TV Series Review
Say what you will about Louie 'cause Louis C.K. won't care. It's exactly the show the comedian wants it to be.
Most television shows are an amalgamation of dozens of minds and sensibilities, from the writers to the producers to the stars to the network executives to advance-screening audiences. On Louie? It's C.K.'s way or no way. He writes, directs and stars in this semiautobiographical comedy (and for the first two seasons, he edited it, too). Half-hour competitors cost anywhere from $1-2 million to make per episode. Louie runs FX just $200,000 per—C.K.'s concession to keep the suits out of his show. The show's pilot was, according to Entertainment Weekly, the worst test screening ever done by an FX program (largely because Louie euthanized his dog). C.K. refused to change it.
The result is one of the most distinctive, critically acclaimed and foulest programs on TV. It's the sort of show that makes content-driven reviewers like me raise their hands in frustration—a little like Dr. Frankenstein when he realizes that a) his brash experiment worked beyond his wildest dreams, and b) his experiment kidnapped his fiancée and burned down his castle. Louie is indeed a monster of a show—an impressive monster perhaps, but a monster nevertheless.
Louie is loosely based on C.K.'s life after his divorce, complete with forays into dating, single parenting and his struggles balancing (as many of us do) work with family. Simple enough, right? These are mountains that many sitcoms have mined in the past.
But C.K. brings new tools to bear. First, there's the comedian himself—a disarming, inelegant presence paired with an expert delivery system. There's his studied insights, which can inject incongruous moments of sweetness and honesty. And then there's his preoccupation with his own (and our) discomfort, his uncanny ability to drill down into what's embarrassing, titillating, painful or disgusting … and get a laugh out of it.
Indeed, much of C.K.'s comedy seems to be predicated on awkward, sometimes horrific interactions between people—be it an uncomfortable conversation with fellow comedian Dane Cook (who, in real life, has been accused of stealing some of C.K.'s jokes) to being sexually assaulted by a dentist while under the influence of laughing gas. The Louie in Louie has had more inept, shallow and (for basic cable) graphic sexual encounters than half the cast of Jersey Shore. And there is no detail too sordid to leave out of the showing and telling.
That's part of the point, it seems. The Louie in Louie is stunted in some way. Incomplete. Louie, for all his dating, is unbearably lonely. And as much as he strives for intimacy, he keeps missing the mark. At times, we're left wondering if his failures in his personal life help him be successful professionally. Or perhaps the show is exploring society's own loss of intimacy in its quest for instant gratification. Which means that in its own quirky and salacious way, Louie is a half-hour comedic think-piece, far more interested in asking questions than finding answers, in picking at a scab then letting it heal.
"I've always felt compelled to say things that most people don't want to hear," C.K. told Entertainment Weekly. "They're either offensive or weird, but my goal has always been that anybody can enjoy them. What's more fun than taking something that's really from the depths of you—something that should really be kept private—and making some 54-year-old guy in flip-flips in Kentucky really laugh at it?"
Comedians have long built careers on talking about things thought too crass or impolite or base to discuss openly. Don Rickles shocked a more genteel America with his litany of insults. George Carlin introduced it to seven dirty words. In an era in which many expectant fathers were handing out cigars in hospital waiting rooms, Bill Cosby walked us right up to the stirrups.
Little wonder, then, that Louis C.K. has become one of the 21st century's most popular comedians. In an age where people disclose their sexual exploits on blogs and their bathroom habits on Facebook—when there's so little of our lives that we leave behind closed doors—C.K. teaches us that there are still some things some of us like to keep hidden and things we don't necessarily want to hear about others. And he's apparently determined to drag every last one of 'em out into the sunlight for us to gape at, make faces at and, if he does his job, laugh at.
To his credit, he does his job well—but it's to our detriment. He longs to expose us to the discomfort of his life, his furious mind. But there's a reason why some forms of exposure are crimes. There are things we don't need to see, thoughts we don't need to hear. Sometimes, when someone wants to expose us to something, it's best to turn around and walk the other way.