“Country Drive.”

FX

To truthfully tell the history of America, we have to acknowledge that virtually every anecdote that could inspire pride or devotion is inextricably linked with an even greater level of ugliness. Any person with a shred of intellectual honesty has to acknowledge that this country was brutally taken from its inhabitants, built by slave labor and forged into a superpower by an virtually-unending series of bloody wars. That’s why we’ve always lied to kids about our nation’s actual history.  Whether living in a fantasy as a child is preferable to being told hard truths is beside the point. It’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done. “Country Drive” is the best illustration of that predicament that I’ve ever seen.

It’s not an easy task. Portraying the repugnant elements of our nation’s history has inspired countless ham-fisted artistic efforts. Most attempts are brutally didactic or self-righteous. The fact that Louie managed to humanize the dilemma in such a small, beautiful way is an amazing achievement. It may be the show’s greatest triumph.

The episode, which starts with a wonderfully abridged version of the theme song that immediately jumps into the car with Louie and his children, is a road movie at its core. The first sounds we hear are Louie’s daughter repeatedly saying that she is bored. Bored. Bored. Bored. Louie’s response is perfect and similar to one of Louis CK’s greatest standup bits, Everything is Amazing and No One is Happy. The entire premise of the bit runs so counter to one of the central premises of standup–trying to connect with your audience. Even comics who pride themselves on being “truth tellers” base their bits on either easy targets or targets that are outside of the audience they’re playing to. The other. Everyone but us is dumb. All of the things that you, audience member, already think is dumb is duuuumb. The central argument of Everything is Amazing and No One is Happy is that things aren’t dumb–WE are dumb. It makes no effort to relate to the audience, yet it works in a way that few do. It’s one of the only standup bits that has actually changed my life and the way I look at the world around me.

Louie responds to his daughter’s boredom by telling her that her very existence is a miracle and seeing a vast, incredible world that she’s never seen is a blessing. How can she be bored? She is. The fact that we should be more appreciative runs throughout Louis CK’s work. So much of his comedy is based around the notion that things we love are actually temporary and silly, while the things we hate are actually amazing. It’s a wonderfully subversive concept being spread through the wonder of basic cable.

During the road trip to Pennsylvania to see Louie’s aunt, an extended and animated singing of “Who Are You” makes for one of the best single scenes of pure joy on television. It’s so radically dissimilar from anything else in the entire run of the series. Louie is almost always observing the world in the show. During the singing, it’s the most free/excited we’ve seen Louie in the run of the show. It goes on and on with no particular punch line. Of course, we’re waiting for the “who the fuck are you?!” line. But it’s much more than a single swear-around-children joke. His children are amused, then a bit troubled by their father’s outburst. After the crazed singing along with Roger Daltrey, Louie sits quietly in the car with his daughters before telling them to look at geese. Car singing has been shown numerous times in TV and film, but I’ve never enjoyed it more.

Louie’s daughters are thrilled about meeting his 90-something-year-old aunt after he describes her as a walking history book. Unfortunately, she is. The elderly, frail woman warmly welcomes the children and Louie into the house before casually offering them a Brazil nut. Louie quickly cuts off his daughter from asking why her aunt would use that word. The conversation goes downhill from there. When Louie mentions that he lives in New York, his aunt uses the same ethnic slur in an even more disgusting context. The young girls try to speak up again, but are rebuffed by a nervous Louie who doesn’t want his daughters to upset his elderly, hatemonger aunt.

For some, the scene may have felt like a farce. On a personal level, it brought back memories. The first time I remember hearing the n-word used was by a sweet, elderly aunt. It sounded like a swear word of some kind, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. I can remember using context clues and being very troubled by it. You’re constantly told when you’re a kid that you should worry about strangers, but there are moments when your young brain begins to understand that even adults you know and love can be really horrible people. And yet, she was still my aunt. I was a little kid. What could I do?

When the aunt leaves the room, Louie’s daughters ask why they couldn’t say anything. “I don’t like that word,” one of the young girls says. Louie is caught between teaching his kids that the word is unacceptable, while still worrying about unsettling his elderly aunt. It’s such an interesting dilemma that I think is fairly common, yet I’ve never seen it depicted before. He eventually tells his daughters that they can ask her why she used the word. They can ask her anything. Of course, they can’t. This is Louie. She dies before making it back.

The main story of the episode is perfectly capped by Louis CK performing a bit about the tragic history of the United States, which he somehow compares with showing his 8-year-old penis to a girl with Down Syndrome. It’s one of the most disturbing metaphors about American history I’ve ever heard, yet so spot-on. We may be older and wiser now, but the horrible things we’ve done don’t just go away. We’re still those people.

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“Joan.”

FX

“Joan” was a reminder why The Daily Show doesn’t have guest hosts. The audience tunes in to see Jon Stewart and peek inside his brain–the guests and many of the Stewart-less moments are forgettable. The show largely works because Jon Stewart’s mind is at its center. Louie has operated around a similar premise. The show regularly changes genres, adds and loses supporting characters, but every bit of it comes directly from Louis CK. “Joan,” which features an extended conversation between Louie and one of the regular fill-ins for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, was Louie‘s first attempt at having the equivalent of a guest host. Let’s hope it’s the last.

Each episode of the series has lived or died by its success in conveying Louis CK’s message.  Even when Louie’s not the person communicating in a scene, Louis CK is directly speaking to us as an audience. This was the first episode where Louie/Louis CK spends a considerable amount of time listening. Louie meets Joan Rivers, who spends a good portion of the episode talking about her long career as a comedian and reminding Louie that he’s a lucky man. As a result, the episode lacks the focus and sharpness that comes from its singular perspective. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether the episode fails on an even deeper level because of the person delivering the message (Rivers) or because the rambling, trite message (show business is a fickle business, but it’s better than real work) isn’t worth repeating yet again. Either way, the central message is from Joan Rivers, not Louis CK. There is a reason FX doesn’t air a show called Joan.

The appearance of Rivers, whose career has seen a resurgence from a documentary about the ups and downs of her long career, is a reminder that even comedians are prone to romanticism. Nevermind her late-career nastiness on red carpets, search through Joan Rivers’ standup videos on Youtube and you will be hard pressed to find many laughs. She is something of an institution, but her greatest quality is the tenacity to find new ways to insert her tired brand of Vaudeville/weak self-deprecation humor into every decade. The endorsement of Rivers makes me rethink Louis CK’s recent praise of Old Bill Cosby. I haven’t seen a Cosby’s recent standup, but I was hopeful after hearing the Best Standup Alive state that the aging comedian was the “best comedian I’ve ever seen live.” Seeing Louie chuckle at Joan Rivers’ sagging breast jokes made the Cosby comment feel hollow. There is certainly room for praise of longevity, but it’s disingenuous to mix up persistence and actual talent.

While the episode’s longest vignette falls flat, some of the smaller moments in “Joan” were memorable. The opening scene is a warning that everyday drudgery is an unavoidable plague. Tragedy is all around and everyone is hurting, but we still have to remember to get (6 or 60) bananas. The promising start to the episode, which features Louie attempting to order groceries and get off the phone with his depressed sister, was its most successful. Minor annoyances are fodder for every sitcom on television. Only Louie is interrupted by moments of REAL pain.

“Moving.”

FX

“Life is shit wall to wall.”
-Louis CK, Hilarious.

It says a lot about Louie that one of the least dark episodes in the history of the show centers around a middle-aged man who tries to find a new home in a futile effort to absolve himself from the judgment of others, impress his children and purge the final connection to his ex-wife. All of the places Louie can afford are straight from an urban nightmare film of the 1970s, while the one place he sets his heart on owning is comically out of his grasp. The contrasts between the homes within his price range and the Former Home of Lenny Bruce are excellent examples of one of the underappreciated elements of Louie: the direction of the show.  The lighting, camerawork and music take viewers inside each of these homes with Louie. Every location looks and feels like it should.

One of the most poignant moments in the episode came with Louie walking in on a confused elderly man who will likely die alone. Soon. Louie has found regular sources of material in looking back. These scenes of young Louie have been some of the show’s best. We’ve seen young Louie terrified and taunted by religion and girls. We’ve seen a young Louie looking at present-day Louie with disgust. Now, we finish a tour of a depressing, filthy home with Louie looking ahead. And fittingly, the future isn’t bright. The lingering shot of Louie looking eye-to-eye with his future is equally fascinating and crushing. A man who is so clearly aware of his own mortality sees his future self as angry, alone, confused and in his underwear.

The episode was full of surreal moments: a homeless man exchange outside of the old man’s house, a spinning exchange between Louie and his Realtor and the increasingly filthy tale spun by Todd Barry to an oblivious Louie. The scene with Louie and Todd Barry sitting in a diner as a distracted Louie ignores his friend is a scene that has been done countless times in television and film comedies. The friend, tired of being ignored, says something outrageous. The distracted person misses it entirely. As usual, Louie takes the trope to new depths.

The journey ends with Louie sitting on a stoop in front of a home he’ll never own. His declaration that he will some day own this home sounded like a man approaching hopelessness who just wants to experience what hope sounds like when it comes out of his mouth. It didn’t sound right. Of course, it didn’t. Of course, he wasn’t going to own his dream home. We know this. Louis CK knows this. The final scene of Louie and his daughters painting the home he once shared with wife was one of the sweetest moments in a show bereft of sweet moments. But even the sweetness is underscored by the bitterness of failure. Louie started the episode searching for a new beginning, but ends it back where he started. Louie has accepted his fate.

“Bummer/Blueberries.”

FX

The first moment of romantic warmth in the history of Louie followed a decapitation, while a planned romantic tryst finds a fate worse than death.  I have seen some terrible reviews of the show that attempt to compare Louie with current or past television shows. I can’t think of another show that has ever aired that can be fairly compared with the mishmash use of standup, absurdity, drama, slice-of-life or tragedy that can sometimes make up a single 22-minute episode. Comparing it to Seinfeld, for example, is wrongheaded in every conceivable way. There has only been one show like Louie.  “Bummer/Blueberries” confirmed this.

The fact that it takes a decapitation for Louie to lose all artifice and nervousness is telling. It also illustrates his point. We don’t live like we could die at any moment. I know I probably wouldn’t have watched Zapped! starring Scott Baio and Willie Ames about a month ago if I was truly aware of how fleeting my own life really is. Louie’s slightly-blundering, slightly-profound dialogue to his date is a series highlight. Two lonely, unsatisfied people who are on that date for two completely different reasons connect at the thought of their own mortality. It’s beautifully macabre and incredibly romantic. The kiss could have been taken from a 1950s TV melodrama.

But it can’t continue. Not in Louie’s world and not in ours. A traumatic experience can give us new perspective, but in the end, we tend to fall back into the roles we played before. Once Louie explains why he came to his conclusion about the fleeting nature of life, his date is repulsed. They are back where they started. A disinterested, superficial woman and a bumbling, sad man. The entire vignette was full of lightning-quick changes in emotion. It was a pleasure to watch.

After a decapitation in the first vignette, the second part of the episode is a slow burn that feels like a noir film in its gradual unraveling. The conversation between Louie and his fellow parent begins with Louie admitting that he has no opinion on a planned plasma screen at the school. In an age of knee-jerk and loud opinions, one of the greatest sins is not having one. It’s one of the observations about 2011 America that I have never seen on television or film. The parent casually and disturbingly tells Louie that she is available for no-strings-attached sex. But even in her odd description of why she’s available for consequence-free sex, we already hear the sorrow that will eventually devolve into one of the series’ darkest moments. The next shot is Louie awkwardly standing at her door with a bottle of wine.

An increasingly horrible night is kicked off with the date instructing Louie to take off his shoes before walking in. All of the beauty and passion in the kiss with the previous date is completely missing in a difficult-to-watch kiss with the fellow parent in the kitchen. The stakes are continually raised throughout Louie’s evening of horror: the date comes out of the bathroom wearing a gown befitting Ma Kettle, while all of the planned “intercourse” is delayed so Louie can fetch his date condoms, lubricant and medicine for her irritated vagina. And blueberries. Throughout the night, Louie is just seconds away from walking away. But each painful moment continues without Louie being able to comfortably cut ties.

The sex scene is nightmarish. Going back to Lucky Louie, Louis CK has specialized in hellish sex scenes. This was the Citizen Kane of agonizing sex. A person with the level of self-loathing of Louie (and perhaps, Louis CK) is unable to temporarily forget the absurdity of sex. Even the eventual reward of sex is full of psychological mine fields that make the experience an exercise in embarrassment and trauma. Suitably, it ends with his date loudly crying and apologizing to her “daddy.” The fact that something as dark as the sex scene in this episode is on TV is a marvel.

The final scene of the vignette shows his date briefly sucking from a can of whipped cream and despondently eating blueberries. In a move that couldn’t have been a coincidence, the “Created by Louis CK” credit appears directly on Louie’s head. Yes, this is what’s going on in Louis CK’s mind. All of the ugliness, sadness, darkness and humanity is Louis CK’s. We’re entertained.