Possibly a wry acknowledgment of Louie’s return after a year-and-a-half hiatus, the title of the season-four premiere, “Back,” principally refers to the pulled muscle that hampers Louie (Louis C.K.) halfway through the episode, the latest in the show’s unending humiliations heaped upon its mastermind. True to C.K.’s extreme self-deprecation, Louie injures himself doing nothing more strenuous than pointing at a sex toy he wishes to buy out of curiosity. The midlife anxiety that pervades the series has manifested in grander crises of confidence in the past, but this may be the most scathing assessment yet of Louie getting old.
Then again, maybe age isn’t the problem. As with most episodes in the series, “Back” establishes its theme with a preliminary chunk of stand-up. Performing at his Comedy Cellar haunt, Louie relates thinking he was 44 until his perceived 45th birthday arrived and a friend told him he was actually 46. Louie then bemoans aging two years “in, like, a minute,” but that in itself suggests that he doesn’t dwell on his age until actively reminded of it. That twist on clichéd midlife concerns finds its fullest expression when Louie collapses on a sidewalk after fleeing the sex shop, only to receive aid from a much older woman, who not only confidently flags a taxi for him, but even helps him to his feet. Louie specializes in these kinds of encounters, in which expectations aren’t so much reversed as dissipated by a broad spectrum of possibility, bringing C.K.’s strange scenarios closer to reality.
Naturally, that only makes the show’s episodes even more bizarre by the standards of TV sitcoms, and at times the series can be downright surreal when it slips from naturalism to farce. Typically, these shifts make literal the exaggerated observations of comedians, extrapolating from a punchline to reorganize the real world into the straw-man absurdity that they make of it. “Back” follows up the stand-up intro with Louie asleep in his apartment as garbage men pull up outside, whereupon they commence to make as much noise as humanly possible, slamming metal garbage cans with abandon. The already heightened situation turns ridiculous when the DSNY workers break into Louie’s room and continue to bash lids together like toddlers. No dialogue is spoken, but the scene plays out like a hack comic’s “Ya ever notice?” joke come to life, the minor inconvenience of being woken up by someone else just doing their job amplified into a full-scale invasion of the Last Sane Man’s personal space.
It’s a gag obliquely picked up in the second episode, “Model,” when Jerry Seinfeld taps Louie to open for him at a charity function on the condition that he perform clean material. If the garbage scene in the premiere pokes fun at the way comedians must erect elaborate fantasies out of the banal to make it funny, the difficulty that Louie has in coming up with inoffensive, traditional jokes speaks to how hard that seemingly easy task can be. Sitting on a bus headed to the event, he takes out a pad to jot down ideas for clean comedy, finally etching the profound observation “Chickens are dumb” on the paper.
Sure enough, Louie bombs horribly, prompting Jerry to swoop in and salvage the proceedings, mostly at Louie’s expense. Yet if Louie regularly probes the psychology behind stand-up comedy, it also periodically takes the time to appreciate the art of the work. Though insert shots show Louie backstage sinking from embarrassment, the rest of the scene mostly stays focused on Jerry, appreciative of the decades of honed skill and timing he brings to elevate a flip insult or a dull setup like a golf joke. The same affection and admiration extends to the poker scene in “Back,” where Louie and a group of comedians talk honestly about their kinks and just generally try to make the others laugh. The poker games on Louie show comics relaxing, only to demonstrate that even when not on stage, they’re always performing for someone, working as hard to crack up their colleagues as their audiences. It’s times like these, around other comics, that the show best articulates its ineffable draw, illustrating that Louie is not so much a series of short films that display how C.K. constructs his act, but a collection of observations that suggest that no line between a comic’s life and performance truly exists.
Sometimes, though, that lack of distinction, where everything is both the impetus for comedy and an outgrowth of it, can rob an action of a clear purpose. That issue affects the second half of “Model,” after an audience member at the charity event (Yvonne Strahovski) who loved Louie’s set for its train-wreck quality takes him back to her seaside home to have sex, only to inadvertently get injured when she playfully tickles Louie and he reflexively jerks and punches her in the face. Louie has covered provocative sexual material before, from a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope to a depiction of male rape. In those instances, the series balanced pitch-black humor with thoughtfulness. Here, however, Louie’s unwitting assault is played simply as a macabre joke, and not since Louie reduced his mother to tears in the first season has the series flirted with such pointless cruelty. This could have been ameliorated by a stronger focus on Louie’s mortified embarrassment, but an extended riff on him being sued by the woman’s wealthy family derails any morbid humor by turning Louie into a victim of circumstance and not a grimly clumsy buffoon.
The whiffed conclusion of the second episode taints what’s otherwise a strong showcase for C.K. He continues to grow more confident as a performer, slipping into his character’s incessant discomfort with more and more believability, and at this point he comes second only to Michelle MacLaren as the most consistently rewarding director on television. C.K. has a gift for unfussy but carefully controlled (and funny) suggestive compositions and mise-en-scène, like Louie shuffling into the sex shop in “Back” wearing a dark blue shirt and a black cap with the brim pulled low, an attempt to be inconspicuous that backfires when set against the overwhelming brightness of the store. When Louie bombs at the charity event, cutaways to Jerry waiting just off stage bathe the seething pro in Minnelli-esque red, retroactively casting a shot in “Back” of Louie standing at the doorway of his kids’ room, lit in dull red, as a bridge between his private life and constant club work.
C.K. also maintains his ability to get the most out of his guest stars, most especially in Charles Grodin’s appearance as a doctor. Grodin has been largely absent from screens since the mid ’90s, but he’s lost none of his talent. He can make the act of simply sitting back and eating a sandwich, smacking loudly and breathing heavily through his nose as he chews, hilarious, to say nothing of the calm, even condescending manner in which he assures Louie that his back pain is the result of an “engineering design problem” because human spines have yet to evolve to walking upright.
Grodin doesn’t simply elevate the already high standard the series sets for deadpan, oblique humor; he carries on the tradition of Louie’s guest stars sharing some fundamental aspect with the show’s maker. C.K.’s connections to his comedian peers are obvious, but there’s also the indie cred he shares with Parker Posey, or the parallels between his own attempt to bring auteurial control and unorthodox programming to television and the appearance of David Lynch. In Grodin, C.K. has a foil in overconfidence masking insecurity and incompetence, and C.K.’s Louie often taps into the same kind of toxically uncomfortable, thoroughly parodic vision of duplicitous male affability when it comes to sexual pursuit that Grodin brought to The Heartbreak Kid. The only downside to this opening double-header is that C.K. doesn’t bring enough of the latter to his interactions with Strahovski.