Louis C.K. radically broke up the fourth season of Louie into a series of distinct, intelligent, and hilarious narratives, including a six-part romantic comedy that saw our schlubby antihero attempt to woo a sweet neighbor who didn’t speak a lick of English. The season ended with Louie finally hooking up with Pam (Pamela Adlon) after frustratingly pining for her affections since the start of the series, and as season five begins, it’s the terms of their courtship that are of particular interest to the show’s creators. In the second episode, Pam insists that their relationship is “a la carte,” take what you want and leave the rest, which is a state of affairs that doesn’t comfort Louie at all. The turmoil of such arrangements, the anxiety and surprising limitations of being personally unbound by societal norms, has been a key part of Louie’s inimitable perspective since its inception; here this anxiousness stirs up new perspectives on Louie’s masculinity, his ability to forgive, and his unique style of courting.
This coincides with the show’s refocusing on C.K. as a lonely, divorced, ostensibly well-off New Yorker, rather than as a father navigating the peculiarities of elementary-school socializing and alternating weekends with the kids. Lilly (Hadley Delany) and Jane (Ursula Parker) only show up in two scenes in the first handful of episodes, and one of those scenes involves Louie literally shitting himself in the middle of a sidewalk. Indeed, it’s adulthood rather than fatherhood that the season is fascinated with, especially when considering how matters of identity, history, shame, and sexual proclivities change with age.
In “Police Story,” Louie is forced to rethink his relationship with his would-be brother-in-law (Michael Rappaport), a surreally obnoxious cop who pressures Louie into going out for a night on the town with him. The story of their excursion becomes a variation on Akira Kurosawa’s classic Stray Dog, with Rappaport’s character launching into a furious, self-loathing panic when he realizes he’s misplaced his gun. C.K. succeeds in critiquing not only the emotional fragility of people who rely on guns both professionally and personally, but also finding empathy with a man who still gets his kicks from bullying others. Despite his tinny braggadocio, Rappaport’s character is all too aware of the amount of bad decisions and general ineptitude that have led him to this place in his life, and it’s an overwhelming feeling that C.K. is clearly familiar with.
For every cynical viewpoint that C.K. asserts, there’s an equal measure of sincere understanding, a feeling that even the most pestering, ignorant, and self-serving jerk on this planet is still, essentially, a human being. When C.K. accidentally finds himself in a cult-like prayer ceremony in “Potluck,” he makes a point not to poke fun at the expense of the unconventional worshippers, but rather stresses his own alienation and humorous awkwardness in trying to be respectful of their beliefs. As in Girls, the tension at the center of Louie is sustained via an attempt at the respective main characters’ attempt at a balance between being a positive part of society and feeding a demanding inner perspective that is, in many ways, their living.
The ability to make money, without a real boss or overseers, through one’s talent is an existence not many people know, and the goal of Louie seems to be imparting a keen, nuanced view of that life, blemishes and all. No matter how much Louie makes Pamela laugh, she knows that he wants something different than the “a la carte” option, and there’s no real way to avoid or change that incompatibility. For whatever the clattering impossibilities and improbabilities of Manhattan life that collide throughout the series, the basic human disappointments and revelations at play that are hashed out between strangers and loved ones are universal and very real, capable of effecting the disillusioned, terminally alone cop with a bleak future ahead of him as much as the bald, beloved comedian who’s only tethered to the world outside his mind by two young girls, and a handful of prickly New York malcontents.