Top 5: Louie (So Far)

I’m generally loath to add to a praise chorus, particularly when there’s critical near-consensus, but I adore Louie. Spending a quarter of a year checking in with Louis CK as he indulges very thematic and aesthetic whim at his disposal has been a total delight, made all the more remarkable by the fact that he’s doing an astounding amount of the work himself. Louie’s first 26 episodes were written, edited, directed by and almost exclusively star CK himself, and while he’d be the first to acknowledge (as he does in S1’s “Cop Movie” segment) that he’s not the most conventionally riveting screen presence, his emotional directness and particular worldview are allowed to color every aspect of the show. It sounds corny, but watching Louie can sometimes feel like making a friend; most TV comedies are content to let us hang out with their protagonists. Louie inhabits one.

The show’s third season premieres on Thursday, June 28. The early word on the five episodes FX has sent to people more important than me is typically positive, and I’m very eager to see what new editor Susan Morse (who handled nearly all of Woody Allen’s best films) brings to the table. To celebrate the new season’s imminent arrive, a hopefully-quick rundown of my five favorite episodes, in descending order. I cheat a bit.

5. “Bully” (1.09)

The early run of Louie is solid, but for my money it’s not until “Bully” that CK really starts to test the limits of his stories in search of deeper, less comfortable truths. Early, oft-discussed sequences like “Heckler” and “Poker” are incisive and funny as hell, but feel downright safe and quaint compared to what’s followed. To put it another way, it would have been well and good for CK to give us the bungled date, topped off with her admission that actually, she does need some bravado in her life, but Louie’s decision to follow his teenaged tormentor home is what sends the episode into that next level, if only because we have no idea how this pans out. There’s no readymade trope to let us know what happens after Louie knocks on that door.

4. “Eddie” (2.09)

Most of the non-Louie characters on Louie who aren’t his kids often feel like they exist onscreen principally as figures for CK to bounce ideas off of, and that’s also sort of true of Eddie (Doug Stanhope), who represents a certain kind of comic living out a certain kind of comic’s career; a sort of alternate-universe Louie. But one of the strengths of Louie’s second season is CK’s generosity towards his guest stars, whether it’s showing the full performance of “Circle of the Cross” in “Duckling,” Dane Cook’s cred-gaining appearance on “Tickets,” or Stanhope as Eddie, who is fleshed out quickly but effectively via flashbacks and Stanhope’s extended rants as not only his own man, but one whose failures deserve Louie’s serious consideration. “Eddie” is a remarkable little character study and industry portrait that’s also one of the most sterling examples of Louie as a platform for CK’s short-form storytelling abilities.

3. “Night Out” (1.13)

Louie’s first season ends with a sequence that acts as a synecdoche of sorts for the entire series: Louie, having failed to follow his (hilariously distraught) babysitter’s advice and get laid, takes his daughters out to an all-night diner just before sunset. In a different context, it might come off corny, but after an episode’s worth of Louie being faced with his dwindling sex appeal, it’s a reminder of CK as a comedian whose material emphasizes our whacked-out priorities. The conclusion he comes to in one of the episode’s stand-up bits: he’s the best in the world at masturbating, and he’s the best in the world at raising his daughters. As “Night Out” argues, that damn well ought to be good enough.

2. “God” (1.11) / “Come On, God” (2.08)

Twice now, Louie has tackled hardline Catholicism, and though both episodes are stellar, they have almost nothing else in common. In Season One’s “God,” a glory hole graced with portentous graffiti leads into an extended flashback to Louie’s childhood, in which a terrifying Tom Noonan (!) scares little Louie into taking Jesus down from the cross – only for a city carpenter to matter-of-factly nail him back up the next morning. To date, it’s still the closest to joke-free Louie gets. “Come On, God,” on the other hand, served as the comparatively light-hearted counterpart to “Eddie,” with which it was originally aired back-to-back. If it’s not Louie’s out-and-out funniest installment, it’s damned close, from Louie’s fake Red Eye appearance as “Comedian/Masturbator,” complete with its absurd cello-scored breakdown in which Louie faces “the darkness” of his existence, to his distressing elevator fantasy, to his final date/showdown with Ellen (Liz Holtan).  Considered together, they show off CK’s surprisingly nuanced take on the subject: yes, the church has been responsible for inspiring heaps of shame and guilt on those undeserving and too young to process those feelings correctly, but it’s also resulted in profounder iterations of happiness and contentment than Louie is willing to commit himself to.

1. “Subway/Pamela” (2.06)

Louie doesn’t feature many actual character throughlines, so its Pamela-centric episodes stand out whenever they pop up. That CK and Pamela Adlon have fantastic onscreen chemistry is no surprise, seeing as she’s the performer he’s shared the most screentime with (see also: Lucky Louie), but “Subway/Pamela” goes for a dramatic and comedic payoff that goes beyond most episodes of the show, and Adlon is crucial to making it work. After the “Subway” portion, a wonderfully surreal bit of NYC worship, the rest of the episode basically consists of Louie and Pamela coming to realize the limits of their friendship. “You think I’m awesome, I think you’re OK, it’s just the way it is – we need to admit that, or just walk away,” she seems to joke early on, but there’s more than a grain of truth to that sentiment. But after he makes her laugh with a cruder-than-usual scatalogical gag, Louie finds the courage to confess his love to her, albeit with the disclaimer that he’s fully aware his feelings aren’t reciprocated. His speech evokes the peculiar sensation of sickly, unrequited love, in which you feel orders beneath the object of affection. Best of all, CK sticks to his creative guns, and honors the characters: Pamela is moved, but not enough to change her mind, and her fleeting offer near the end of the episode to “take a bath” with him serves as just another inadvertent twist of the knife. “Pamela” goes for bigger, broader emotional beats than we’re used to from Louie, but it delivers them with its trademark honesty and panache.

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