Somewhere along the way during its three-season run, FX’s brilliant comedy Louie ceased to really be a comedy as we know it.
If we accept that, and we should because it’s true, the question then becomes, “What is Louie if not a comedy?” Is it a drama? Sure, there’s some of that there. Is it by classification a “dramedy” — yes, but let’s just say no and spare the discussion over the vagaries of that name. Is it, then, a show that’s sometimes funny and sometimes insightful and randomly dramatic but most often true to the indescribable weirdness and randomness of life itself?
Yes, that. It’s that.
Which means that Louie is hard to classify other than that it exists and it’s immensely enjoyable most of the time and then shifts gears and becomes something you don’t expect right in front of you. No show quite behaves like Louie, which exists in a 30-minute dimension that FX has essentially given to creator Louis C.K. to do with as he pleases. And if you’ve followed the show, you know describing it is almost always a mug’s game. Tell someone it’s the best comedy on television — which it has been throughout its run — and they could watch one episode and think you’re insane because they didn’t laugh or because it made them feel awkward and out of sorts, like walking into one of Woody Allen‘s midcareer films when they were expecting something from Michael Bay.
Get an episode of Louie that makes you laugh uproariously and feel the pain of the man’s life depicted onscreen — a somewhat fictionalized version of Louis C.K.’s life that makes you hesitate to ask exactly how fictionalized — and you might be proselytizing about its greatness to strangers on a bus. Get an episode that makes you feel — and this happens more than you might imagine — strangely sad, and you might not wish to talk about the show at all. Other than to tell a slightly overweight divorced man in his 40s with two kids and some self-esteem issues that, hey, you’ve found a show so perfect for it’s scary.
There is nothing predictable about this series. Each episode could be the polar opposite in tone, story and execution than the one before or after it. Some episodes of Louie start out funny and end funny but detour somewhere in the middle to a place of introspection or a little waiting room where life’s banal moments are depicted with honesty. In Louie, life happens when the camera is on. Sometimes it seems the show is funny as a reminder that you’re watching a comedy. But you’re not — at least not always.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the true genius of Louie. When it premiered, there were no shows like it. By the end of its second season, almost everybody wanted something as hilarious and bleakly honest and original. But not everybody is a visionary, of course, so there are a lot of watered-down series out there that owe a debt of gratitude to Louie and Louis C.K. for having provided the opportunity to duplicate its concerns and get paid for the attempt.
The beautiful thing about Louie is that you can’t reverse-engineer the show and find the reason for its success. Much of that is because Louis C.K. has a singular vision and the folks at FX understood that and wanted him to present it in a way that would work better — a lot better — than a similar show he tried on HBO. So they left him alone, essentially, giving him the money to make a show without interference. “Send it back when you’re done.” That’s the lore, at least, and it’s damn close to the truth. Louis C.K. tapped his inspiration — his life — and FX nurtured it and never blinked at how audacious the whole thing was. So we ended up with Louie, a mostly autobiographical story about a divorced stand-up comic with two daughters, rent to pay, a weight issue, a fondness for masturbation and a seeming inability to find a stable relationship. And even that’s not really a quarter of it. Being unable to describe what Louie is about is now, and hopefully forever, a part of what makes it brilliant. There’s a universality to his experience. There’s existential angst hiding in his humor. There’s laughter in the mundane stupidity of his friends. There is some kind of head-shaking acknowledgement that life can be a real black cloud bitch sometimes, but if you don’t find the humor in that bleakness then you’ll never make it.
In that sense, New York itself is a character in the show.
It’s hard to overstate, however, just how much this series is a singular vision personified. Louis C.K. is the creator, the executive producer, the showrunner, the writer, the director, the star, the editor and also the one with the most say about the music. He is large, he contains multitudes. And yes, if “Song of Myself” is just one of the poems that define Walt Whitman, then each randomly difficult-to-describe episode of Louie is just part of what makes Louis C.K. one of his generation’s best chroniclers of this mortal coil.
Now, here we are, after three amazing seasons, on the cusp of the fourth with much anticipation. In 2012, Louie became the first comedy series on basic cable ever to be nominated for an Emmy for outstanding series. Industry recognition is fine and all, but the show has been a masterpiece from the day it started until, 19 months ago, when it went off the air after that third season to give Louis C.K. a chance to recharge his batteries and continue making this thing, whatever this thing ultimately is.
On May 5, the fourth season returns with “Back,” which is less about being back than about Louie’s own back going out, and less about that than about unique male masturbation habits, letting your kids carry the burden of their own lives and also about aging. Among other things.
Is it particularly hilarious? No. But it’s a wonderful 30 minutes. A week later, we get “Model,” an episode that is, in fact, particularly hilarious. A week after that we get “So Did the Fat Lady,” which should probably get an Emmy.
And that, in one paragraph, is probably the best way to describe Louie. A show that ceased to be something easily identifiable and thus easily understood the very first minute it was on.