'Louie': The best episode so far
Telling a rambling story of how generations impact each other and how getting older sucks, "Bully" was the best episode of "Louie" so far. It perhaps wasn't funny enough for the crowd that hopes the show will be filled with laugh-out-loud jokes from opening to close, but we got more than enough laughs from the show last week. This week was about a weird blend of awkward cringe humor and poignancy, and the story the episode told didn't go in any necessarily predictable direction. It was always easy to see where the story was going once you were in the thick of it, but I don't know if I could have predicted any of the places it would have traveled when I sat down to first watch the episode. From a really simple story of Louie trying to make his date go well, the show ended up telling a tale about fathers and sons, men and women, and the weird ways sex and violence are tied up in each other.
When I put it that way, it sort of sounds like this was a very serious, philosophical episode, but it certainly wasn't that. There was some tremendously funny stuff throughout, starting with the opening stand-up monologue, where Louie tells the audience about how his primary sex education came from his father, who told him at a very young and tender age something that no kid that age should hear, which more or less boils down to, as Louie puts it, how to pleasure a 35-year-old woman who's really aware of her body. And lest you think the show let the kid actor who plays young Louie off the hook, it has him repeat all of the advice his TV dad gives him, straight into the camera, mostly verbatim. It's a wonderfully funny and awkward moment, and it gets the episode off on the right foot. The episode also does a little riff on sex education in school, but it isn't quite to the heights of the previous segment.
But what happens then is even better. The story proper begins, with Louie and a woman on a date. They've both clearly had a pretty good time, and he talks her into accompanying him to a donut place he knows about, where the donuts and coffee are both pretty subpar, but the atmosphere is great. After some cajoling, he talks her into it, and it sure seems like we're heading into a story that will tie into the earlier stuff. We're going to see Louie and this woman begin some sort of sexual relationship, and then we'll see how that all plays out with the 42-year-old, not exactly in the prime of his life Louie. Instead, the show goes somewhere very different indeed.
A group of kids from a local high school wander into the donut shop, joking around and making lots of noise. The level of their noise is so loud that it interrupts the nice conversation Louie and his lady friend are having, so he turns around to ask them to quiet down. One of the guys comes over to talk to Louie, then threatens to beat him up, finally extracting a plea from Louie not to be beaten up. Saying that it was embarrassing to watch, the kid walks away from the table, and when Louie tries to start up conversation with his date again, she's less impressed. She says that in her brain, she knows what he did was the right, responsible thing to do, but in her primal gut, her prehistoric, animal self, she's a little turned off by the way he capitulated to the teenager, instead of fighting him.
Here's a place where the story could have ended easily enough. The episode could have cut back to Louie talking about how men and women actually want different things from the things they say they want, about how the things we think we know are rarely the things that are actually true when it comes to love and sex. And that would have been a great place to leave the episode, with Louie humiliated by two completely different people and ruing the awfulness of his life, as he seemingly does every other week. It still would have been one of the best episodes of the show's run, but, at the same time, it wouldn't have been as good as what came next, which pushed the episode into completely new territory.
Louie happens to see the kids horsing around outside as he's putting his date in a cab, and, impetuously, he decides to follow them. The episode briefly turns into one of those '70s paranoia thrillers at this point, as Louie follows the kid who picked on him (named Sean) farther and farther away from the heart of Manhattan, all the way out to a working class neighborhood on Staten Island. There's a great sense here that anything could happen. Is Louie going to confront Sean before he gets home, perhaps picking a fight with him on the subway or Staten Island Ferry? Is he just going to find out where the kid lives and try to get a phone number or something? Or is he going to try to report the kid to his parents?
It's the last that he actually does, and the scene is perhaps the funniest thing in the episode, as Louie cringingly tattles on Sean to his parents, in a way that's reminiscent of the little kid who was sick of the bullies that picked on him but didn't know a way to stand up to them on his own. Except Louie is a 42-year-old man. It's a masterfully constructed scene, awkward and messy and completely in keeping with the show's obsessions with weird little moments when people forge connections that then almost instantly disappear. There are few funnier scenes the show has done.
But it goes on from there. Sean's dad calls the kid downstairs, seemingly to apologize, but then he starts to hit the kid about the head. Suddenly, the scabs on Sean's knuckles that he showed Louie become much more explicable: He got them, perhaps, fighting with his dad (and even if he didn't, the way his dad settles conflict would suggest how he came to think of violence as the solution to most things). Louie tries to stop this, turning the problem on the parents, asking them to stop hitting the kid, then ineffectually trying to lecture them before the mother runs him out of the house. Here's another place where the episode could have ended, Louie sitting sad and alone and wondering how he's going to get back from Staten Island.
But one last time, the episode continues past where we think it's going to stop. The father comes out and offers Louie a cigarette. They talk briefly about how beating your kids probably isn't the best parenthood strategy but ... the dad's dad hit him and so on down the line. The show doesn't excuse his behavior here, but it does show, through a very simple gesture, how these sorts of things perpetuate themselves. Is there any way Sean doesn't beat his own kids someday? It's doubtful, and the show suggests that while this isn't preferable, there's more to understanding what's happening than simply condemning the action. It's a marvelously written little scene, and that the story ends with two dads from very different walks of life sharing a cigarette is the perfect grace note.
I try not to do a lot of straight plot recap in these write-ups, though it can be hard to avoid doing it some of the time. Here, though, the episode was so strong because of the unexpectedness of its story that it was all but impossible to not just tell you where things went. If for some reason you haven't seen the episode and still want to after all of that, I definitely suggest you do. It's a lovely little piece that touches on any number of themes and ideas without preaching about any of them. It's one of the best television episodes of the young season.
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: "Louie," starring Louis C.K., had its strongest episode so far in "Bully." (Credit: FX)
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