Louis C.K. is like the ultimate misanthrope. His (very funny) stand-up is based around the idea that things are never so bad that they can't get worse. In one of tonight's two debut episodes of "Louie," his new FX sitcom, he says that buying a puppy is really like just admitting to your family that you've brought home said family crying in a few years. He views true love as, at best, a scenario where you watch your loved one die at the end of life and then spend the last few years of your own life living alone. Needless to say, he's not exactly a puppies and rainbows kind of guy. That's what makes "Louie" so funny. He's put into situations where he's expected to be that guy, and he fails miserably and utterly.
The best thing about "Louie" is the fact that no episode is exactly the same as the last one. C.K., who writes, directs, stars in and edits every episode, has come up with a rhythm that's somewhere between a more traditional single-camera sitcom and a sketch comedy show. Every episode features him (playing himself, only now his name is spelled Louie) doing some stand-up, then going out into the world and confronting life as a newly single dad who's trying to make sense out of getting divorced in his early 40s after 14 years of marriage. The only thing in his life that he knows he feels good about are his two daughters, whom he cares for, and even then, he doesn't know the line between telling his new date generalities about them and embarrassingly personal information. If you don't like cringe humor (i.e., the kind of humor where you laugh at how uncomfortable the situation is), then you're probably not going to like "Louie." If you love it, like I do, you're going to laugh yourself silly.
Each episode is split into two stories that have little to do with each other aside from the fact that they both feature C.K. wandering around New York and getting into trouble. In the first half hour, he chaperones a school field trip and ends up having to give the bus driver directions when said driver has no idea where anything is (or where the field trip is going to), then he goes on a date for the first time after his divorce and performs disastrously. Now, admittedly, the world keeps throwing newer and weirder oddities in the path of this burgeoning woulda-been love, but C.K. doesn't do himself any favors by sharing stories about his daughter's various infections and weeping at inopportune moments. Nice work, Louie! Still, this dating storyline is probably the funniest of tonight's four vignettes, though that's saying something when all of them are as well-crafted as they are.
The second episode opens with a funny segment that turns surprisingly thoughtful, when a bunch of comedians playing poker turn to a discussion of when it is and isn't appropriate to use a gay slur on stage. One of the comedians is, himself, gay, and he educates his friends on the etymology of the word they like to use, only to find himself just as mocked for his little lesson as he mocks his friends. It's a good depiction both of realizing that something you say may be hurtful to one of your friends and the ways that friends are quick to forgive and just as quick to give each other a hard time. Finally in the second half hour, Louie takes the occasion of his divorce to find an old grade school coulda-been-girlfriend on Facebook, and he's surprised by what he finds. (Of course the girl isn't as attractive as she was back then. But the story goes in a fun direction when the two end up in each other's arms anyway, and their making out is just as clumsy as it might have been when they were youngsters.
Really, "Louie" is less about telling grand, epic stories than it is about finding new and funny ways to show us C.K.'s particular worldview and the ways that the world both disappoints him and meets his expectations exactly. The world of "Louie," like the stand-up of Louis C.K., is a place where something that maybe once had promise can turn on a dime to become completely and utterly hopeless in a single moment. You might go on a date and find yourself confronting a nude old lady next door who clearly wants you to see it all but also wants to accost you for being a "pig" for doing so. Or you might find yourself smiling creepily at your date while riding the subway. Or you might end up talking about your daughters and being unable to share general information. Or you might follow her to wait in line for the bathroom and, through a series of misunderstandings, make her think you have serious anger management issues. Or you might try to kiss her and have her run off to board an inexplicably waiting helicopter. Or all of these things (and more!) might happen to you on the same date.
Watching "Louie" is like being dropped directly into the mindset of C.K. He's a very good writer and a largely competent director and editor. He's mostly just playing himself, so I don't know how much stretching he has to do, but he's remarkably good at playing himself. He has kind of an irritating tendency to frame everything in very tight close-ups, but this also allows for some interesting two-shots, as when Louie and the bus driver are discussing where the Bronx Botanical Gardens is, exactly, and the camera somehow manages to have a narrow strip of both their faces in frame. It's not the world's most handsome looking show, but a minimalist budget probably allows C.K. maximum creative freedom.
And he more than uses it. "Louie" is a surprisingly filthy show for a cable network. There are a couple of bleeps, but, for the most part, anything goes (the dialog from his date about his daughter is a good example). This allows the series a good deal of verisimilitude. It also means I won't be able to quote many of the best quotes in the "other thoughts" section most weeks. For better or worse, this series feels like what it must feel like to hang out with Louis C.K. while he goes about his business. As it turns out, such a thing is frequently hilarious, surprisingly poignant at times and just generally a good time. Check it out.
Some other thoughts:
- * I like the way the stand-up bits act as tie-ins between the storylines, but I'm sure it could get old. The little scene playing under the credits of episode one with Louie taking his kids home and talking about how they needed new shoes is a good example of how the show might try other things to bridge the gaps between stories.
- * "It's 2009, and we still put milk in a little paper box."
- * "They end up drinking out of this finger-filth disease spout."
- * "There are people who are starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti. I'm evil."
- * "There are people who starve to death, and that's all they ever do."
- * "I've been married for ten years. I'm sorry I'm not the Fonz all over the place."
- * "So what you're saying is gay people are a good alternative fuel source?"
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Louie (Louis C.K.) does some stand-up on his self-titled show. (Credit: FX)
Television review: 'Louie' on FX
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