This Week on Dear Television:
By Lili Loofbourow
May 6, 2014
LOUIE ended Season 3 with a rare five-episode streak of excellence: “Dad” with F. Murray Abraham, the three amazing Late Night episodes with David Lynch, and “New Year’s Eve,” which I found forgettable overall (finales haven’t been the series’ strength — they tend to feature baby ducks and Louie Learning Things in Foreign Places) but will treasure always for the sequence in which Louie “repairs” Jane’s eyeless doll. That sequence is a TV poem, right down to the doll’s third eye, and if it doesn’t go down in history as one of the most captivating portraits of parental madness, there is no justice in the world. Using surrealism to nail a really specific emotional state is one of the things Louie does best. He’s gotten better at it, too.
The garbage-men dumping trash on Louie in “Back,” the first episode of Louie’s fourth season, feels like it’s in the same key, but I think it’s doing something subtly different from what we’ve seen before. Louie has juggled the balance between stand-up and series in a variety of ways over three seasons, but there’s traditionally been an expository dimension to his stand-up. Louie’s jokes set up themes, whether it’s his daughters’ relationship to their own whiteness in the pilot or the challenges of male friendship in “Miami.” Stand-up Louis CK with the brick wall behind him has historically functioned both as a sort of Greek chorus to sitcom-Louie and as a marker of fictional distance. Stand-up Louis CK is confident, charismatic and assertive in ways the diegetic Louie almost never is, and whenever we see “Louie” do stand-up within the show itself, as we do in “Model,” he’s pretty terrible.
In other words, the show’s organization has changed. Louie has sloughed off a lot of its scaffolding, including the two-part form it fell into for awhile with episodes like “IKEA/Piano Lesson” or “Bummer/Blueberries.” Scenes are messier in Season 4: Louie chats about fatherhood, the kids bicker over dinner, Lily writes a letter to AIDS. Louie does the Beatles. It’s a diffuse collection of scenes that don’t add up to a recognizable section. Other grounding elements are missing too: the song for the opening credits is gone and so is Louie’s pizza-flecked descent into the comedy underworld. (That’s happened before — in “Barney/Never,” for one — but there it was a stylized departure, not the new normal.) If the comedy club has been the one place where Louie gets to be the powerful version of himself — Louis CK rather than Louie — removing that frame perhaps reflects the extent to which the show has outgrown that structural contrast. The only remaining markers are the really specific way the show uses music and the poker game; the latter’s rapidly replacing stand-up Louie as the show’s Greek chorus. In “Back,” it thematized the episode’s obsession with using things for their unintended purposes.
Back to the garbage-men. When they crashed into Louie’s bedroom, a weird thing happened. I’m not sure how to put it, so here’s my best try: I felt like I was seeing stand-up. The scene was obviously borrowing from the “odd Louie” register we’re all familiar with, but it felt less like dark experimental surrealism (that scene in “Dad,” say, when he sees a guy on the security footage who isn’t him, or when the car window shatters, or Never in the tub) than a very recognizable form of observational humor: that is what it feels like when the garbage truck comes by. I could hear Louis CK narrating that scene perfectly; I didn’t even need to be primed by the stand-up version. We don’t need him anymore. In moments like that one, the show has become the stand-up.
That scene is followed by the conversation with the super about the Pinocchio joke — it’s a way of telling the joke that mangles it past recognition as a joke. What I’m getting at here is that the episode was busy staging jokes in ways that torque the punchline: you get the punchline — you hear Louie say “Lie to me” and see the old lady using the Magic Wand on her back — but that’s not the point. The episode is taking its premise seriously and misusing the form of the joke.
That’s fitting, since the episode is about using things the wrong way: Pinocchio’s nose, a black dildo in a drawer, a vibrator for a penis, a Magic Wand for a back. If old ladies are the standard recipients of masculine chivalry, the show narratively uses them “off-label” too: the episode is full of old ladies helping Louie. Mrs. Frame babysits his daughters, another old lady hails him a taxi and loads him in, and a third gets him in to the doctor and fixes his back. Remember when Louie refused to take Jane’s backpack: he refused to “take her burden from her” saying he would never do that to her? “That’s helping,” Jane says, and the episode kind of proves her right: refusing to let people take his burden has led to him mistreating his back. “You’re using it wrong,” the doctor says. “We were given a clothesline, and we’re using it as a flagpole.” The subtext here is fatherly — this episode is in some ways a callback to “Dad,” which is why Louie’s talk with Todd Barry is there at all. The doctor is a dad, and he does to Louie what Louie did to Jane: this is how things are, he says. They’re hard. Be grateful for the moments when they aren’t. It takes an old lady, a sex toy and some out-of-the-box thinking to get Louie some solutions.
The joke here is obviously that the Magic Wand IS being used for its intended purpose: sex toys for women are always labeled as personal massagers. There’s a brilliant cyclicity there, and it’s a testament to Louie’s restraint that he didn’t feel the need to make stand-up Louis CK say the thing out loud and drive the point home.
“Model” belongs to another Louie tradition entirely: the “a crazy thing happened to me” story, and these, unlike “Miami,” “Joan,” “Daddy’s Girlfriend Parts 1 and 2” and other single-thread episodes, tend to lack heart. Louie becomes a sort of dead-eyed, volitionally quadriplegic spectator in these — it’s what happens in both halves of “Bummer/Blueberries,” and it’s the sort of move that works well in one-half of a two-parter but not both. It generally features things happening to Louie when he’s with women, and it generally ends with them climbing into helicopters or raping him or kidnapping him into three-ways or offering him blow jobs for trips to IKEA. Liz was the show’s effort to actually flesh out one of these encounters, but even that ended in a wacky, over-the-top way — and incorporated a turn with Chloe Sevigny so we wouldn’t get too comfortable.
It’s a fine vein to tap into very occasionally, and the Crazy Happenings subset of Louie sometimes does really interesting things with agency — Melissa Leo’s episode was disturbing and thought-provoking — but this one was weak. The setup is easy: incompetent-past-believability dude bombs with the feral rich, gets blindsided by dreamy model, blindsides her in turn, gets ruined for life. There’s no meaningful engagement with the rich or the “benefit,” and while it’s fun to watch Evil Seinfeld kick Louie around, the meat of the episode — the scenes with Blake — were disappointingly generic. This may have been Louie’s attempt at “working clean” in the Seinfeldian style. If so, it was about as successful.
I’ll retract all this if the settlement turns out to be real and the episode turns out to be a tragic rerouting of Louie’s fate rather than a weakly amusing spoiled fantasy. If Louie is forced to pay $5000 a month for the rest of his life, I’ll retroactively relabel this a masterfully Gogolian pivot. But for now, I’m filing it under Louie Events That Will Never Be Referenced Again. No real feeling, no real loss, a “chickens are dumb” version of Girls’s far superior “One Man’s Trash."
Louie’s lucky problem is that it’s done too good a job exploring the psychology of passivity. One of the most satisfying aspects of both the Late Night Wars and the Liz plot was watching Louie develop glimmers of hunger and hope. That whole season felt like a quiet war not between Louie and Chris Rock, or Louie and Seinfeld, but rather between Louie and Louis CK. By the end of “Late Night,” they’d integrated: the Louie who shouts “Hey Letterman, FUCK YOU!!!” outside the Ed Sullivan Theater is indistinguishable from the Louis CK we’ve seen onstage. That may be why “Model” feels like a step backward. It’s a Season 1 mood, a register where Louie gets haplessly clotheslined. We’ve seen that. The great thing about “Back” — what’s compelling about it, and what I hope we’ll see more of — is the Louie who looks utterly defeated not because something ridiculous happened to him but because he did something ridiculous: he stayed up all night reinventing a doll’s face. He’s fighting. He’s growing a spine. Louie’s starting to use that clothesline as a flagpole.