“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.

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