I’ve already written several thousand words on Louis C.K.’s not-quite-autobiographical, not-quite-sitcom Louie, and I still feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of what he’s up to. The program follows only one, simple rule: Each episode’s design is exactly what its writer-director says it is, and in each case that writer-director is C. K. himself. As it was stipulated in his agreement with FX, the comedian has total control, and very few, if any, real obligations to his distributor. There are a million and one ways this arrangement could have turned sour. Happily, the agreement—which more than one critic has compared to Orson Welles’s blank check deal with RKO in 1939—has resulted in two seasons (going on three) of spectacularly original television, albeit on a consistently small, intimate scale befitting a one-man band.
The second season of Louie clearly indicates an increase in confidence on C. K. part; it has little of the lumpy, training-wheels quality that made some parts of the first season feel slightly awkward and inhibited. What remains is a commitment to keeping the viewer always on guard, as if every episode was designed to make a striking first impression. This is no less true than with the season’s kick-off, “Pregnant,” a stunning 22 minutes that seems to illustrate—and defy—the show’s basic pattern: an easygoing, meandering opening that becomes, in a flash, a completely different story, one that reveals a great deal about the eponymous protagonist, his character, and his shortcomings. With equal ease, the episode’s punchline, regardless of whether it succeeds in getting a laugh (your chances are about 50-50), works as another reorienting slap to the viewer’s face.
The second season, like the first, exhibits a constant tension between C. K.’s self-discipline as a storyteller, and his freedom as a creator. There’s no way to tell where a single story arc will take you, judging by the first few minutes. “Moving” exemplifies this, as the script at first seems like a cookie-cutter riff on the hassle of Big Apple apartment-hunting (which itself is pretty rich with wordless observation and mini bits of surreal comedy), but ends up being about the character’s futile pipe dream of actually being able to afford the perfect home to raise his daughters. There’s the man’s object of desire, there’s his total inadequacy in terms of acquiring it, and that’s all—but ah, there’s still the desire.
His (or “his”) commitment, in that way, seems also to be to the relentless tension between criticizing the world around him in one movement, himself in the other. The latter segment of “Oh, Louie/Tickets” sets him up as an adversary to Dane Cook, in a scene that’s energized by the real tension between the two professional comics. The verisimilitude of the exchange is less important, however, than its comprehensiveness, and the follow-up gag, which humiliates the creator once more. C. K.’s refusal to valorize his character—or, on the other hand, to push him into a sewer of self-pity—enriches many of the season’s best episodes, such as “Pamela,” with its out-of-leftfield, crazily moving declaration of love, or “Come on, God,” an exploration of male masturbation that so doggedly avoids going where you think it’s going to go, it’s no wonder its thesis concerns the denial of pleasure for the sake of greater things.
“Duckling,” easily the most ambitious of the lot, is the only one that feels like less than it should have been, though it, too, is full of indelible, amazing things, such as the comedian’s very authentic reaction when he thinks his helicopter is going to crash, or the way he handles the smallest possible comedy club on the Asian continent. Twice the length of the other episodes, and filmed with the cooperation of United States Armed Forces, “Duckling” needed to be the masterpiece of the season, but I would sooner hang that honor on “Pregnant,” “Moving,” the second half of “Bummer/Blueberries,” or the scene in the park in “Subway/Pamela.” However you rank them, or if you would opt out of such a vulgar exercise, C. K. continues to amaze as he takes the most rudimentary film-school mandate (here’s your tiny budget, do whatever), and creates some of the most original “films” to be seen anywhere.
Louis C.K.’s control extends to the show’s look and sound; up until the present season, he edited the show himself, and the first season’s cinematographer (Paul Koestner) isn’t listed on the title cards, presumably because the writer-director-star has taken those reins, as well. At any rate, unlike some of FX’s other comedic offerings, Louie has a very unique and pleasing visual quality, reminiscent of Gordon Willis’s work in the ’70s Gordon Willis (Annie Hall in particular). You’ll remember a lot of this season as being shot at night, from the shadowy side streets of Greenwich Village, to the boondocks of moneyed New Jersey. But there’s also the bright overcast of the park scene where Louie pitches woo to the indifferent but charmed Pamela, or the sunny hills of California and Texas that are used to fake Afghanistan in "Duckling." Fox’s HD transfer of Louie is consistently sharp and clear, as is the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack, which covers a surprising range of artificial and realistic sound fields.
Light, but quality. The guest of honor laid down a few commentary tracks, which are very good, but there are no other supplements, except for a promo featurette from Fox Movie Channel.
Simply the best television of 2011, presented on two gorgeous Blu-ray discs, courtesy 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.