Despite Louis C.K.’s once cultish status as a “comic’s comic,” a TV show following his thinly fictionalized exploits sounds, on paper, like a reasonably commercial idea in this age of the modern vérité sitcom emphasizing the comedy of the awkward. Shows like the dreadful American version of The Office and the merely forgettable Parks and Recreation have drawn huge ratings by inviting audiences to laugh with ironic distance at moronic so-called everymen as they flounder in Hollywood’s version of the modern middle-class work place.
C. K. is so ferociously talented a comedian that he probably could have created a good show by merely pandering to that currently fashionable formula, but the shock of Louie is how it reveals those and other programs to be the condescending mediocrities they truly are. The current American vérité sitcom, which was born from the successes of vastly superior shows such like Seinfeld, the U.K. Office, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, is generally a comedy of checking out, implicatively saying that life’s hopeless and you’re a powerless idiot so tune into the boob tube every week so advertisers will continue to pay producers to wallow in their contempt for you under an occasional chicken-shit veil of compassionate pathos. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm, the series Louie most directly resembles, is a well-written show with occasionally galvanizing satirical undercurrents that nevertheless revels in this contemptuous reduction of people to stereotypical types (yes, that’s partially the point, and yes, creator-star Larry David at least has the stones to be open with his contempt, but it still grows tiresome).
And I get it: Checking out sounds really attractive when you’re living in a culture that rubs its corruption and disregard for you in your face daily, in a culture that instantly reduces human life to another idiotic factoid on the web disguised as an article in an effort to draw in as many consumers as inhumanly possible (as of this writing, the filmmaker Nora Ephron has been dead for less than 24 hours, and I’ve already seen two Top 10 something or others devoted to her in place of any actual consideration of her life or career). In short, it sounds really attractive to get loaded every night while watching hours of television in an effort to brace oneself for the next deadening day of work that will follow.
And that’s precisely the mindset that Louie actively combats. The series follows a sad sack who believes the world is mostly hopeless, but who yearns not to take his existence for granted, without falling into any kind of neat, pompous preaching. Louie, who’s a less successful version of C. K., actively wrestles with his own inclinations to pity himself, and that alone distinguishes the series in a climate that generally glorifies self-pity, often in movies or shows that are showered with awards and critical kudos.
But C. K. doesn’t make the struggle easy for Louie or us. The New York City presented in Louie is an initially jarring departure from the comfy wish-fulfilling apartments on display in Seinfeld or Woody Allen films. This NYC is presented, convincingly, from the point of view of someone who makes five figures or less a year. The apartments are cramped, ugly, and depressing, filled with furniture that may or may not be second- or third-hand. The clothes the people wear are often functional and thrown together. The streets are cluttered and dirty, often occupied by homeless people washing their bellies and ass cracks right in front of us. For an ostensible comedy, though that term reduces a series like this, Louie is often terrifying and heartbreaking yet gloriously dense with life.
Despite his showbiz career (another aspect that’s presented matter-of-factly without glamour), Louie’s a convincing everyman struggling to keep himself emotionally open in the aforementioned setting while also weathering a constant string of disappointments that will ring unsettlingly true to virtually everyone. Every tenant of life—childrearing, dating, sex, employment, friendship, eating—is portrayed as a baffling seriocomic nightmare. Louie’s bravery—and I’m comfortable calling this character brave—lies in his openness to challenge himself and in his refusal to grant himself mercy. Of course, he often takes his aspirations toward nobility too far and that’s usually the source of the show’s comedy, as Louie overthinks everything in the tradition of the intelligent, hyper-conscious artist.
Louie is also possibly the most racially integrated television show ever made, and no fuss is made about it. This show is as naturally integrated as most shows are unnaturally white. And that deepens the theme that serves as Louie’s through line, which is the continued challenge to extend empathy and compassion to another despite whatever easy prejudicial evidence or past experience may suggest. There’s an element of white guilt to all of this, and C. K., clearly conscious of the possibility for white-pandering faux-enlightenment, often scores uncomfortable satirical points on that very possibility. I’m in danger of making Louie sound like a civics lesson, but it’s worth stressing that there’s quite a bit going on underneath the show’s deceptively raw, on-the-fly simplicity. It’s also often a hilarious, exhilaratingly dangerous mixture of the broad, macabre, and political.
The third season gets off to a rocky start (in the season premiere, Louie buys a motorcycle on a whim, with predictable, if well-timed, results), but things pick up in the second episode, which features a startling conversation on oral sexual etiquette, and the third episode, which finds Louie unexpectedly befriending a hunky young Cuban-immigrant lifeguard while performing a gig in Miami. As always, C. K. has feelers for those emotional undercurrents that aren’t often remarked on in popular art, and it’s clear that Louie, who’s put on some more weight since last season, is flattered to be briefly taken into the world of a charismatic young man who genuinely responds to him. Of course, Louie inevitably takes it too far, somewhat corrupting a wonderful moment out of the understandably hungry desire to prolong it.
The first three episodes, in fact, operate as a mini-trilogy of non-communication that stems from the final act of heartbreaking miscommunication that concluded the second season. At the end of the season, Louie walked away from an airport in illusory triumph, under the impression that a friend who he’d been pleading his love to had asked him to wait for her when she was really almost pleading for a proper and conclusive goodbye. In season three, Louie’s reeling from that, and though he’s doing surprisingly and unusually well with the ladies now, he’s suffering from a more pronounced than usual insecurity that occasionally renders him a neurotic near-mute. A girlfriend (wonderfully played by former child-star Gaby Hoffmann) is cornered into ending the relationship after trying and failing to get Louie to own up to the dissatisfaction that’s apparent in his resigned and distant face as he passively-aggressively eats ice cream for lunch. Louie can barely even articulate to his ex-wife (seen on screen for the first time in the series) the embarrassing nature of an incident that leaves him unable to pick up his two girls. And when he’s faced with a rich version of Miami that few tourists bother to discover for themselves, Louie finds himself literally adrift and discombobulated.
Episodes four and five, a two-parter, suggest that Louie may be inspired by his trip to Miami to break out of his internal prison in an effort to find a similarly nurturing sense of home, as they find him engaging in a bizarre and unexpectedly romantic encounter with a bookstore clerk played by Parker Posey. After asking her out in a fashion that will be aped by geeks for years to come (I certainly intend to use a version of it), the two take a walk through New York that reveals the book clerk to be every bit as screwed up and ultimately qualified in her optimism as Louie. This pair of episodes epitomizes the essence of the show’s charm as well as its bracing humanity. Louie often unsentimentally asserts that we aren’t entitled to happiness, and that we’re egotistical creatures to believe otherwise, but that happiness may be attainable if we’re able to shed that very self-entitlement. In this age of the unending search for the instantly disposable gratification, that sentiment comes damn close to being truly profound.