LOUIS C.K. EMERGES from the subway station: sullen, sweating. His balding crown of carrot colored hair is slightly brighter than his ruddy, freckled skin. The man is overweight but solid, like a fullback long past glory, in love with French fries, who still hits the gym. He’s got broad shoulders, thick arms, A-cup man breasts, and a sizable gut that hangs over his beltline. His black t-shirt is half a size too small, constricting his movements, and adding to the general impression of physical discomfort.
C.K. makes it up the subway steps and arrives at street level, exhaling as if he’s crested some unprecedented summit. He marches into a pizza joint, scarfs most of a giant slice in three bites, then disgusted, throws what remains in the garbage. To watch him eat is akin to watching a junkie shoot heroin; one can trace the convergence of shame and sublimity. All the while there’s music playing, the syncopated up beat of seventies funk. The singer repeats: “Louie, Louie, you’re gonna die.” The camera cuts to another set of stairs, this time a declension, C.K. hustling down to a door marked “Comedy Cellar.” The juxtaposition is stark: here lies humor, at the intersection of pathos and indigestion. We must armor ourselves with laughter.
So begins each episode of Louie, C.K.’s brainchild, currently in its third season on the cable channel FX. Cicero said that to be a philosopher is to learn how to die. Flaubert thought an artist must have a religion of despair. Accordingly, C.K. may be television’s true first in both categories.
If all this sounds too morbid and unsettling for primetime, well, it is. Louie, which airs on Thursdays at 10:30 p.m., represents a new epoch in cable programming. It’s been decades since The Cosby Show cast its wide net, tugging families from kitchens to living rooms for inclusive doses of post-dinner entertainment. In the 1990s, demographic fragmentation became a byproduct of both the growing ubiquity of cable, and a sharp rise in the number of TV sets per household. The kids could watch TGIF in the basement while mom and dad caught the late movie in the living room and, upstairs, grandpa let the History Channel wash over him in a wave of World War II nostalgia.
These days it’s different. The young — and the young at heart — bundle into beds, laptops and tablets propped inches from faces. They are snug in these cocoons, sequestered from all stimuli but those they source from screen and headphones. People watch alone now or in pairs, at odd hours, either streamed, downloaded, or on DVD, sometimes months or years after the shows have originally aired. Low budget shows on small market basic cable channels like FX don’t have to be populist, because they don’t have to pull in big advertisers in order to survive. These shows make money through licensing contracts with companies like Netflix and Hulu, through DVD sales, and through digital download sales via iTunes and Amazon.
The last few years have witnessed the emergence of exciting original content from small market cable channels. AMC gave us Mad Men and Breaking Bad; TBS tried (and failed) to bring Conan O’Brien to basic cable; and TNT had a breakout hit with The Closer. FX, too, has had its share of successful shows, including the multi-award winning courtroom procedural, Damages, and the critically acclaimed Rescue Me.