“Halloween/Ellie.”

FX

Fear is an instinct that has marked many Louie episodes. There have been explorations into the implicit fear associated with religion, sex, parenthood, dating and simply living in the world.  “Halloween/Ellie” deals with the fear of parental failure and fear of professional failure. It’s not the series’ most successful episode on the topic, but it includes several of the memorable moments that have made Louie the greatest show on television.

The episode starts with Louie taking his daughters trick-or-treating. Louie’s youngest daughter is dressed as a fairy, while his older daughter is dressed as Frederick Douglass. The Frederick Douglass costume is there for visual impact and a single half-joke (“she read a book on him”), but it’s not an ongoing source of story. This is one of the elements that separates Louie from shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, which would have squeezed 28 minutes of material from a young, white child dressed as an old, black historical figure. It’s a beautifully strange touch. It may also be the first time I’ve seen a character on television in the 21st century in non-outrageous blackface. The costume feels perversely respectful.

Night begins to fall and Louie is ready to go home, but his daughters talk him into a few more minutes of trick-or-treating. A few quick scares from costumed adults are met with comforting words about people just having fun. The fun ends when two men in costumes begin following Louie and his daughters, who, despite his best efforts to hide it, begin to sense their father’s fear (“Why are we walking faster?”). It’s an astute observation about the remarkable intuition of children. Precocious children are a dime a dozen on bad sitcoms, but the daughters’ instinctual understanding of their father’s uneasiness feels wholly fresh.

The inevitable confrontation comes when the trio think they have lost the two creeps. They round the corner, only to find their pursuers waiting for them. The men appear genuinely disturbed and Louie is lost. It’s a parental nightmare that’s fittingly made to feel like a horror movie. Louie is caught between fight and flight. Fighting two large men may not necessarily be the best choice for himself or his daughters, while running away doesn’t seem to be possible.  He appeals to their better angels, but these two guys appear to be without such encumbrances. When Louie’s youngest daughter angrily yells at one of the men about how Halloween is supposed to be fun, Louie grabs the closest thing to him and smashes a store window. The broken glass sets off an alarm and the two jerks run away.

His daughters assume that Louie planned the moment the whole time. Their dad knew exactly what to do. While they sensed the fear in Louie earlier in the episode, they still believe in their father as being able to save them from any situation. And up until this point in their lives, he has. It’s such an accurate, sweet observation. I can remember my dad confronting a big group of guys outside of a fast food restaurant when I was a kid. We were on vacation and the guys had yelled at me, my sister or my mom–I don’t remember who. My dad told us to get into the car. As I peeked out the back window of our car, I could see him walking up to the group of guys, pointing at them and I could hear him yelling. I was alarmed by the whole situation at the time, but it never particularly occurred to me that anything bad could have happened to him. Looking back, I would be much more upset by the situation today than I was then. My dad is still an amazing guy, but I know now that he is just a guy. He could have been killed. But all of my life leading up to that moment made me think that my dad knew what he was doing. Maybe that’s why teenagers so rarely get along with their parents–it’s the first time you see that your parents are just people. Flawed people with contradictions, problems and failures. That moment hasn’t come for Louie’s daughters.

After the thugs leave and Louie sits with his adoring daughters, he picks up a half-smoked cigarette laying on the pavement and takes a long drag. It’s a memorable moment. He can’t show his daughters the terror he felt just seconds before. Smoking is a recurring activity associated with parenting on Louie. When Louie confronted and bonded with the abusive father in season 1, the pair sat on the porch and smoked. When he spent time with Pamela, the pair shared a sneaky cigarette near a window. This time, the cigarette is a solitary experience, but it’s the most needed puff so far.

The second half of the episode deals with Louie’s professional failures. It begins with Louie in a room full of comedians summoned to punch-up an upcoming movie. It’s an activity that’s been a regular source of discussion and material for comedians like Patton Oswalt, who are brought in to make an unfunny movie funny in a few hours. Louie suggests a change to the opening scene in the cop movie he’s brought in to spice up. A middle-aged white woman of importance asks her colleague who Louie is. The brief bit of silent discussion between the pair, which requires a little lip reading on the part of the audience, is one of the episode’s best shot moments.

Louie agrees to go to lunch with the middle-aged white woman of  importance, where she reveals that she’s a bigwig at Paramount. She doesn’t just want to make one of Louie movie ideas, she wants to make ALL of them. Louie begins to tell her his best idea for a movie, which revolves around a man who works a sewage plant (or “shit factory”), makes one bad decision after another, meets a beautiful girl and his life just keeps getting worse and worse. It’s almost certainly a heightened version of real meetings Louis CK has experienced. It says something about the high quality of Louie that after hearing his terrible pitch of his terrible idea for a movie, I immediately wanted to see it.

“Eddie.”

FX

I wrote in the review on the season premiere about Louie being a meditation on the fucked nature of existence. Every week, we watch Louie suffer through the pains of living and dealing with other people. “Eddie” is the first glimpse of another person whose life is more gloriously fucked than Louie’s. In fact, Louie appears well-adjusted and happy when standing next to a disaster of a human being like his old pal Eddie.  The episode feels like a reminder from Louis CK that while he’s all too familiar with life’s dark corners, there’s a giant chasm between surmising that life is “shit wall to wall” and deciding that it’s not worth living.

We’re introduced to Eddie backstage at the Comedy Cellar, where Louie finishes a set to loud applause. Eddie quickly gets into an argument with another comic, who innocently asks if he works in Los Angeles. Eddie immediately decides the other comic is a “phony New York piece of shit” from the innocuous question. The tension builds early in the episode, but it really starts to accelerate when Eddie casually mentions that he’s “done and done” with life. The slow build to Louie, the least likely spokesman for the joys of life, being forced to talk his old friend out of suicide is inevitable. Louie is cast into the role of apologetic friend in a liquor store, where Eddie gets into another argument–this time with a racist argument with a liquor store clerk.

Eddie insists on going to an open mic in Brooklyn, where we see Louie being amused by his sweaty friend’s bits about sex being boring and gross. The second season has been full of shots of Louie laughing at other comics. It’s a tired device for the show. Louie doesn’t have a laugh track, but the constant shots of him laughing at other comics almost feels even more manipulative. It’s a brief stumble in an otherwise quality episode.

A series of flashbacks show us that while Louie worked for success, Eddie was too busy searching for an unobtainable, undefined version of artistic purity. It’s perfectly illustrated when Eddie berates Louie for drinking water. Louie responds by telling a bemused Eddie that “when you find yourself railing against water–get a grip, man.” It’s a wonderful human moment between the two. Eddie continues to heap guilt on Louie from the moment they reconnect, when he derisively mentions Louie’s “career” to mentioning that Louie abandoned his “fat” wife.

Truth be told, Eddie is an asshole. He eventually confesses that Louie, his old friend who he holds in complete contempt, is the only person he has left. He’s lost everyone and he doesn’t want anyone else. It’s all over for him. “You get to a point that you think that maybe it’s time to put a period on whatever this was,” he tells Louie. The confession leads us to the inevitable moment when Louie is forced to talk Eddie out of killing himself. Louie pauses when Eddie asks why he shouldn’t end his own life. The moments of Louie trying to quickly think of something he can say to convince his friend that life is worth continuing are some of the most painful in the series’ run. It’s painful because we, as viewers, can’t think of any reason he should go on living. From everything we’ve seen on this episode, death may be Eddie’s best option. Now, that’s a dark concept to introduce on a television comedy.

Louie responds with anger toward Eddie. He should. Louie hasn’t seen Eddie in decades and his old friend isn’t asking for help. He just wants to dump his pain and hopelessness on someone else. Louie angrily tries to tell him that he should try again tomorrow like everyone else, which Eddie sarcastically calls “tough love.” Louie makes one more stab by telling him that life is bigger than him. It’s something you “take part in, something you witness.” It’s a better argument than I could think of, yet Eddie responds with laughter and accuses Louie of being excited that he gets to talk someone out of suicide as a way to feel better about himself. In the middle of the intense exchange, they pause to see a young couple arguing and share a laugh. The exchange ends with an embrace between the two and Louie slowly walking away from his friend, who he will likely never see again. Louie has to pick up his kids in the morning. Tragedy is all around, but life goes on.

“Come on, God.”

FX

“Uh, no, I know the darkness.”

Louis CK has a dim view of sex. It’s eternally tied to sadness, shame and failure. In the second season alone, Louie’s had sex with a crying woman asking for forgiveness from her “daddy” and Joan Rivers. His one chance for satisfying sex was a missed opportunity. It’s only natural that Louis CK dedicated an entire episode of Louie for defending masturbation, while marrying it with sadness, shame and failure. And flatulence.

The episode opens with Louie on a Fox News talk show. Louie is debating masturbation with a prim, young lady from “Christians Against Masturbation (CAM).” The entire segment is dreamlike, teetering between a fantastical, comic invention of a modern-day prude and the real-life absurdity of a cable news debate. The actress portraying the anti-masturbation activist is a little on the nose with her doe-eyed rhetoric on “purity” and the “crime” of self-abuse, but the scene manages to keep her from simply being a punching bag for Louie. It follows well-worn territory on debate in Louie’s universe: his logic is sound, but his tactics are all wrong.  In season one, Louie ends an Obama debate with Nick DiPaolo by calling the conservative comic a fascist. During season two, he’s tried to make deep observations about life to his daughters, only to abandon the point and teach them nothing. It’s an important distinction from most comedies with strong-minded writers, who use typically use debate as a way to set up comically-inept opposition to give the lead an opportunity to easily prove the writer’s point.

Even in a debate as silly as whether masturbation should exist, Louie manages to foul it up. After Louie condescendingly asks the anti-masturbation activist if she’s ever been married, she asks him if he’s ever been happy. She’s quickly found Louie’s kryptonite. If Louie hasn’t found happiness via masturbation, marriage or anything else he’s tried, how can he be trusted? It’s a faulty argument, of course. We know that Louie simply lives honestly in his unhappiness, which would undoubtedly be magnified by any life choice he makes. The host, Louie and CAM spokesperson sit in silence as he ponders the question about his lifelong unhappiness.

He finally responds with a delayed bit of childish rage. Her purity meetings sound like a “bunch of bullshit,” he says. He wags his finger at her, tells her that she doesn’t know anything more about being happy than he does. God probably hates people who try to tell other people how to live, he says. Then, Louie is forced to defend his existence during a debate on masturbation. It’s a fascinating, honest look at one man’s world falling in around him during a debate where logic is on his side. Television news in 2011 is a sturdy platform for self-assured, self-satisfied people with a consistent point over self-doubting, honest people who are wrestling with their own beliefs. Turn on cable news at any time of the day and you will likely find a talking head speaking with absolute certainty on an issue. The content is secondary to portraying a sense of certainty. Louie is a mess of uncertainty, self-loathing and doubt. He defiantly tells his anti-masturbation debate adversary that he will masturbate tonight thinking about her, then angrily removes his microphone and storms off the set. Louie wasn’t made for cable news.

The second act of this twisted morality play begins with Louie sharing an elevator with a pretty lady. The scene makes no effort to hide where it’s going. In an episode that begins with Louie defending masturbation (the only person willing to go on national television to do so, we’re told), there is absolutely no doubt that the elevator woman will return in Louie’s fantasies. While the setup is clear, the strange and surreal places the fantasy devolves into are some of the series’ highlights. Masturbation is a common theme in comedy, but the jokes normally lie in fantasies being interrupted by another person. Louie ruins his own moment of self-pleasure all by himself.

The fantasy elevator woman asks Louie to place a bag of penises inside her. Fantasy Louie peers into his plastic grocery bag, which is filled with penises. The bag of dicks device is a rare use of the series referencing one of Louis CK’s standup bits about, appropriately enough, a bag of dicks. Unlike Lucky Louie, which opens the entire series with an enactment of one of Louis CK’s standup bits (around the 7:30 mark of the video), Louis CK has been very conservative with his enactments of his standup material in Louie.  The use of “bag of dicks” as the first direct reference to his past standup material is such a perfectly-odd time to start. The fantasy elevator woman appears slightly annoyed with Louie throughout the fantasy, which progresses with fantasy Louie clumsily trying to fit an entire plastic bag of penises inside the woman’s vagina. If there is another show in the history of television that could produce the previous sentence in a straight-faced review, I have never seen it.

The fantasy continues with an elderly Asian man getting on the elevator and telling Louie that there is “no room” for the bag. Elderly Asian man then muses “American women–are very complicated.” The statement is the final straw in the fantasy that keeps spiraling down into a nightmare. Fantasy Louie and real-life Louie both give up. It’s an unforgettable scene that can’t been unseen–no matter how hard we may try–on a show that’s been full of uniquely-memorable moments. While I firmly believe that the fart joke from the season debut was the greatest moment of film or television flatulence, the fantasy in “Come on, God” is undoubtedly the moment by which all other comic masturbation scenes will be judged.

When we next see Louie, he has decided to attend one of the purity meetings he deemed “bullshit” earlier in the episode. It’s particularly telling that Louie’s attendance of an anti-masturbation meeting is in itself an act of self-abuse. The anti-masturbation activist begins to warm to Louie over a drink at a bar, where he admits that he has difficulty mustering up charm without the possibility of sex. It’s a great observation in an otherwise dreamlike episode. The woman tells Louie to pretend like there’s a possibility of them sleeping together. The pair begin talking about sex, which prompts Louie to share the story of the loss of his virginity, which ended with semen, flatulence and derisive laughter. If it’s a true story from Louis CK’s life, it likely explains why his material on sex has been a twisted mix of desire, embarrassment and disgust.

The conversation between the pair continues in her suite, where she changes into a silk nightgown and talks with Louie about her religious beliefs. The religious talk ends when Louie tries to kiss the virginal, purity lecturer. It doesn’t go well, but the moment begins a moment of fantasy for the CAM activist. The fantasy, which involves getting to know Louie and very slowly building toward marital consummation, reveals that her fantasy is just as twisted as Louie’s. It’s a fantasy of withholding pleasure that she’s clearly ran through her head countless times. She’s cruelly teasing him with the possibility of mythical shame-free sex blessed by the lord. The scene ends with Louie masturbating alone in a bathroom, where his delayed satisfaction is finally realized with the same shame–and flatulence–of his first time.  Yeah, he knows the darkness.

“Oh Louie/Tickets.”

FX

Louie managed one of its most surreal moments during “Oh Louie/Tickets” with a confrontation based on a real-life source of tension.  The show regularly dabbles in surreal moments–whether it’s an elderly woman angrily showing her naked body to Louie in a hallway or Louie’s mother talking about her newfound lesbianism and crying loudly in a restaurant. But while the basic premise of the show is based on a real-life scenario (Louis CK dealing with newly-single life after divorce and raising his two daughters), the bulk of the show is a farcical look at the world through Louis CK’s mind. A confrontation between Dane Cook, the biggest-selling comic of the moment, and Louis CK, the most talented comic of the moment, over real joke stealing was an unexpected, flawed effort.

Louie enters the encounter with Dane Cook as a beggar. After learning that his daughter idolizes Lady Gaga, Louie hears through his prepubescent agent that Dane Cook and Lady Gaga share the same management company.  Louie goes to a giant arena to meet with Dane Cook, a real-life comedian who really stole jokes from Louis CK and sells out Madison Square Garden by screaming and making funny faces for college audiences.  We’re not-so-subtly reminded of the joke stealing during a hamfisted scene with standup Jim Norton, who tells Louie that “everybody says he stole your jokes.” Immediately, he’s in Dane Cook’s world. He’s escorted through a series of giant hallways by men in dark suits wearing ear pieces and carrying walkie-talkies. The scene of Louie walking through the giant halls is a stark contrast from the unglamorous entrance we see Louis CK make to a small comedy club every week during the opening credits for Louie.

The scene between Louis CK and Dane Cook was particularly enthralling on a first viewing. There’s the initial shock that Dane Cook, who is almost unanimously loathed among comedians, agreed to come on the show written and directed by a comedian who is almost unanimously loved by comedians (his motivation for appearing on the show was no clearer after the scene, either). There’s also the excitement of fan service for comedy nerds like myself who have long followed allegations of joke stealing by Dane Cook, Carlos Mencia, Robin Williams and this guy. With the advent of Youtube, joke stealing has gone from allegations and shaming among comedy peers to spectator sport. People can upload video for millions to watch Carlos Mencia steal a famous Bill Cosby bit. The fact that the joke thief and victim actually MEET and discuss the sin on a scripted television program is unprecedented.

Dane tells Louie that he can “totally” get Lady Gaga tickets.  “Easily. I know Lady Gaga,” he says. All Louie has to do is upload a video to Youtube telling the world that Dane Cook did not steal his jokes.  It’s a preposterous request. Consciously or subconsciously (I lean toward the former), Dane Cook DID parrot Louis CK’s material. But Louie needs Lady Gaga tickets. The scene continues to unfold with Dane asking Louie why he thinks he would risk his reputation by stealing three jokes when he has “hours of material.” Dane gets to play the victim throughout the scene as he tells Louie that the year that he began selling out arenas was tarnished by allegations of joke thievery. Dane Cook was hurt by the fact that people noticed that Dane Cook  stole jokes. The conversation gives Dane every opportunity to make his case that he wouldn’t steal jokes, couldn’t steal jokes and—and—and– why would he steal jokes? The problem with his argument and the scene is that he did steal jokes. It tries to give Dane the upper hand, but he comes across as an emotionally manipulative creep with a martyr complex and millions of dollars.

While the excitement of the scene begins to build early, the dialogue between the pair ultimately falls a bit flat and feels too scripted. The problem may have been that the scene was between two standup comedians with limited acting abilities. It may have been some of the silly asides almost certainly thrown in to make Louie look petty–he bickers with Dane’s use of”Two-Thousand AND Six” and recommends he switch to a natural laundry detergent. It’s a heavy-handed way to try to even the scales between Dane and Louie, but it doesn’t necessarily work. I have only seen the episode once, but I can’t imagine that it will hold up as well on a second viewing. The potential for greatness was all over the scene, but ultimately, the scene will stand more on its spectacle than its skill.

“Oh Louie/Tickets” begins with Louis CK deconstructing the family sitcom. Louie stars in a TGIFesque sitcom called “Oh Louie.” He walks in to the scene to loud studio applause, huge laughs follow every joke and his attractive wife laughs off his bad behavior. The “Oh Louie” scene is stopped when Louie questions why his sitcom wife would say she loved him after he said something mean. It’s well-worn territory and unfortunately, the episode does little to add to the conversation. It feels a little like a rejected sketch from another show. There are laughs–the studio audience erupts with applause after he asks if they are “buying this shit” and Louie walks into the scene with a backwards hat befitting the schlubbiest character in television history. While the second half of the episode feels like a lost opportunity of great ambition, the first half feels a little lazy.  The biggest laugh of the episode came during the credits, when the words “Guest Starring Dane Cook and Bob Saget” appear on the screen for the first— but presumably, not the last— time in television history.

“Subway;Pamela.”

FX

The rhythms of Louie are so gleefully unconventional that it’s almost shocking when the show does a conventional episode.  The bulk of “Subway; Pamela” may be the most conventional episode of the series so far. There are moments of dark, purile fun between Louie and Pamela, the only two recurring characters on the show other than Louie’s daughters, but the focus of the episode is unrequited love.  It’s certainly not a unique story, but it was one that felt earned, well crafted and believable.

The relationship between Louie and Pamela is the only relationship of any permanence on Louie outside of the father-daughter relationship. Louie’s relationships with his brother, sister and mother are typically one-episode stories that rarely feel like they are a part of the real world. In addition to its permanence, Louis CK has treated the relationship between Louie and Pamela as one of the few peer relationships on the series. Typically, other characters are on Louie to convey a broader point about society and give us insight into Louis CK’s mind. When Pamela appears on the show, it’s rarely as part of a plot device. She’s there for us to watch Louie and Pamela hang out. It is fitting that the first time we’ve seen a deeply vulnerable Louie came with Pamela.

Pamela begins the day with Louie accusing him of bringing her to a fancy restaurant to impress her. When Louie is forced to admit that it’s his first time at the restaurant, his attempts at subtlety start to unravel. The chemistry between Louis CK and Pamela Adlon, who played Louie’s wife in Lucky Louie, has been palpable throughout the run of the series. It started with “So Old/Playdate” in season 1, when Louie and Pamela connected after sitting through a series of inane complaints from self-absorbed parents at a PTA meeting at their kids’ school. Other than comedian friends and his contemptuous relationship with his physician friend played by Ricky Gervais, Pamela has been the only friend Louie has. The fact that he’s wanted more out of the relationship has been under the surface during all of their interactions.

When Louie makes a joke about the food being so good that he looked forward to eating his own shit, Pamela laughs, applauds and tells Louie that it’s the funniest thing he’s ever said. The exchange is probably the happiest we’ve ever seen Louie. It’s such a small, true moment for those of us who try to make other people laugh. Louie makes thousands of people laugh all the time, but this is different. There is such a sense of satisfaction in getting a genuine explosion of laughter from someone you love and respect. Louie is temporarily victorious. Of course, the power dynamics in the relationship are quickly restored when Pamela tells him that it was the first funny thing he has ever said. “You’re the unfunniest comedian in the world,” she tells him. Louie can only shyly nod.

Of course, the laughter is a curse. For those of us who often find acceptance and love through making people laugh, there can often be a disconnect between the intimacy of sharing a genuine laugh with a person and the actual reality of a relationship. I don’t know if I agree with the sad clown notion of comedy–that all funny people are sad on the inside. But I certainly believe that most attempts to make other people laugh come from a desperate place. Louie’s desperation becomes even more clear at an outdoor market, where he begs Pamela to listen to him talk about his feelings for her. She doesn’t want to hear them. She likes things the way they are. If she knows how he truly feels, nothing can be the same again.

And yet, Louie wants to finally express his feelings for her. It’s doomed from the beginning, but Louie plows ahead. The dynamics of the show are such that we’re expecting Louie to say something wildly inappropriate, shocking or sad, but he doesn’t. The monologue about his feelings for Pamela is particularly heartfelt, genuine and loving, which only makes it worse. Louie is hopelessly in love with Pamela. He knows the odds are against her feeling the same way, but he wants to finally put it out there. It’s a moment of identifiable pain for those of us who feel deeply, have a desire to express those feelings and immediately regret expressing them.

Pamela is flattered by Louie’s touching expression of undying love, but it’s not mutual. Louie can’t help but ask if there any chance that she could ever feel the same way. She doesn’t and she won’t. The fact that Louie keeps asking her if she’s sure about not loving him is one of the most tragic moments in a series full of tragedy. It’s also one of the most real moments. The entire exchange is firmly grounded in the real world. She pats Louie sympathetically and an embarrassed Louie regrets the vulnerability he was showing just seconds before. The entire dynamics of the relationship have changed. Louie promised that he would be fine with just being friends, but the sting of rejection is stronger than the desire to follow social code. When the two get to her apartment, Pamela offhandedly offers Louie a bath, which a scarred Louie rejects. The final scene of Louie screaming out of frustration when he learns that she wanted to share a bath with him is the first cliched comic moment of the episode. Despite the hobbled finish, the vignette is a familiar story of unrequited love told well.

While the second portion of the episode revolves around the power and pain of language, the first story in “Subway; Pamela” is virtually dialogue free. The vignette begins with Louie watching a talented violinist playing a beautiful song in the subway. Louie is transfixed by the loveliness in the unlikeliest of places. The concert is interrupted when a homeless man covered in garbage begins putting down plastic behind the man in a tuxedo playing a violin. The homeless man begins taking an impromptu shower by pouring water over himself. It’s yet another reminder that the beauty of the world can scarcely be appreciated without the ugliness of the world getting in the way. The same world that produced this beautiful piece of music produced the set of circumstances that led another human being to shower in a subway with a bottle of water.

The second part of the vignette features Louie on a subway staring at an unidentifiable puddle in a seat. Beautiful music begins to play and the screen turns black and white as Louie gets up and uses his shirt to soak up the puddle. It’s a well-shot moment of selflessness. The strangers on the train begin to smile lovingly at Louie, his faced is stroked by a large black woman and a middle-aged white man gives him a fist bump and nod of admiration. A pretty blonde lady stares at Louie and slowly kneels before a bewildered Louie, who is snapped back out of his fantasy. The entire vignette is well-worn territory and would probably fit better on a strictly sketch comedy show, but it’s so beautifully shot and executed that it works better on the show than it would on paper.

“Subway; Pamela” ends with Louie on stage talking about relationships. They’re cursed, of course. Louie talks about old married couples slowly developing a hatred for the person they chose to spend their lives with. Louie talks about old men who go on directionless walks—“he’s running out the clock on the rest of his life.” It’s a strangely comforting end to an episode about unrequited love. Even if his doomed plan to tell Pamela about his love would have resulted in mutual love, it’s still doomed.

“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.

“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.