There’s something poignant about Louie, the new FX series starring drolly despondent standup comic Louis C.K. It’s well-treaded territory for him (he worked the misanthropic angle with hysterical results on his previous sitcom, HBO’s Lucky Louie), but he seems even lonelier and angrier this time: standing glumly outside bodegas, scouring Facebook to find prepubescent loves, struggling to convince relatives that his recent divorce is for the best. But Louie works because, like Ricky Gervais and Larry David, C.K. succeeds at finding the humor in his own anguish. That is poignant.
A bawdy, endlessly surly performer, C.K. wrote for Chris Rock at the height of Rock’s popularity and has brought that same crassness to Louie. The show’s TV-MA rating is well earned: Jokes about vaginal infections and the torching of gays in 14th-century England run rampant, creating an ambiance darker and more sordid than anything on television outside of the suicide lament Gravity. Thankfully, C.K. sidesteps the overbearing humorlessness that plagues a lot of misanthropists; he’s more than willing to laugh at himself.
Louie takes its cues largely from Seinfeld, another show chronicling the non-adventures of a comedian in New York. But Seinfeld was too aimless to truly resonate, whereas Louie has an unmistakable emotional core: You’ll laugh as a clueless C.K. chaperones his daughter’s fieldtrip in Harlem or exchanges stunningly awkward banter with an apathetic date, but the underlying sadness is palpable. When he attempts to kiss that date and she flinches in utter horror, he formally surpasses Glee’s Artie Adams as the single most pitiable character on the small screen.
At one point, C.K. bemoans that he’s contributing to global starvation because he drives a $60,000 vehicle. He’s not truly conflicted about his lifestyle; instead, he’s looking for reasons to bitch, and it’s not becoming. C.K. is not a charming man. His chronic pessimism may grow harder to tolerate over the course of a 13-episode season, but for now, Louie provides brooding wit and genuine pathos in substantial enough doses to eclipse any shortcomings.