Real creative success is something that has to be won. It isn't a ribbon you get for having just enough noble intent in your heart. If you followed the third season of FX's Louie, you'll know that comedian Louis C.K. passed noble intent a long time ago.
After two seasons of steady brilliance, season three of Louie continued to tread some fantastic dimension where a half-hour television comedy is about real discovery. The stand-up bits about uncomfortable blowjobs and the theoretical upside to pedophilia would never fly on a network show, but you remember the jokes more for their perspective than their lewdness. You can watch Louie and be struck with the sense that its artful handling of moral struggles and carnal impulses requires some deep philosophical reflection. At its best, though, the line between C.K.'s visceral humor and his brooding is hard to define. It's not always obvious what you're laughing about, but you do laugh.
This could be why some of what's been written about Louie just isn't as persuasive as the series itself. To sort through some of the show's critical acclaim is to endure some rather bizarre intellectualizing: Louie, Grand Experimental Work of a Moralist Philosopher Poet Auteur. I'm paraphrasing, but you get the point. The problem with being so convinced of some elusive profundity is that it can make the series seem unnecessarily intimidating. If only Flaubert was known for his diarrhea jokes. As a filmmaker with a sensitive comic mind, C.K. is too interested in people for the hilarious, disgusting, stupid, beautiful creatures they are to condescend to his audience. Louie bears practically no resemblance to some more popular sitcoms, whose set-up-and-blow laugh routines are so measured that you could set a wristwatch by the timing. There are no stereotypes. There are no neatly packaged endings that leave you feeling the same way you did when the episode started. Yet, for the range of material that Louie mines (the adult world of work, parenthood, divorce, dating, sex, race, war), its emotional drift is hardly ambiguous. What can't be denied is that C.K., as a writer, director, and comedian, is pulling off something we're just not used to seeing.
But is there such a thing as too much imagination? Maybe Louie resonates too deeply. What if this tightly produced work is so aesthetically interesting and inventive that we need new ways of thinking about what a television comedy can be? This is a good thing, maybe even a great thing. Interviewing C.K. for his WTF podcast, longtime friend Marc Maron said that you can tell C.K's brilliance by his rare application of will, creativity, and unique vision. This isn't rarefied nonsense. You don't need a graduate degree to recognize that Louie is proving that a television comedy can have a distinct point of view and still uncover things that a diverse audience can really share. It's about execution and response.
Which is to say, there's something at stake here. What made the third season of Louie especially thrilling was how its creative trajectory mirrored the trajectory of C.K.'s real-life career over the past year. His massively successful Live at the Beacon Theatre special, his current stand-up tour, and two recent Emmy wins are evidence that C.K. is playing on a wide field of possibility. Almost a year ago, before most of these things even happened, C.K.'s friend Chris Rock trumped most of the critics when he summarized C.K's success in Rolling Stone, saying, "Louis is the funniest man in America. Everything is clicking. I'm sure Prince felt this way when he did Purple Rain." Nobody, including Rock, could have known how appropriate those words would sound now.
If season two was like C.K's Purple Rain, then season three was his Sign O' the Times. Each episode enlarged the dimensions of Louie's already funny and surreal world, experimenting with narrative continuity and a range of characters. After two seasons, we were finally introduced to Louie's ex-wife, cast as African American, like he forgot that their children are two blond girls. If nothing else, it's an example of the show's matter-of-fact handling of race in urban New York City. Whereas something like 30 Rock deliberately plays with racial stereotypes to expose them, Louie is about exposing people. You get past the incongruity anyway, because it's not important to the broad strokes of C.K's imagination and curiosity. There was the two-part episode, "Daddy's Girlfriend," which could have been a rehashing of the middle-aged-divorced-dad-trying-to-date ineptness he's explored before. Instead, it was a hilarious and haunting story about Louie striking a deep connection with a manic bookshop clerk, embodied uncannily by Parker Posey. Unfolding over one beautifully shot New York City night, we watch this troubled woman beguile Louie beyond reason to try on a dress, pay for a homeless dude's psychiatric meds and put him up in a hotel for one night, and discover some amazing deli food. The date ends when she sneaks Louie to the rooftop edge of a high-rise building to talk about what it would feel like if she jumped off, before finally telling him her name is Liz. The palpitations and release are eerily mind-blowing.
The episode "Miami," where Louie strikes a friendship with a young lifeguard named Ramon while in Florida for a stand-up gig, was another standout. After a series of heightened, shirtless encounters at the beach, another one at the hotel bar, and an impromptu night of partying with Ramon's family and friends, Louie decides to stay in Miami longer just to hang out with this guy. However you choose to interpret the awkward hotel bar conversation between the two men during Louie's final night in the city, the episode is a deeply fascinating exploration of a non-homosexual yet ill-defined male friendship.
Then there was the "Dad" episode. An unexpected appearance by his uncle Excelsior (a spot-on F. Murray Abraham) visiting from Mexico compels Louie with, of all things, a metaphor about fucking without a condom, to reconnect with his estranged dad in Boston. While we never learn the basis of their discord, the story acutely tunes into the dread of confrontation, from the physiological symptoms to the absurd lengths a man will go to escape it. The last shots showing Louie laughing alone on a boat, presumably somewhere in Boston Harbor, end the episode with more nerve and honesty than any hackneyed father-son reconciliation there might have been.
In their execution of humor, emotional complexity, and vision, each of these episodes is evidence that when it's awake to its real potential, a half-hour sitcom can be a cultural meeting point worth caring about. Along with everybody else who's locked in, you suspect that what you could be witnessing is a history of American comedy fold over onto itself and turn into its future. For better or worse, C.K. is too self-aware to not understand what he's taken on. At some point even the most nimble creative minds will hit a wall.
As if to show us that he knows this is a real possibility, C.K. dramatized it into the riskiest episode of the season, a three-parter called "Late Show." After Louie's appearance on The Tonight Show goes viral, he's summoned by the chairman of CBS (Garry Marshall) to talk about the possibility of taking over as host of the The Late Show. As moments like this happen on Louie, you wait patiently for the punchline. Then, of course, the tone shifts. Like the sky has opened and the chairman is Fate, Louie is told in no uncertain terms that this is the defining moment of his career. He can take his shot in the big game of show business, knowing the odds are against him, or he can come to terms with the future of his comedy career, what the chairman portentously calls a "circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit." A tight shot of Louie's face, buckling with dread, tells us this is actually not a joke.
The second and third parts of "Late Show" are then constructed as a quietly dramatic war for late night. Louie is pitted against fellow contenders Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, playing themselves but against type, who are also gunning for the job. But it's the genius casting of director David Lynch as an old-guard television producer named Jack Dall that gives the story its unlikely comic center. Dall's task is to train Louie and get him camera-ready for America: "You need a suit, a tie, and some Brylcreem!" With Lynch as a comedic foil, we're free to watch Louie convincingly dig through fear, doubt, and ambition. As a director, C.K balances a deeply personal story with complicated emotional moments, Rocky references, and Lynchian menace, and somehow it works.
That Louie doesn't get the job and all of this turns out to be an elaborate network plot to broker a new deal with David Letterman isn't the point. On one level, it's a brilliant comment on American television as a corporate institution and a strong assertion of where C.K. sees himself in it. But for a character who can never get out of his own way, it's a turning point. Louie knows what he's capable of. In the final scene, he stands alone outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, gazing at the Late Show sign. The scene builds from one continuous shot, starting on Louie's ruminative face, panning to the sign, and back. His face turns to a smile and then he gleefully shouts, "Hey, Letterman! I did it! Letterman! Fuck you!" And he walks away.
The closer Louie gets to its own limits, those limits expand a little more. That C.K. successfully negotiated for an extended hiatus between now and the next season, which won't air until spring 2014, tells us he knows how much those ambitions are worth. The future of television comedy is already looking better for what Louie has achieved. Whatever season four could possibly entail, hopefully it won't be just enough noble intent. C.K. passed that a long time ago.