Louie breaks many of television’s most basic rules. Rather than maintaining a consistent structure, each episode assumes its own shape. Some episodes contain two separate stories of equal length tangentially linked by a common theme; others contain one long story and one short one, or just one episode-long story. Some episodes contain long stretches of Louis C.K.’s stand-up routine, which often serves as the origin point for the narrative stories that follow; others episodes isolate the stand-up at the beginning and end, or leave it out altogether.
And the stories themselves are far from traditional. Sometimes they’re just comic larks, as when one of Louie’s bad dates ends with the woman bailing out into a nearby helicopter. Other times, they’re observant commentaries on Louie’s psyche, as when Louie and fellow single parent Pamela confess the worst thoughts they’ve had about their children. And sometimes they’re somewhere in between, as in the remarkably strange episode “God,” when young Louie has a traumatic experience in his Catholic school. You never know what you’re going to get.
The cast, too, is highly malleable. Some characters (Pamela, Louie’s brother Robbie) recur, while others appear once and never again. The actress Amy Landecker plays Louie’s date in the episode “Bully”; two episodes later, she returns, this time as Louie’s mom. The only actor guaranteed to appear in every episode is C.K. himself.
Even the show’s production arrangement defies TV logic. Each season, FX president John Landgraf gives C.K. a fixed amount of money ($250,000 per episode, meager by TV standards) and allows him to do whatever he wants with it. Louie doesn’t have to consult with the network on story ideas or even get the network’s approval when his episodes go to air. He writes, directs, edits and stars in every episode. The show represents C.K.’s unadulterated, uncensored vision.
None of these features, in and of themselves, make Louie great, though.
Louie is great because these unusual features add up to a deep-dive exploration into the mind of an incredibly smart, often very sad comedian. The show calls attention to the absurdities of everyday life that we so often take for granted: the difficulties of parenting, the uncomfortable contradictions of religious faith, the perils of aging, the inconveniences of the airport. Each 22-minute episode packs in a lifetime’s worth of emotional baggage, as C.K. presents himself as depressed, bloated, grouchy and confused. Lest you think that the show is completely self-deprecating, though, C.K. allows his character moments of victory and relief: friendship with Pamela (Pamela Adlon, also an executive producer), pancake breakfast with the kids in the season finale. Louie may be down, but he’s not out.
To describe as Louie as a comedy is to minimize the far deeper and sadder core that keeps the show unpredictable and often devastating. To describe it as a drama would be to ignore the numerous levels on which C.K.’s comedy stylings rest, from the lowbrow guffaws at the pileup of mishaps in the airport to the highbrow intellectual humor in Louie’s rueful conversations with Pamela about the struggles of parenting and single life. A show with this many tonal shifts could easily go awry (hello, Glee!), but C.K. smooths out the rough edges by grounding the comedy in an uncanny mix of the recognizable and the otherworldly.
Mediocre television shows often suffer from the problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Network executives, producers, writers, directors, actors, casting agents and editors each have a vision for how their shows should look and feel. When those visions line up, the magic is undeniable. But when they don’t, the seams show. With Louie, every aspect of the production lines up with the ideology of Louis C.K. He’s influenced by surrealism, French cinema, improv comedy and classical dramatic performance. This show is a potpourri of his thoughts and ideas, laid out exactly as he wants them to be. How refreshing to see a show that knows exactly what it wants to do. Even better, how refreshing to see a show with ambitions that extend far beyond (and sometimes against) conventional narrative structure. Watching the first season of Louie, C.K.’s enthusiasm for his unique creative endeavor shines through in every frame. Each episode turns a corner into lands unknown.