The first part of “Pamela” ended with a disturbing attempted rape that dealt a severe blow to Louie’s (Louis C.K.) image as an awkward yet ultimately benign man. Instead of moving on to the final two parts of “Pamela” to see how Pamela Adlon’s character now views her friendship with Louie, the series diverts to the extended two-part episode “In the Woods,” in which Louie catches his daughter, Lilly (Hadley Delaney), smoking pot. Soon, however, his parental fury gives way to an extended flashback about his own youthful indiscretion, complete with his own dalliance with drugs.
Young Louie (Devin Druid) has all of his adult self’s issues in utero: His attempt to ask a girl to a dance, which gets no further than a clumsy confirmation that both will be attending the event, but nonetheless compels Louie to boast that he successfully asked her out, is an eerie precursor to the grotesque fist pump he allowed himself after forcing Pamela to kiss him in the previous episode. Druid matches C.K.’s mannerisms perfectly, stammering over attempts to communicate and generally avoiding eye contact, and as ever, it’s amusing to see other actors replicate these tics as they play Louie along an age spectrum, reinforcing that C.K.’s naturalism is still a performance meant to heighten his foibles.
The flashback also allows C.K. to delve deeper into a subject that’s cropped up throughout this season: the state of the educational system. Though Louie has yet to call out the Common Core as explicitly as its maker did on Twitter, Jane’s recurring problems at school repeatedly call attention to the inadequacies of the modern public school system. “In the Woods” offers C.K. the chance to juxtapose the chaotic (yet contradictorily over-bureaucratized) public schools of the present with his memories of a more interesting time.
Case in point: a scene inside Louie’s science class revels in the excitement that Mr. Hoffman (Skipp Sudduth) instills in his students by going off-book and letting their juvenile curiosities drive the lesson plan. When one boy asks if a fart can really be lit on fire, for example, Hoffman not only stages a demonstration, he latches onto the 8th grader’s prosaic scientific query, but uses it as the foundation for an entire week devoted to studying organic fuel. The unspoken point, of course, is that a teacher like this could never operate in a public middle school today without supervisors telling him to stick to the textbook he so theatrically casts aside to actually teach.
For the most part, however, the episode unspools as a dreary, clichéd story about Louie’s first exposure to pot. Dragged away from a potential hook-up at the dance to smoke a joint with friends, Louie gets so hooked that he even starts to visit a local dealer (Jeremy Renner) and agrees to steal scales from the school in exchange for free weed. Predictably, this sends the boy into a spiral in which he becomes more withdrawn, not talking to his mother (Amy Landecker), and diffusing his father’s (F. Murray Abraham) severe reprimand about straightening him out with a nasty “Fuck you.” Eventually, guilt sets in, and Louie scrambles to repair frayed relationships.
The execution of this story is remarkably serious save for a bit of color here and there, like Renner’s dealer struggling to put medicinal drops in his cat’s eyes. The only real joke is the recurring gag of every authority figure bending over backward to absolve the white, middle-class, moderately intelligent Louie of his criminal activity. Mr. Hoffman refuses to even entertain the idea of the boy’s guilt, while the principal doesn’t press charges because Louie will be someone else’s problem next year. Even a social worker that Louie visits dismisses his actions as nothing more than a harmless means of acting out over his parents’ recent divorce. The pass that the young Louie enjoys sets up the charmed position from which the adult examines and reinforces his privilege, and as distinctive as the episode is, it’s clearly informed by the show’s broader context.
Occupying a single 90-minute chunk of airtime, “In the Woods” should be yet another experiment to expand the show’s formal and narrative ambitions, but the result feels like nothing so much as an extended after-school special. In addition to Louie’s addled behavior, the two-part episode deals with the bully (Oscar Wahlberg) whose violence against others stems from a bad home life, and the framing device of Louie dwelling on his past before judging his daughter too harshly is also played out. All it needs is a scene of Louie demanding to know where Lilly got the idea to use drugs and her responding, “I learned it from watching you!”
Louie regularly courts controversy as it explores various subjects on C.K.’s mind. Sometimes it follows these threads to innovative and critical conclusions, and sometimes it just mines shocks for a joke. Regardless, the series is always unlike anything else on TV, and even when it’s infuriating, it’s compulsively watchable. But “In the Woods” represents new terrain for the series: For the first time, it’s truly, forgettably boring.
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