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'Louie': Coming back down to Earth (in more ways than one)

July 20, 2010 | 11:30 pm

 One of the things I've really liked about "Louie" so far is its gentle humanism. The show is genuinely interested in people being people, and even though series star Louis C.K. has a pretty grim outlook on the human race, that never gets in the way of the fact that no one character on his show is just there to serve as a plot point. I like to look at my favorite books, movies and TV shows and wonder if every character in that story -- no matter how minor -- would be interesting to follow over the course of their very own book, movie or TV show. For most other works, this isn't the case, but it's almost always the case on "Louie," where C.K. has turned even one-scene characters like a comedy club waitress into people with their own lives and points-of-view. It's not an easy feat, but the show carries it off with aplomb.

That's why it pains me to say that I'm not certain that tonight's episode -- "Travel Day/South" -- completely passes this test. It's really easy for those of us on the coasts to make crazy jokes about Southerners or Midwesterners, talk about how they're backwoods bumpkins who believe crazy things and talk with funny accents. Many, many of us (including your author) are from those portions of the country and left to pursue greener pastures. But it's far too easy to slip from good-natured humor into outright mockery, which doesn't treat the characters as human beings but, rather, as objects of derision. The worst example of this was probably that immortal "West Wing" episode "24 Hours in America," wherein the president's staff gets stranded in Indiana and seems to exclusively deal with leftover characters from "Petticoat Junction." Corn pone humor and backwoods shenanigans are as old as American pop culture itself, so perhaps I shouldn't complain. But it is one of my biggest pet peeves.

I don't think the "South" portion of this episode is as bad as that "West Wing" episode. After all, Louie is quick to point out that people from New York City aren't really all that different from people from Birmingham, Ala., but the storyline does still ride on a bunch of stereotypes, like the good ol' boys in the audience of his show, who insist he say disparaging things about Mobile, rather than proceed with his actual set, or the cop who saves him from the irate brother and then wants a kiss on the lips. Both of these types are just types you expect to see in this sort of a story, and neither of them goes much beyond the normal type. It's disappointing to see this show try that, even as I know intellectually that not every episode can be an all-timer.

I also wasn't a big fan of the brother trying to hook Louie up with his sister, who was a big fan of Louie. While I enjoyed that the sister was portrayed as someone with her own opinions and an interesting inner life, I didn't quite get what her brother was doing, and he too quickly and too randomly became a figure of menace. This whole sequence was weird and stilted, and while I'm sure all of these things REALLY HAPPENED to CK one time when he toured the South, he doesn't bring the same sort of verisimilitude to these characters that he's able to bring to his New Yorker characters. There may just be too much distance between the way his life is and the way their lives are. Still, the vast majority of the "South" section is a pretty big disappointment.

The rest of the episode was better, but it was also a little too much like a series of old jokes about flying on airplanes. The first part of the episode involves Louie traveling to the South (making this the first episode where both episode halves lead into each other), and the majority of it consists of jokes about flying that you've heard 10 million times before. For example, Louie has to sit next to an enormously fat man and ends up being given a drink so small you'd have to look for it with a microscope. In addition, his first flight is canceled because it crashed (resulting in the episode's funniest line), and he accidentally angers an old man who's already completely ticked off by seemingly scoffing at how angry the old man is at the airline. This results in the episode's biggest laugh, as Louie stares straight ahead, saying nothing, and the old man and his wife glare at him, out of focus, in the background. There's also some funny business with Louie and his overweight seat mate bonding after going through some terrible turbulence, but the laughs, for the first time, feel a little stale. 

Now, obviously, I'm not counting on this show to give me completely new laughs with every episode. And many of the stories the show has told -- about bad first dates and being a parent -- are stories that come preloaded with lots of older kind of cliche jokes. But the show has battled through this by sharing its own skewed perspective on these items and by making the other characters in the story lines seem like they have their own stories. Compare the characters Louie meets in both halves of tonight's episode with the people he met at the PTA meeting last week or the woman he went on the date with in the premiere. There's a sense in both of those latter cases that these are people who will go on living their lives without Louie in it, but you don't get that sense here. These people are just here to come into mostly funny conflict with Louie. It's still full of funny stuff, but it also feels just the slightest bit like a rehash of things other shows have done better.

The best thing to love about "Louie" is the fact that it's trying to build a world full of fascinating people who have their own take on whatever it is the main character is trying to talk about. By doing an episode that feels more like a long series of "Saturday Night Live" sketches than a series of short, one-scene plays, "Travel Day/South" shoots the very best thing about the series in the foot. It's not a bad episode of television by any means, but it's the first episode of "Louie" that didn't make me applaud passionately for the show's gutsiness and wit. Obviously, it's early in the show's run, and even an all-time classic show (like this one could end up being) will have a handful of disappointing episodes. But it's always a little disappointing to realize a new show you're really grooving on is imperfect after all.

Some other thoughts:

  • * "Everybody died. Except for one baby."
  • * OK, I did like that last scene where Louie corrected the woman who couldn't fit her bag into the overhead compartment by telling her that the fact she flies a lot and the fact that her bag doesn't fit are completely unconnected to each other. There's always someone like that on every flight, and they always make that excuse.
  • * Fortunately, FX sent out two episodes for review, and next week's is much better. Just a brief disappointment, folks. We'll be back to business as usual soon enough! 

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: The only thing standing between "Louie" and total television dominance is Louis C.K. making more funny faces like this one in every episode. (Credit: FX)

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