Hey hey hey!

Photo by Allison Long/The Kansas City Star

Photo by Allison Long/The Kansas City Star

When I picked the Kansas City Royals as MY team, I had no inkling I was picking a loser. As a child, I wasn’t making a larger statement about life being about suffering and disappointment. I initially picked them because they were affiliated with the Memphis Chicks, my hometown’s minor league baseball team. Every year or two, the Royals would come to town and play an exhibition game against the Chicks. For the first time in my life, I could watch a professional sports team in Memphis. And they had George Brett, Bo Jackson, Bret Saberhagen, Willie Wilson, Dan Quisenberry and Tom “Flash” Gordon.

Tonight, after snapping the longest drought in professional sports with 29 years without a playoff appearance, the Royals won the American League pennant and they’re headed for the World Series. It’s hard to believe. I sat in front of the television wearing my lucky Royals t-shirt (they haven’t lost a game I’ve watched in person or on TV when I wear it, so please take your rational thought elsewhere), argued calls, talked trash to men hundreds of miles away, shouted like a madman when they got the last out, hugged my wife, my dog, wiped a tear from my eye and celebrated like I played some part in it.  Of course, I had nothing to do with it (my lucky t-shirt notwithstanding), so why does it feel so good?

There is a temptation as a fan of a long-suffering team to feel some sense of entitlement to winning. After all, literally every other team in baseball had some reason to celebrate with a playoff berth over the last 29 years. As a Royals fan, I had to enjoy victories in April, like when the Royals won 9 straight games to start the 2003 season. While I’m always tempted by the opportunity to wallow in a little self-pity, I don’t feel like the Royals owed me anything. Even when they were terrible, there were moments of joy for me. No one forced me to love them. I could have switched allegiances at any time or simply stopped keeping up with baseball. I stuck with the Royals.

Of course, I had other teams, too.

I grew up watching the Atlanta Braves on TBS. They had Dale Murphy, a few other guys and Dale Murphy. A replica of Murphy’s signature was inside my first baseball glove. They were terrible, but Murphy was great and I could watch them almost every night. However, I soured on the Braves in the early 1990s, when they went from MY laughing stock to everyone in my town’s favorite team. I felt alone when the Braves were terrible, but now everyone else got to feel good when they won?

Then, it was the San Francisco Giants. For a few years, my favorite player was the Giants Will “The Thrill” Clark, a southern left-handed first baseman like me.  I fell out of love with the Giants when they didn’t re-sign Clark, my only reason for cheering outside of Kevin Mitchell and spite for the villainous Oakland A’s, after the 1993 season. In hindsight, it was more fascination than love.

The only other team that came close to stealing my heart was the St. Louis Cardinals. Almost every summer for several years, our family would take a trip to St. Louis and go to Busch Stadium to watch Ozzie Smith and the speedy, exciting Cardinals of the 1980s. I still have a soft spot for the Cardinals and cheer for them any time they’re not playing the Royals, but they never truly felt like MY team. I was thrilled when they won the World Series in 2006 and again in 2011, but everyone I knew as a kid (or at least their dad) loved the Cardinals.

Sometimes, I wonder why I get so emotionally invested in sports. My days of playing sports competitively are over, so I’m stuck as an observer rooting for guys who are 10 years younger than me, make more money in one season than I’ll make the rest of my life and excel at a game for which I only ever held marginal talent.  It’s probably true that I get so invested in sports for the same reason as everyone else who loves sports: it is a temporary distraction from the more difficult parts of existence, it carries much more neat categories of success and failure than everyday life and most importantly, it is a diversion from the certainty of death and provides a false sense of immortality through a game that will outlive all of us.  But that’s pretty grim and I’d rather not dwell on all that.

Why else do I love the Royals so much? I’ve come up with a few theories:

  • Bo Jackson One of the Royals vs. Chicks exhibition games I attended was in 1989. Bo Jackson, maybe the greatest athlete ever, was in his prime and as an excited 7-year-old boy, I was getting to watch this real-life superhero play in Tim McCarver Stadium in Memphis. My dad, my friend Matt, his dad and I sat out in the leftfield bleachers. Matt and I took the bold stance of cheering for the major league team by heckling those who were cheering for the underdog Chicks in the exhibition game. “If you’re cheering for the Chicks, you’re a LOSER!” Two 30-something-year-old women turned around and angrily asked if we were talking about them. We laughed. While we sat in the bleachers, Bo hit two home runs to deep centerfield. Both of the home runs landed within feet of one another. It was like Bo decided exactly where he wanted to hit the ball and chose about 400-something feet away from the batter’s box, If he wanted to hit the ball to Graceland, my favorite childhood restaurant (Pancho’s) or my house about 15 miles from the stadium, he probably could have.
  • My memories That exhibition game was one of many excellent memories I have with the Royals. There have been entire seasons of embarrassment and looks of pity when I wore a Royals hat, but I forgot most of the details within a week. It’s the joyful moments that have stuck with me.I graduated high school in 1999 and my dad offered to take me on a father-son trip anywhere we could reasonably drive in a day. Naturally, I chose to go to Kansas City. It was my first time to see the Royals play a regular season game in beautiful Kauffman Stadium. Unlike the Braves, the Royals were almost NEVER on television. I kept up with them through the newspaper box scores and the few years we had cable, highlights on ESPN. Now, I was getting to see them in person. Not only that, George Brett was being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame that weekend. The stadium was beautiful. The huge waterfalls in the outfield were even more wonderful up close.We sat in 100-degree heat in the upper deck on a Sunday afternoon game against the Oakland A’s and saw Jermaine Dye hit a game-winning home run, we borrowed an advertisement for the Kansas City Star‘s special edition celebrating Brett’s induction, I saw two 20-something-year-old guys give the most enthusiastic high-five I’ve ever seen when the opening riff from AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” played over the ballpark speakers and we watched Joe Walsh play in front of the strangest baseball crowd I’ve ever been a part of. Most of all, I got to spend time with my dad. We rode in his convertible, talked, heartily cheered on the Royals and laughed about the crowd of feather-haired weirdos enjoying Joe Walsh with us. The father-son connection of baseball may be a cliche, but it was a genuine experience for me.My return trip to Kansas City came in 2012, when my friend Ryan and I lucked into seeing former Royals star pitcher Zack Greinke pitch against his old team as part of the Anaheim Angels. Greinke was masterful, but Angels relief pitcher Ernesto Frieri gave up back-to-back home runs to Billy Butler (“Country Breakfast” to his friends) and Salvador Perez. Ryan and I jumped around, gave each other high-fives and got our picture taken together with huge smiles on our faces. It was a blast. The next day, I sat in the centerfield stands and heckled the undisputed greatest baseball player in the world, Mike Trout. He laughed at my barbs and shrugged his shoulders when I asked why the huge payroll of the Angels couldn’t get them into the playoffs that season.

    This season, I traveled to St. Louis with my wife, Kandi, to watch the Royals play the Cardinals. Kandi was cheering for the Cardinals. The Royals made a late rally capped by a go-ahead home run by Alex Gordon, my favorite current Royal. You could see us on TV. There was a moment when the Royals scored to take the lead and you can see me on the broadcast leap out of my seat and yell triumphantly while surrounded by Cardinal red. Kandi, who was wearing a Stan Musial shirt to show her support for the Cardinals, can be seen peeking her head around me with a big smile on her face. What a sweetheart.

    I got to watch my second away game this season, when I traveled to Tampa Bay with Ryan to watch the Royals. James Shields, the Royals ace pitcher, threw a shutout in his return to Tampa, who traded him to Kansas City in December 2012. We sat directly behind the Royals’ dugout, chanted for pitching coach Dave Eiland after being goaded by friends of Eiland’s daughter and one of my loud yells was captured on the television broadcast. While in Tampa, we went to Hogan’s Beach, Hulk Hogan’s bar and grill. It was in a Best Western and smelled like chlorine. The food was better than expected and the beer came in plastic cups.

  • I enjoy when people think about me Why didn’t I love the Cardinals like I love the Royals? I went to far more games in St. Louis than Kansas City, I loved watching Ozzie Smith flip out on to the field and shouting as Vince Coleman stole bases. Maybe it’s a symptom of egotism or knee-jerk contrarianism I’ve carried since childhood, but I think one of the reasons I couldn’t truly love the Cardinals was the same reason I fell out of love with the Braves. Everyone else took them from me.Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it seemed the Royals would be a very good team for a long time, I didn’t know anyone else who loved the Royals. They were my team. I have since met many wonderful people who share my devotion for the Royals, but I still feel the same way. I think there’s a part of me that enjoys the idea that some people I know or once knew identify me with the team. People come and go from your life, but I like knowing that friends I see almost every day and those I haven’t seen in years may think about me when they see something about the fortunes of the Royals. I have the same warm feelings about several of my friends when their teams do well. When the Pittsburgh Pirates had their first winning season since 1992 last year, I thought about my other friend Ryan, this one from Pittsburgh. I imagined how excited he must have been. I thought about how much I enjoyed working with him and how our conversations about all sorts of things, including sports, helped me get through some tough times and long days at our job. I was happy for him.Since the Royals’ recent improbable run, I’ve received well-wishes of some kind from friends in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Tuscon, Fort Worth, Conway, Ark., Charlotte, Austin and Memphis. Some have told me that they’ve become invested in the Royals’ success on my behalf. That feels really nice.
  • I love an underdog I didn’t choose the Royals because they were an underdog, but their eventual slide into oblivion may have cemented my love for the team. I have spent the last 29 years adopting an underdog team in the playoffs, rooting for them in lieu of the Royals and imagining how great it would feel if they could be there. I think I knew that all of those years of losing, frustration and disappointment would only make their eventual rise that much more beautiful. I was right.

The Royals are going to the World Series.

ALCS - Baltimore Orioles v Kansas City Royals - Game Four

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Getting the south.

Foot Fist Way

AP

I have been thinking a lot recently about portrayals of southern characters in popular culture. The thoughts were sparked after I listened to Louis CK’s commentary on the “Travel Day/South” episode from the first season of Louie. During the commentary, Louis CK defends himself against criticism from southern viewers who took offense at the cartoonish characters portrayed in the episode, which features a visit to Alabama. His defense is essentially that he portrays characters from New York as jerks and he’s never heard complaints from New Yorkers about their portrayal on the show. It’s an interesting point, but one that’s ultimately short-sighted.

The central premise of Louis CK’s argument ignores the fact that southern characters are almost always treated as buffoons, racists, kind-hearted simpletons or something else less than a complete human being in popular culture. This has been the case for decades. While New York certainly has its share of film or TV caricatures, there are 100 New York characters who are simply portrayed as identifiable, regular human beings for every portrayal of New Yorkers as rude, self-centered and violent. This isn’t the case with southern characters. The distinction is an important one.

The major problem I have with most southern characters in pop culture is not simply that the portrayals are condescending, contemptuous or worse, it’s that it gets shit wrong. While there are countless embarrassing examples of southerners on TV and film, it does feel like there are more recent examples of TV shows getting shit right. Few television shows or movies get the south better than Danny McBride and Jody Hill have with Eastbound and Down and Foot Fist Way. McBride typically plays a dunderheaded loudmouth from the south, but the portrayals are dead on. The mood is right, the supporting characters are right and the surroundings are right. Even the dumbest characters are given a humanity beyond their accents or status as “the other.”  McBride’s characters are terrible people of mythical proportions, but they’re not simple cartoons. They are awful people who really exist in the messy, confusing world of the south.

Justified is a good example of a show that’s hit-or-miss on southern characters. Walton Goggins, the greatest southern actor today, nails the southern pathology, accent, psyche and wit. Goggins is a delight and brings a level of grit, naturalism and authenticity that regularly brings to mind Warren Oates. A more recent influx of characters in season four have been a bit more suspect, including an atrocious attempt by Patton Oswalt to shoehorn his brand of clever nerdy references into an impotent law enforcement hanger-on with a godawful southern accent.  Oswalt’s accent borders Walking Dead for its inconsistency and laughable attempt at hitting certain words (“PO-lice” for Oswalt) extra hard as a substitute for finding a natural, consistent accent for a character. Joseph Mazzello has some charisma, but doesn’t appear to have spent much time in the south before portraying a snake-handling tent preacher. It’s an unfortunate turn for a show that gets characters right more often than not.  The show’s sense of place has always felt a bit phony as Pittsburgh and California are silly stand-ins for rural Kentucky. It never reaches the laughable location depths of a show like Memphis Beat, but it frequently misses the mark.

I certainly don’t claim to be the ultimate arbiter of all southern portrayals; there are much more important battles to fight. But it’s something I have trouble watching when it’s done wrong. On the bright side, there aren’t any real cartoonish portrayals on the level with Beverly Hillbillies or Dukes of Hazard that come to mind in 2013. In film, Winter’s Bone featured an excellent performance from Jennifer Lawrence, who felt right from the beginning of the movie until the end. However, I do think it’s important to demand some level of accountability from performers, writers and directors when portraying a group of people, particularly when they clearly aren’t familiar with the subtleties of that group of people and fall back on easy caricature. It’s why Louis CK’s comments are so difficult to stomach. While you could argue that the portrayal of Alabama on Louie was purposely over-the-top as a way to show us the world through the eyes of an outsider like Louis, there’s still something patently false about it. In the end, I don’t think the south should receive any hand-holding from creative people. I just think it’s about time more people got it right.

Best Show, November 13, 2012.

The Best Show on WFMU is one of my favorite things.  It’s a three-hour comedy radio show with character-based calls from Jon Wurster, excellent stories from host Tom Scharpling and a mixed bag of phone calls from listeners. The Best Show has been a weekly source of joy for me for more than five years.  Every other week since April, I’ve written mini recaps/reviews on the show for The AV Club.  It’s been a blast getting to write regularly about something I love so much.

Due to a mix-up between myself and the other gentleman who writes Best Show stuff for Podmass, the recap I wrote for the November 13 episode did not run. It’s not my best effort, but since I wrote it and no one will see it otherwise, here’s the LOST Podmass review for the November 13, 2012 episode of The Best Show on WFMU:

The three-hour running time and free-for-all nature of The Best Show ensure that few episodes maintain a predictable tone. One week after Tom Scharpling’s touching tribute to the resiliency of Sandy-battered New Jersey led into a more familiar razzing of Tom Waits, the show continues its schizophrenic streak this week. The episode is a Jon Wurster-less one, but Scharpling still gets to play the straight man in a wonderful character-based call with Tim Heidecker, who plays himself as a doomsaying right-wing microblogger. Real-life character Fredericks from New Port Richey adds another head-scratching entry to his long string of bizarre, gravel-voiced appearances with a delirious call that includes some talk about the alleged dangers of fluoride in water. The show takes on a more somber tone as Scharpling and a caller share a moving conversation about Tristan Devin, a Seattle comedian and Best Show fan who was found dead Sunday. It’s evidence of the program’s enduring quality that a show with such a wide variety of moods can be so consistently great. [TC]

“Sometimes after I do my show, I’m too wired. Can you imagine Leonard Cohen after doing a show? It’s like he’s ready for bed. He must just go right back to the hotel and zonk out. ‘Leonard Cohen has left the building….asleep.'” – Tom Scharpling, The Best Show on WFMU

Dan Le Betard is Highly Questionable, a great show on an increasingly bad network.

ESPN

Sports television has become a joyless parade of blowhards, phonies and piss-poor provocateurs. ESPN, the Grand Marshall, has become the sports equivalent of Fox News, a popular destination for easy opinions where a regular viewer can somehow know less about the topic at hand than before they tuned in. Superstars are created, dissected, destroyed and mocked. Highlights are quick, context-less and backed by horrible music. While most programming for many cable networks has been considerably smarter in the last 10 years, ESPN has grown more ignorant in its old age.

At its worst, the network is a shit sandwich made from the essence of bad sports talk radio and the growing influence of public relations on sports. Every morning, you can watch Skip Bayless and some other dolt dissect the most recent cliché uttered by a sports superstar (God save the poor athlete in 2012 who has the gall to actually say something interesting). It’s a draining experience that has little to do with sports and even less to do with the fun parts of sports. Talking heads treat athletes like they’re not human beings, while athletes are trained to shield all humanity from the public. It all ends with a well-packaged music video featuring sports cyborgs performing amazing feats mixed with the sound of interchangeable newspaper numbskulls and former athletes sucking all of the life out of sports.

Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable is the welcomed exception to the soul-crushing ESPN rule. The show featuring the Miami Herald columnist and his father has easily become the most interesting show on the network. The show manages to be light, unpredictable and substantive. It’s cleverly packaged to look remarkably similar to the slightly tired Pardon the Interruption, godawful Sportsnation and dead-on-arrival Around the Horn, but that’s where the similarities stop. While other shows thrive on fake controversy, reactionary “debate” and up-to-the-minute inanity, DLHQ often takes the long view. Opinions are thoughtful, sports are treated like games, athletes are treated like human beings and pomposity is delivered with a laugh.

While the show bears the name of the younger Le Batard, the star of the show is Gonzalo (“Papi”), a 68-year-old Cuban immigrant who is thankfully unfamiliar with the slick, boring rhythms and clichés of sports television. There is no one on sports television like Gonzalo. In fact, there is no one on television like Gonzalo. He is shamelessly old and unmistakably Cuban. On a network that has seemed to grudgingly embrace the growing Hispanic population in America with a few isolated soccer goals accompanied by hapless play-by-play from an anchor who mispronounces the names, Gonzalo is a wonderful addition. English is clearly his second language. He bungles names of sports stars and sometimes teams (the Memphis Grizzlies are the “Grizzles”), but adds a wonderful flair and sometimes, wonderfully unnecessary rolling Rs to the names of Hispanic athletes.

Gonzalo’s sports opinions are often those of a fan–he loves the Miami Heat and hates the Chicago Bulls. He mocks the horrible Miami Dolphins and seems to love almost every quarterback in the NFL except Aaron Rodgers. He obviously doesn’t follow sports with the kind of joyless constancy of many on the network. Because of his casual sports knowledge, Gonzalo talks about it with an infectious excitement and lightness that’s impossible to find anywhere else on ESPN. Tune into Around the Horn and you’re likely to see dozens of passionate, “provocative” arguments for points from people who couldn’t give a shit, but Gonzalo’s occasional sports rants feel natural. His chemistry with Dan is delightful to watch and unlike so much sports talk radio and ESPN, the laughter never feels forced. His age, broken English, passion for food and family stories are regularly fodder for laughs. Occasionally, the show will stop in its tracks for Dan to call his mother to confirm an embarrassing anecdote about his father.

DLHQ, which is filmed in the Cuban and Cuban-American heavy city of Hialeah, Fla. near Miami, is also the only show on ESPN with a sense of place. Because the network is headquartered in nondescript Bristol, Conn., programs on the network regularly reflect the generic studio environment of its signature program, Sportscenter. DLHQ is a Miami show. Miami sports stories are given prominence and Miami sports stars occasionally wander through the show’s silly, fake kitchen studio. When New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham became one of the best at his position last year, Dan and Gonzalo recalled how terrible the breakout football star was on the Miami Hurricanes basketball team. The benefits of having a show SOMEWHERE was highlighted earlier this year following controversial comments from Ozzie Guillen, firebrand manager of the Miami Marlins who said he “loved” Fidel Castro. It was discussed endlessly on the network by dozens of dullards with little or no political or local awareness, but Gonzalo’s heartfelt story about leaving Cuba for America was a rare bit of insightful and moving context.

The show truly shines in its daily interview segment. Interviews on DLHQ are markedly different from other ESPN interviews, which almost exclusively focus on history no older than 24 hours and rarely treat athletes like human beings. Dan seldom, if ever, asks athletes about the recent or upcoming game. He asks about their childhood, their fears, their families and their beliefs. As the intersection between sports and naked capitalism continues to separate athletes from fans, DLHQ is one of the few places where athletes are presented with a level of humanity.  The best example is the show’s interview with former Penn State/NBA journeyman John Amaechi. Amaechi, who should have his own show on the network, tells Dan about the difficulties of being a gay man in sports.  Amaechi talks about the scorn he faced after coming out publicly. It is a genuinely emotional moment for Dan, who seems to be holding back tears. Seeing a gay man talk about his struggles while a straight sports columnist listens with real empathy is almost shocking to see on a sports network. It’s undoubtedly important.

Another great example of the strength of DLHQ interviews is this discussion with Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who I had no idea was such an interesting person.

That’s not to say the show focuses exclusively on Roy Firestone-esque sentimentality. It also gives athletes the chance to be funny and flawed in public without judgment. It’s a highlight in a show that thrives on the delightful parts of sports and draws attention to issues bigger than the game. That perspective is something severely lacking on ESPN’s programming (save the channel’s wonderful 30 For 30 and ESPN Films productions). ESPN needs it. In the dispiriting sports environment of 2012, we sports fans need it.

“New Jersey/Airport.”

FX

Louie’s second season has been a dark experiment. It managed to turn the simple premise of a one-man show with a standup comic at its center into something far greater. The darkness, drama and perceptiveness packed into a 30-minute FX comedy scripted, directed and led by one man  has made Louie the greatest creative overachiever in American television history. The first season gave Louis CK an opportunity to begin laying the foundation of his fucked philosophy–the second season cemented it. AV Club Editor Keith Phipps proposed that the second season was “one of the great seasons” in television history. It’s not an overstatement.

“New Jersey/Airport” fittingly concludes with a story of painfully unrequited love that initially appeared in one of the season’s strongest episodes. The episode begins with Louie running into Steven Wright after a successful set. Wright tells Louie that he should use the momentum from his standup set to “get some tail.” He’s married, so Louie choosing to go home immediately after the set is a waste, Wright says. The plea for vicariously sexual satisfaction is a bit unnerving coming from Wright, whose stage persona is the polar opposite of sex.  Louie wanders around aimlessly looking for a potential sex partner with little luck. He walks out of the club, where he’s confronted by a woman who says she loved his show. She also says she was waiting “because I want to show you my pussy.” It’s a desire she repeats numerous times in their short time together. The entire exchange is a bit dreamlike, which would partially explain the actor’s robotic, odd delivery of each line.

The pair get to her house, where it’s revealed that she’s a married woman hoping to “share” Louie with her older husband. The dreaminess continues in an utterly absurd exchange where Louie politely asks to leave the surprise ménage à trois and the husband angrily tells Louie to leave. It’s not a scene that has any foot in reality. The scene feels more like a rejected Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Louie calls Chris Rock to ask for help, which results in anger from Rock’s off-screen wife. Rock, who has worked with Louis CK since the 1990s, lectures Louie about the direction of his life. “This is 30-year-old shit, not 40-year old shit,” he tells Louie. The scene is punctuated when Rock’s angry wife calls Louie his “fat friend.” It’s a weak story in comparison to some of the excellent second season episodes.

The stronger part of the episode comes in the final eight minutes, when Louie and Pamela arrive at the airport. Pamela is going to Paris to see her ex-husband, who has recently reconnected with their son. She’s decided to try to make the relationship work. Louie admits that all of his hopes for love are pinned on Pamela, who has repeatedly told Louie that she does not feel the same way. She tells Louie to move on. Louie tells her that he thinks they’re supposed to be together. Pamela laughs and asks why Louie keeps making her “say mean things” to him. The dynamic between Louie and Pamela is an odd one in pop culture. Unrequited love is certainly well-worn territory, but Louie still has hope that it will work out. If we do see unrequited love where one person carries false hope, it’s typically played for laughs. However, this unrequited love isn’t particularly funny. It’s a broken man seeking a fulfillment he’ll never have from a person he may never see again.

Louie transitions from expressing his feeling that love between he and Pamela is a cosmic inevitability into a pragmatic lecture about the moral shortcomings of her ex-husband. She deserves better, he tells her. She acknowledges that her husband is a piece of shit, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be with Louie. It’s an important distinction–she doesn’t know she loves her ex-husband, but she knows she doesn’t love Louie. Louie genuinely doesn’t believe her. “I have a hard time believing that I feel this way and there is nothing coming back,” Louie tells her in a heartbreaking moment. It’s a ridiculous sentiment, but one that cuts to the heart of what unrequited love is all about. We believe that if we feel something deep enough, the object of our love can’t help but share those same feelings. He firmly believes that the universe wouldn’t allow him to have these deep feelings for no reason. We believe that too. The way we talk about love is influenced heavily by our sense that the universe loves us and seeks to make us happy. Louie, if anything, has taught us that the universe has no order. There’s no happiness waiting for us. The fact that Louie doesn’t recognize this fact with Pamela only magnifies his pain.

Pamela laughs at Louie’s notion that she is somehow unaware of her romantic love for him, but Louie rejects her pleas for him to move on. He would rather wait for her. She leaves when Louie begins to tear up. Louie doesn’t stop staring at her as she walks away. The season ends with a besotted Louie misunderstanding Pamela’s request for him to “wave to me” as a request to “wait for me.” We see a triumphant Louie march out of the airport with a wrong-headed notion that the universe has smiled on him. It’s a sweet moment but it’s also one of the most crushing. Louie has gone through this series with an understanding that life is a debilitating series of disappointments. He wants to believe that things are about to change. But they’re not. He’s doomed. This time, he just doesn’t know it.

“Niece.”

FX

The second season of Louie has focused more on the perils of parenthood than any other single subject. It’s been a natural progression–even for a show with no real continuity from episode to episode. The first season ended with a beautiful scene of Louie spending time with his two daughters as the sun begins to rise in the background.  Throughout the season Louie has tried and largely failed at teaching his daughters life lessons, giving them lifelong memories and providing them with whatever they want. Even when he fails, it’s clear his daughters love him. “Niece,” a well-made but forgettable episode in a stellar season, is the first time we’ve seen Louie interact with a child who doesn’t love him.

Louie gets the unexpected job of watching his 13-year-old niece Amy when his sister drops her off at Grand Central Station. She tells Louie, who believed he was getting a visit from his sister and niece, that she needs to go back to Philadelphia and “I need her not to be with me.” Amy, wearing headphones and looking miserable, immediately wanders off. They make it to Louie’s home, where Amy walks into the bedroom and slams the door. Louie waits hours before cautiously opening the door to check on his silent niece. She tells Louie that she wants to go to an indie rock club, which sets up a great crowd shot of an out-of-place Louie in the middle of a crowd of hip and attractive people half his age. Louie looks incredibly uncomfortable and tries to protect his niece from a guy bouncing along to the music.

After leaving the club, Louie tries to convince Amy to eat something. The pair are in Chinatown and surrounded by plenty of delicious options, but Amy wants no part of it. She tells Louie that she won’t die if she doesn’t eat. Of course, she will. The exchanges between Louie and Amy are stilted and odd throughout the episode. It’s likely a function of an intentional awkwardness between the two characters and the fact that neither Louis CK or Gideon Adlon (daughter of Pamela Adlon, consulting producer and Pamela on the show) are very good actors. The relationship also lacks authenticity. Amy is clearly troubled, but the portrayal is oddly broad in its depiction of an emotionally damaged teenager.

The few moments that justify the episode’s plot largely deal with an unseen history with Louie, his sister, Amy and her absentee father. The first of these moments comes when Louie tells Amy that her mom “had a hard life.” Every moment in the episode that features a reference to Louie and his sister carries a large amount of emotional baggage. Amy eventually convinces Louie to take her to see him do a standup set. They arrive to see comedian Godfrey, who Amy deems to be funny. Louie tells her that Godfrey is doing crowd work, which he says is “easy.” Louie takes the stage and tries to do his own crowd work, but fails. It’s a scene that lacks credibility. We saw Louie bomb earlier in the season in Las Vegas and both scenes did not feel like Louis CK bombing as Louis CK. They felt like Louis CK playing a less interesting, less funny comedian. It might work if we weren’t regularly reminded of the charisma and wit that Louis CK brings on stage.

Amy and Louie join Todd  Barry and Nick DiPaolo for dinner. Todd Barry asks Amy a series of generic questions, then immediately gives up the attempt at conversation in one of the episode’s few comic moments. Nick DiPaolo declares that by age 16, girls either “become people or they become whores.” It’s an unfunny, reactionary comment from an unfunny, reactionary comedian. It fails to shock, but manages to give a dullard like DiPaolo an opportunity to play the role of an unafraid truth teller. Only it’s not true.

Godfrey joins the group and connects with Amy. She likes Godfrey, who asks her about how much she hates Boston (“very”) and reminds her that she will need her mom some day. Louie is shocked by Godfrey’s ability to connect with his niece. When quizzed about how he did it, Godfrey tells Louie that his girlfriend’s daughter is the same age and offers a tip. “You’ve got to learn to talk with people who are not like you–it’s called empathy, man.” It’s the episode’s most memorable moment and a wonderful quote, but it hardly feels earned. Louie has tried to talk with Amy and Godfrey’s only real advantage is that he’s younger and hipper than Louie. There is nothing in this particular  episode that tells us that Louie lacks empathy–he’s simply cast in the caretaker role for Amy, while Godfrey gets to be the cool, older friend.

The pair are walking together on the street when Louie gives money to a homeless man. Amy tells Louie that giving money to homeless people is “condescending.” She tells Louie that her father says that people who do charity do it to better themselves, not help others. “And then he ran out on you,” an exasperated Louie tells her. He carries her home and puts her to sleep back at his apartment. A woman from a hospital in Philadelphia calls to tell Louie that his sister was taken to the hospital after acting irrationally in a fountain. The woman from the hospital recommends that Amy continue to stay with Louie. It’s a recommendation that I hope the show does not take.

“Duckling.”

FX

Great art can sometimes be better defined by what it chooses NOT to do as much as by what it actually does. Most Pixar films are great in their own right, but they also benefit from viewers seeing countless hours of soulless children’s films full of cheap laughs and one-note characters. The fact that many Pixar films are full of heart, treat viewers with a level of respect and refuse to go for the easy laugh elevates them from forgettable time-fillers to films that can be taken as seriously as their live-action counterparts. “Duckling” is a very good hour of television on its own merits, but it’s elevated to a great hour of television by what it chooses NOT to do.

The episode begins with Louie picking his daughters up from school, where he learns that it’s his turn to take care of the classroom’s baby ducks. It’s yet another example of Louie going head-to-head with the bureaucracy of the public school system and finishing second. He tells the teacher that he can’t take the baby ducks because he’s going on a USO tour of Iraq and Afghanistan. Louie’s reasonable excuse is met with a shrug and a shake of the head from the teacher–a theme throughout the series. After returning home with the ducks, Louie tucks his daughters into bed before denying repeated requests from his younger daughter for “just one duckling” and trying to assure his older daughter that his USO tour is safe. The onslaught of ducklings and questions is followed with a shot of Louie sneaking a cigarette in the bathroom. It’s yet another reminder of Louis CK’s smoking-as-freedom philosophy of parenting I mentioned in the previous episode review.

The bulk of “Duckling” is better experienced than retold since very little actually happens on the hourlong episode, but some of the people we meet in Louie’s USO tour are:

  • Keni Thomas, a friendly, patriotic country singer and former U.S. Army Ranger;
  • a religious cheerleader;
  • and members of the armed services.

The first two characters are almost always the kind of person who would be satirized or openly mocked on another “smart” series with a liberal creator, while the third group of people are universally pitied, unrealistically idolized or patronized on television. The greatness of “Duckling” lies in rejecting all of those one-note story arcs. It treats characters whose traits are almost set in stone in pop culture as complete human beings. It’s beautifully simple, yet almost shockingly unfamiliar. You keep waiting for the patriotic country singer to reveal his real intentions, but the moment never comes. You keep waiting for the religious cheerleader to receive her comeuppance for her stringent beliefs, but that moment never comes. You keep waiting for the armed services members to be placed on a pedestal as something other than young people in a perilous situation, but that moment never comes. All three characters are brimming with humanity.

The USO portion of the episode goes for few, if any, laughs outside of Louie’s standup material, which the religious cheerleader dubs “disgusting.” The moment comes while the pair are eating. The young cheerleader asks him why he can’t say “Christian things” and be funny. Louie is bewildered by the silly question, but he refuses to go into the blind rage that marked his interaction with a strange religious person in “Come On, God.” In a war zone, arguing about religion or masturbation seems less important. After showing the cheerleader a duckling his daughter concealed in his bag and making an offhanded comment about the animal not protecting them against an RPG, she smiles and tells him that now he’s being Christian and funny. It’s an artfully nonjudgmental interaction. The cheerleader is undeniably naive and simple, but it all feels real. The fact that Louis CK never uses the interaction as a source of satire or easy comedy is an accomplishment.

One of the stops on the tour is a small camp in the mountains, where the group are forced to take cover during a rocket attack. The soldiers laugh off the unsuccessful attack, while a terrified Louie is shocked by a world where a potential life-or-death situation is met with laughter. Louie begins to emcee the event in front of about 15-20 armed services members. When one of the soldiers tells Louie that he’s never heard of him, Louie quickly shoots back– “I’ve never heard of you either, dickface.” It’s such an unexpected exchange. It’s clear throughout the episode that Louis CK respects the armed services members, but he refuses to treat them with kid gloves or a deferential sympathy. He simply sees them as human beings in a shitty situation.

“Duckling” culminates with a tense standoff between a group of gun-toting Arabs and the U.S. armed services members. The standoff appears to be headed for disaster before Louie tries to grab an escaped duckling and stumbles to the ground. The two groups stop shouting and begin laughing at Louie’s sad attempt to save the baby duck. Louie’s daughter packed the duckling for his safety and that’s exactly what it provided. The episode ends with Keni singing as the two groups–who were likely seconds away from mutual destruction– sit together peacefully in a circle. It’s a fitting end to a remarkably earnest, heartfelt episode. Louie traveled around the world to a combat zone and discovered more humanity than he ever sees–or notices–back home.