episode; that felt like an incisive, affecting one-act play. We instantly got a sense of how abrasive, depressed and funny Eddie was, and a good portion of the episode depicted Louie and Eddie standing on the street and talking about whether the broken-down comic would kill himself. Louie took the idea of Eddie committing suicide seriously, just as he gave the beliefs of an anti-masturbation activist their due a couple of weeks earlier. If nothing else, the show is a testament to the idea that taking others and their ideas seriously can lead to not just pathos but profoundly bittersweet comedy.

Of course, 'Louie' isn't really a comedy in the usual sense, but, as with 'Breaking Bad's' deployment of comic-relief lawyer Saul Goodman, the FX show knows exactly when to break out Louie's standup bits to lighten the mood. They were perfectly used in the season's best episode, 'Duckling,' a phenomenal hourlong episode that found the comedian on a U.S.O. tour in Afghanistan. 'Duckling' was proof that 'Louie' can expand its signature style to embrace bigger ideas but doesn't lose any of its disciplined habits in the process.

Normally I'd have a great desire to interview the creator of a show this good (and no doubt there will be several worthy interviews that appear as the show's second season draws to a close). But I honestly don't know what I'd ask Louie C.K. in an interview: It's so clear that the contents of his brain are on the screen.

What was it like to work in the film industry? That was decisively (and amusingly) answered when he met a bored movie executive in 'Ellie.' What's it like dating after divorce? Consult the painfully funny 'Blueberries.' What was it like when he met Joan Rivers? 'Joan' told us. What was it like when he went on a U.S.O. tour? See 'Duckling.'

One of the basic dictums of writing is, 'Show, don't tell,' but programs with a narrative destination and/or storytelling baggage have to keep reminding us of what happened, who it happened to and when it happened. Of course that can be deeply satisfying, but the stories in 'Louie' don't have to serve those kinds of functions, and the resulting nimbleness and variety are true joys.

I spent part of the show's first season wondering why Louie wasn't one of those shows that took the lead character on a particular journey and had episodes build on each other. But now I see why this approach is so much better for this show. Themes and ideas recur, not people or events. A few characters are seen repeatedly, but by not having to carry plots from episode to episode, 'Louie' can do what it does best: Take a topic -- say, Louie in Afghanistan -- and tells us exactly what he thought was interesting or important or funny about that.

I remain extremely impressed at how the show knew when to divert attention from Louie in the episode, and how it cleanly and even sweetly it underscored ideas that could have easily become infected with cheap sentiment. Louie did no flag-waving of his own, but Keni Thomas' song about the Vietnam Memorial said everything that needed to be said about the sacrifices of soldiers serving in that conflict or any other. The song, as sung with conviction by Thomas, was literally the right note to strike.

As a whole, the episode was masterfully paced, building from Louie's lame attempts to chat up a cheerleader to a situation where his life was plausibly in danger. And every so often, 'Duckling' offered up a dose of Louie's standup, which was exactly the sort of stuff the soldiers wanted to hear and which was amusing on the most basic and enjoyable levels.

As for the duckling itself, would one have really survived the journey to Afghanistan and a seemingly rough ride in Louie's backpack? Shows that earn as much trust as 'Louie' does every week don't have to worry much about plausibility issues like that, quite honestly. We know 'Louie' is so devoted to finding connections and moments that feel real (even in when things get surreal, as they did in the apartment-hunting episode) that we can let that kind of thing slide with an amused grin.

The duckling was obviously a symbol of how precious and vulnerable life is -- Louie's life, the soldiers' lives, the life of 'Restrepo' director Tim Hetherington, to whom the episode was dedicated. But the duckling wasn't just a symbol; his appearance also neatly resolved the fraught situation between the soldiers and the local Afghans. It was a simple idea -- comic relief to the rescue -- beautifully executed.

'Louie' can be bitter at times, sure (though bemused seems to be Louie C.K.'s default setting), but it's clear that underneath his questioning intelligence is a compassionate -- if confused -- heart. The way the show is able to evoke emotions without manipulation is impressive, to say the least. 'Louie' finds universal truths and humor in individual dilemmas by deploying sincerity and intelligence in service of whatever happens to be passing through Louie C.K.'s brain at that time.

And the stories are artfully constructed; the show could lapse into self-indulgence if they were not. 'Louie's' measured yet fluid pacing and its patient examination of hypocrisy reminds me of 'Breaking Bad,' and the way the characters on 'Louie' react to things the way real human beings would, rather than the way most TV characters would, reminds me of 'Friday Night Lights.' Despite its smaller scale and narrower focus, 'Louie' manages to be just as sincere, at times, as 'FNL' (and Louis C.K.'s understated acting is worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as that Texas-set show).

I could go on referencing other TV classics all day, but the truth is, Louie C.K. has created something all his own here. I don't know what to call it, but I know it's very, very good.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Thanks for this review. This season of Louie has been great art. Reassuring in a troubled world. Louis C K is fearless in his honesty, especially about himself, moving in his love of humanity, warts and all.

September 07 2011 at 10:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

great episode sure emmy winner louie and curb the best to comedys on tv.

September 07 2011 at 2:48 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Zaviar Wun

Best show on TV this year. Even better than Breaking Bad's fourth season, which is about the highest praise I can give it.

September 07 2011 at 2:31 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mel hill

Great season but how many sisters does Louis C.K. have???
Of course, Rusty was the best of the bunch!

September 07 2011 at 2:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hey Mo,
Great write up about a great show. Normally I can't watch a show like Louie because I am easily embarrassed (looking at you Curb), but this show is so well done that I can push through the uncomfortable situations and just enjoy what Louis is doing.

September 07 2011 at 2:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
robin m

Couldn't agree more. I have been a fan of Louis CK for a long time (so I acknowledge a bias), but it's hard to imagine me enjoying a TV show more than I do this one. It is just great, week after week.

September 07 2011 at 2:03 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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