“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.

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“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.

“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.

“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.

“Pregnant.”

FX

The longest bit in the second season premiere of Louie involves a painfully-long scene of trauma that pays off with a fart joke. A fart joke that only works because you genuinely believe Louis CK will show his audience a miscarriage.  I considered writing an introductory blog post explaining why I felt the need to write about Louie, a show I feel is far and above the best on television right now. But those two sentences used to describe one moment in the second season’s debut explains it better than I could in 1,000 words. The show, at its core, is gloriously fucked. Its central argument is that we, as human beings, are gloriously fucked. It rarely compromises in that bitter premise.  If that means putting together an entire episode with few laughs, so be it. If that means showing us an adult traumatizing a child by forcing him to nail his “godless” friend to a post to teach about the suffering of Christ and his personal role in that suffering, so be it.  The darkness never feels forced or unearned. It’s one man opening his troubled brain for our entertainment.

Louie is a better representation of one man’s soul than any we’ve seen in television history.  The atmosphere, people and themes are directly from the soul of Louis CK. The fact that there are virtually no ongoing stories gives him an opportunity to change characters, actors and genres with little interference in the show’s sometimes-pummeling premise of a solitary person showing us the world as he has known it. The one constant is Louis CK. The opening scene in “Pregnant,” in which his daughter tells him that she loves her mother more than him, may or may not have actually happened to Louis CK.  Ultimately, the scene is there because Louis CK felt it.

I enjoyed Lucky Louie, Louis CK’s HBO effort. But many of the scenes felt like efforts to shoehorn some of his best standup bits into an everyday occurrence. The show felt like Louis CK writing a television comedy.  An often-hilarious television comedy. But Louie is a peek at Louis CK, the human being. Outside of the standup scenes, it rarely feels like a peek at Louis CK, the guy who gets paid to be funny. There is a darkness and loneliness at the center of Louie that only occasionally pays off with a big laugh. The laughs are certainly there, but it rarely feels like a premise or situation is created for the big laugh.

The scene with Louie’s sister, who appears to be going through a miscarriage, was extremely painful to watch. There is a growing feeling of anxiety with the scene, which continues to build tension as Louie struggles to deal with a sister in extreme pain who tells him that her “baby is dying.” I can’t think of another comedy television show or film that would wallow in the tension of a miscarriage as long as Louie did.  In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing a television show or film of any kind that showed the moments of terror that certainly precede a miscarriage. The show makes us suffer with an extended scene that we can only assume will end horribly. After all, this is a show that has ended with scenes of a son unsuccessfully begging his mother to tell him that she loves him and an abusive father who somehow becomes a sympathetic character.

But it doesn’t. The tension of a pregnant woman screaming in pain for several minutes ends with a fart.  Flatulence is about as low as you can reach in an attempt for a laugh. Yet Louie delivers the fart joke that should end all fart jokes (it won’t). The fact that we, as viewers, believe that Louis CK would show us a miscarriage on his half-show comedy television program is why the flatulence is so funny. Comedy’s ability to build and relieve tension is well-traveled territory. Other writers, comedians and actors have certainly capitalized on it for centuries. But I can’t think of any other comedy in television history that dwells in tension longer and better than Louie.

Even when we get tension in other comedy television shows that trade in awkwardness, it’s softened by being a slice of life. An office mate, classmate or boss who is a jerk establishes the tension and a wisecrack or comeuppance relieves it. Louie builds tension from the deepest part of his viewers’ souls. In a single season, Louie built tension on a child’s uncertainty about sex, a young man’s confusion and guilt about religion and a grown man’s tension of being physically dominated by a younger man. Where else to go? A miscarriage topped with the tension of meeting new people. Louie comes from such a gloriously fucked point of view that you expect his kind neighbors to unveil a terrible side of themselves. You know it’s coming. The fact that the inner darkness that we, as viewers, put on his neighbors never comes almost makes you even more suspicious.

The final conversation Louie has with his neighbor is a perfect finish to an episode that hinges on subverting our expectations. It’s an earned bit of sentiment when an emotional Louie tells his neighbor what may be a perfect allegory for life and friendship.  “I know it was just a fart, but I couldn’t have gotten through that without you.”