LOUIE, T.V.’s Most Interesting Comedy isn’t a Comedy [On The Contrary]
As anyone with cable can attest, we’re currently in Renaissance of television, with some of the most insightful, original, and exciting storytelling ever produced not just for the small screen, but for any screen. Anyone who doesn’t get cable probably doesn’t watch television, since the most broadcast network fare is the exact opposite—bland, formulaic writing that doesn’t take chances and is soon to be canceled in favor of the next reality show singing/dancing/cooking/dating competition show. People who complain about not liking anything on television are like people who say they don’t like wine but have only tasted one varietal of Chardonnay that poured from a cardboard box.
With so many fantastic new shows popping up all over cable, the race always seems to be on to declare each one the “best show on television.” There’s the MAD MEN people, the BREAKING BADers, the TRUE BLOODiers, DAMAGES peeps, and now the GAME OF THRONES folks. I myself can enjoy all of them, though I know nothing will ever surpass THE WIRE. However, there are other shows that really have no claim to being the “best show on television” (a dubious and too-subjective title anyway), but are nonetheless essential viewing. One particular show is fraught with inconsistencies of tone and storytelling, but might just be the most interesting program available right now.
The show’s premise is not all that dissimilar from SEINFELD, in that it follows the stand-up comedian Louis C.K. (playing himself) as he deals with the issues of his life and applies his experiences to stand up bits that we see during the show. That’s really where the parallels end, though. Louie C.K. was a comic’s comic for years, and a number of attempts were made to translate his act into the mainstream in the form of sitcoms, with none succeeding. Then last year the FX network debuted his show LOUIE, which found traction in its opening season, mainly because it was lauded by critics and the ratings demands at FX are not overly harsh. Its first season, available on DVD and Netflix streaming, is full of great comedic episodes and moments of surprising poignancy. Its second season, though is a different animal altogether.
So far this season has featured episodes involving confronting an old friend who is planning to kill himself, being threatened on the street by scary guys while taking two little girls trick-or-treating, dealing with a racist and dying elderly aunt, and confessing romantic love to a friend who does not reciprocate. These situations all seem a little heavy and serious, but I’m sure you can just imagine that a talented comedic writer could mine incredible dark humor from them.
You’d be wrong. Because LOUIE, while about comedy, is not really a comedy. To be certain, episodes feature moments that are incredibly hilarious, but these situations are played for emotional truth, rather than comedic intent. There is real terror in the moment Louie realizes he is outnumbered and cannot protect his little girls not only from being afraid but also from real potential danger when two nasty guys set upon them in the street. Likewise, I have not seen a television show put forward a moment of emotional vulnerability and nakedness to compare to Louie’s confession of love to his friend Pamela. His trying to talk his old friend out of killing himself ends without resolution, and embraces the hopelessness of being unable to really intervene in another’s life. There is also a scene this season where Louie confronts the comedian Dane Cook (playing himself) about stealing elements of his act—something Dane was actually accused of in the real world. The scene is dizzying in its blurring of what is actually real and what is scripted by the show, and feels like compelling documentary rather than a sitcom bit.
The show’s format does not follow a standard sitcom. Some episodes take the entire half hour; some are little more than scenes or sketches taking half a show or only a few minutes. The show has less in common with comedy shows than with short form theater and short fiction. Many of these sketches would be at home in the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Their tone sometimes verges on a wryer version of Raymond Carver stories. The big difference is that they have a continuous cast of familiar characters, and since they are set in the world of comedy, we are more disarmed to approach the harsh truths of the world with a sense of humor at the absurdity of life instead of a slogging sense of doom that accompanies more direct drama.
Louie is very much a man’s show. This is not to exclude women from it, and I’m sure many women love it, but there are a number of females I’ve spoken to who really dislike the show. I don’t really blame them. It’s not in any way a misogynistic show, and I would argue that Louie has tremendous respect for women. However, the perspective is so heavily routed in the experience of an aging, emotional male that everything is processed through that filter. I can’t think of a show that is as strongly from a female perspective in the same mature way (SEX AND THE CITY doesn’t qualify, because that show is more about idealized female life, the way ENTOURAGE is about idealized male lifestyles). This could be because I wouldn’t be the target audience for such a show, or it could be that even as far as television has come we still haven’t found a network that will take this kind of risk on a female-oriented show (Lifetime doesn’t even come close, but maybe now that Oprah’s taking a more active role in OWN we will see one soon). The closest comparison I could find would be my experience of reading the Barbara Kingsolver book “The Bean Trees,” after having several women (my mother included) encourage me to read it. I respected and admired that book, but it was clearly coming from an experience so different from my own that I couldn’t embrace it the way I might have were I to have two X chromosomes. I don’t buy the whole “men from Mars, women from Venus” deal, but we at least come from different neighborhoods.
Of course this is a long way of qualifying why a woman might not like LOUIE, when in fact it might have nothing to do with being a woman and everything to do with just not liking the show. Sorry for lumping you all together, ladies.
I’ve made the show sound rather heavy. Well, sometimes it is. Sometimes also it’s incredibly funny. Sometimes it’s slight and kind of boring. Sometimes we want more laughs from it, and sometimes the segments feel a little lazy. But those are the risks the show seems willing to take. This is a show about ideas, and some are of course better than others. The fact that this show has the courage of its convictions to explore its ideas truthfully and dramatically as well as comedically makes it consistently one of the most compelling weekly half hours on television.
If you tune in you will laugh…even if it’s not a comedy.
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