Over the previous season of Louie, Louis C.K. displayed a fondness for a nifty visual storytelling trick, which came in handy with his guest spots. When, for instance, he meets with David Lynch’s performance coach you’re not entirely sure it’s Lynch at first, as the camera is set back to take in the setting, to first set the habitat and settle into the tone of the conversation. It’s not only to accentuate the alienation of meeting strangers, the anxiety our hero feels when confronted with a new social situation, but to suggest that underneath even the most seemingly commonplace of people in the most ordinary of jobs, an odd and unique presence is at work, and vice versa.
He revisits that visual device late into the first episode of Louie’s revelatory fourth season, when Charles Grodin shows up as a doctor whom Louie consults about his bad back, strained while vibrator shopping, naturally. Early on in the very same episode, Louis corrects a dirty joke told by a building worker, who stops at the water’s edge when describing a beloved Disney character’s taste in oral sex. It speaks to the show’s insistence on including the unseemly details, essential to C.K.’s wild and wise dream of New York. And the multi-hyphenate comedian feels more assured than ever in his flights of surrealism and absurdity that intertwine with his unsentimental view of the educational pains, social and otherwise, of being simply outwitted by life.
In “Model,” the comedian is left to sputter out on stage in front of a charity crowd of well-to-dos in the Hamptons, finding himself ill-equipped to even adequately open for Jerry Seinfeld. Louie is clearly akin to Seinfeld in its delirious view of a reasonably privileged life constantly swayed by the particulars of Manhattan geography. Even if the radiant humor occasionally tends a bit toward the local, as in the brilliant season opening involving members of the DSNY, the point of view is so effortlessly relatable in its humble assertions. For all its unexpected turns, “Model” is about nothing so much as embracing your peculiarities and embarrassments, as they’re what sets you apart.
C.K. radicalizes the sitcom formula by totally resetting the terms of his world with each new episode, allowing for a full range of tones and insights. Every episode could be alternatively billed as a riotously funny, sublimely conceived, and utterly resonant short film, rife with unwavering self-deprecation and imagined among the collision point between the outer life of a single, urban father of two growing daughters and an untethered artist’s antic inner life.
For C.K., New York is inseparable from the creative energy it fosters, and thus the show’s humor feeds off of constant invention. One of his favored scenarios, other than performing stand-up at the Comedy Cellar, is playing a few leisurely rounds of poker with his fellow comedians, among them Sarah Silverman and Jim Norton. Each exchange (a consideration of preferred masturbation techniques, in the case of “Model”) around the poker table feels like rounds of inspired bullshitting, comical riffing and ribbing as complementary and ever so slightly adversarial. Similar is the show’s ceaseless appetite for the unexplored routines of the everyday, such as the discussion between two sex-store employees about cock-ring stock levels.
One of the most distinctly beautiful and charming episodes of TV to air in quite a long time, “So Did the Fat Lady” is anchored by a staggering performance by Sarah Baker who plays Vanessa, a flirtatious waitress at the Comedy Cellar who comes onto Louie after one of his sets. He’s hesitant, but they’re positively electric together, each exchange denoted by her ability to disarm him with humor, warmth, and emotional frankness. They go on a date, and to ruin where the discussion goes would be a disservice. It’s a shattering expression of disappointment, and in a single take, C.K. cedes the entire scene to Baker, who makes a would-be diatribe into a bluesy sonnet of exasperated grace and good nature.
Other episodes are less about the guffaws and more caught up in the strangeness of apartment life, and the small terrors inherent in depending on a mass transit system. No matter where C.K.’s predilections lead him, the humanistic impulse that’s unmistakably at the core of his endlessly curious disposition is ever-present. The comedian sweet-talks about death with Vanessa, does a spot-on imitation of the Beatles to calm his daughters at bedtime, and indulges in the mythical ritual of “bang-bang,” in which one eats two separate, full three-course meals back to back. They’re moments that make up an imperfect but fearless life, which is set in play among millions of other lives in C.K.’s city, one which he insists only comes to full rushing life when you take a closer look at who you’re sitting across from.