'Louie' Season 5: TV Review

Louie Cover
Life happens to Louie. It doesn't always go well.

One of the most original shows on TV returns — as brilliant as ever.

Heading into the fifth season of FX’s Louie, it remains a thrilling and weird and funny foray into the brain of Louis C.K. and a comedy that’s impossible to pigeonhole or predict or even label as a comedy. It remains, as ever, a wholly original concoction that’s a thing of odd beauty.

Take the first four episodes of season five. While last season was deemed “controversial” and heavily dramatic (ultimately it was less controversial but, yes, set firmly in dramatic tone), C.K. has said this season would be more jokecentric. And yet the first four episodes are a flat-out astonishing stew of comedy, weirdness, touching drama and that inherent, wafting sense of sadness that permeates so many of the episodes each season. In short, it’s not like C.K. decided to go wacky and light this fifth season, no matter what he might have intimated.

It’s probably safe to say that keeping Louie unpredictable isn’t really something C.K. is doing on purpose — by now we have enough evidence that he’s writing and directing and editing and acting in the kind of show he wants to put on the air and be proud of; labels and intent seem less important to the comedian. Doing what he likes, whatever strikes him when he’s writing the show (and later directing it, where the mood can be manipulated) without regard to method or someone else’s definition of what a “show” should look like, is precisely why Louie is without peer.

How many shows entering their fifth season can you stare at in surprise and wonder? Louie is definitely that kind of show.

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And even though there are themes that run through Louie — like his relationship with Pamela (Pamela Adlon) — many of the episodes (and sometimes scenes within episodes) are basically stand-alone. The show adheres to no rule book in that regard. The opening episode, “Potluck,” finds much of its humor in Louie being depressed, ignored and belittled. Elsewhere he’ll be ignored again (by someone younger, who then reminds him that he’s afraid of younger people because they’ve come to replace him and that he’s irrelevant going forward). His brother, Bobby (Robert Kelly), will force Louie to come upstairs to his place — for the first time ever — and then unveil one of the most bleak life summation’s you’ll ever hear because Bobby is depressed.

In many ways, lots of people are and have been depressed on Louie. It’s woven into the DNA. The human condition is C.K.’s most fertile topic, and there’s seemingly no end to his exploration of the awkward moments in life, particularly not fitting in or being uncomfortable in one’s own skin. It’s why the show is so brilliant and also so hilarious.

But Louie is not always about getting a laugh. Sometimes an episode will be funny almost despite itself. Sometimes episodes are little dramatic moments — little half-hour short stories about people interacting with others and failing at it. (One of the dictums from C.K. seems to be that all communication between people is difficult and, if it can be avoided, then it should be; if not, just try to endure it until you have to walk in the opposite direction in a hurry.) Sometimes Louie will look at someone with a face that says, “Please don’t talk to me,” and then when they do, he visibly sags a little bit in disappointment. For a series set in New York, where human interaction happens incessantly, this is a great running joke.

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Other times, Louie is surprisingly vulnerable as a character right after he’s done something he maybe shouldn’t (a baby is born this way in the opener and, yes, that’s a random example). He is at his best, of course, when he's with his daughters, Lilly (Hadley Delany) and Jane (Ursula Parker), trying to show them how to live life the right way.

The series proved last season that C.K. isn’t afraid to tackle anything. And it doesn’t have to be some kind of big issue where he needs to prove a point. Often it’s just in choosing to do things like fall in love with a woman who can’t speak English or get beaten up by a woman (which turns out to be both harrowing and hilarious). A good example of doing whatever interests C.K. is an episode this season called “Cop Story,” featuring Michael Rapaport as Lenny, the ex-boyfriend of Louie’s sister who is now a cop. It starts out creepily uncomfortable as Lenny tries to forcefully befriend Louie and — naturally — Louie can’t face the task of just telling Lenny straight-out that he doesn’t want to hang out. But it moves beyond cringe — the series never has relied merely on cringe comedy to be the end-all — and becomes something different altogether. It’s one of those episodes where you need to sit and reflect on it a bit and to appreciate that there’s a show on television willing to experiment.

And, as we’ve come to expect with Louie’s relationship with Pamela, there are some revealing and vulnerable storylines to explore there. Two examples show the depth of the series. In the first, “A la Carte,” Pamela undercuts Louie’s growing interest in getting closer by demanding that both of them not mess things up by repeating old, failed relationship habits that couples always do. It allows Pamela to make a case for a more modern relationship — a riff that’s riddled with great lines. The scene balances that humor with a camera that lingers, in close-up, on Louie’s sad and disappointed face. Even when he’s willing to make a connection in his life, Louie suffers. Two episodes later, Louie and Pamela have a similar scene that’s laugh-out-loud funny while honing a point about gender-role reversal — and it ends with a visual joke that’s simultaneously funny and filled with melancholy. Adlon and C.K. have done a masterful job of depicting this relationship.

So here we are, entering the fifth season of Louie, and it’s as fresh and different now as the first season — while evolving on all fronts. This is a show that has, for some time, defied a real, accurate description. Whatever it is, whatever it’s trying to be, just let it be.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine