This Thursday, Louis CK returns to television with the second season of his misanthropic FX series Louie. The first 13 episode season aired last summer and quickly emerged as a genre-surpassing shows with an intelligence rare on TV (and I mean television as a whole, not just American television), especially in the comedy spectrum.
It’s difficult to explain why Louie stands apart from the crowd. While some might argue that Louie does not have the greatest amount of laughs or the hardest laughs (both very debatable presumptions), the show regularly proved that it was never solely about the gag. However, the series is not about the characters either, as Louis as Louie is the only person to appear in every episode. There are times when the series stepped into a more serious realm, but not in a “dramedy” way. Louie does have something of a “heart” (albeit a dark one), yet clinging to that does a disservice to the program as well. Plenty of shows have a “heart,” but the heart (or soul or whatever you want to call it) within Louie is more genuine, more human, and more flawed than most other shows one can apply that hackneyed description to.
But none of these descriptions properly define what CK created (and wrote/directed/edited every episode of). Instead, what Louie is, is one of the best shows about life itself. Not living, not going on adventures, not even relationships, but the losing battle that is life.
For the uninitiated, Louie stars comedian Louis CK as himself, a stand-up comedian with two daughters and an ex-wife as he tries to make his way through, well, life. Each episode has one or two different segments/vignettes that are punctuated by his stand-up routines. Examples of covered topics include getting hassled by teenagers while on a date, dealing with one’s mother (and later learning she’s a lesbian), dating/trying to get a date, having a week or a night to one’s self and not really having any clue what to do with the free time, getting divorced, and simply dealing with people.
While these topics seem prime for sitcom-esque conventions, Louis takes them to unexpected areas by turning each piece into a well-crafted short film. He delves into cowardice, aging, frustration, non-sexual impotence, religion, and insecurities in a brutally honest way. Very few works manage to capture uncomfortableness and awkwardness quite as well as Louie. In one episode, as Louis is at an airplane terminal, he watches another passenger lose his mind after learning that there was a problem with his flight. As the guy gets increasingly angry, Louis quietly laughs to himself while trying both not to be obvious and to hold back a real guffaw. It’s a moment that rings as true to life as anything ever put on television.
But the show does not restrain itself to naturalism and often enters into weirder territories. An argument with politically opposed comedian Nick DiPaolo devolves into fisticuffs, a hallucination from dentist anesthesia allows Louie to meet Osama Bin Laden, and flashbacks spurred on by a glory hole show us how Li’l Louie learned about Jesus’ sacrifice in graphic detail.
While some have compared Louie to Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm for obvious reasons, I feel the series shares more of a kinship to a much earlier work about a miserable comedian: Annie Hall.
CK imbues his series with the same incredible mix of comedy and drama, realism and surrealism, and cynicism and understanding/appreciation of the human condition that made the 1977 film such a seminal work. It seems remarkably difficult to make a primarily “real” work with bizarre elements (it seems easier to bring humanity to an outlandish story), and CK treads the path like an expert.
Louie returns this Thursday, June 23, on FX at 10:30, following the series premiere of the Elijah Wood-starring, talking dog comedy Wilfred.
Also premiering that night are the new seasons of Burn Notice (USA at 9) and Futurama (Comedy Central at 10).