There’s a reason many shows make the leap from “good” to “great” in their second season. The break between writing the first and the second season is the first substantial period of time for the writers to assess the successes and failures they made in their initial run of episodes. With a first season under their belts, they likely won’t have to worry nearly as much about working in necessary but dull exposition. And the between-season break allows time for creativity to blossom, as it so often does when the right creative team combines with talented actors and a solid concept.
Arrested Development and Louie both had quintessentially excellent second seasons, albeit with very different accomplishments. Arrested Development had already established itself as a revolutionary and reliably hilarious comedy in its first season; all the writers had to do was rev the engines even faster, and that they did. Louie, meanwhile, nailed down the complicated mixture of tones swirling around in the mind of the show’s auteur Louis C.K., and demonstrated a more frequent willingness to break the rules and conventions that television structures typically demand. Taken together, these two shows represent examples of the range of artistic expressions that the malleable structure of television allows. Oh, and they’re also really funny.
In the case of Louie, those laughs are often coupled with grimaces and gasps of awe. When Louie uses half of one episode to air out a real-life beef with guest star Dane Cook involving some jokes Cook may or may not have plagiarized from C.K., it’s a fascinating blend of real-life drama with an extension of the themes within the show. The reason Louie goes to see Cook in the first place is to ask him for tickets to a Lady Gaga concert for his daughters. Louie loves his children, and he’ll do anything to make them happy, even if it’s something that will force him to confront a rather unfortunate element of his past. Louie’s kids have a stronger presence in the second season than they did in the first; indeed, the first scene of the season ends with Louie sticking his middle finger up at his daughter behind her back after she told him she preferred living with her mother, Louie’s ex-wife. Louie was smart to keep his kids in the picture; they bring out some of his better qualities, including his surprisingly adept parenting skills, while exposing his many flaws, including his inability to read social cues when women are involved and his general laziness.
The season’s best episodes came across like short films, tangentially connected but really just an excuse to showcase whatever Louie wanted to showcase in that particular week. Maybe my favorite of these vignettes came in the episode “Subway/Pamela,” which contains two halves. In the first half, which contains no dialogue, Louie observes a violinist and a homeless person standing side-by-side in a subway station, gets on the subway, sees a gross puddle of soda on one of the empty seats, fantasizes about mopping up the soda with his shirt and winning over the disparate subway riders, returns back to reality and finds that everyone is silent. That’s it. No zinger, no comedic climax, just a glimpse into the life of a typical New York City resident: wants to break out from the herd, but finds the herd is just too big and all-encompassing.
That same episode ends with an absolutely heartbreaking scene in which Louie confesses his undying love and affection to his friend Pamela (played by the show’s producer Pamela Adlon), only to find out that she claims she will never love him. An episode in the first season of the show found C.K. poking fun at his acting skills with guest star Matthew Broderick, but he was selling himself short: C.K. acts like the living daylights out of this scene, making Pamela’s rejection all the more heartbreaking, even when we totally understand that these two probably wouldn’t be compatible in the long-term. Louie knows that too, on some level, but he can’t accept it because of his well-established stubbornness.
I could go on at length about the amazing episode “Country Drive,” which folds a discussion of race, the death of an elderly relative and a full-length The Who jam session into a single episode. Or the ambitious hour-long episode that finds C.K. taking a tour of Afghanistan with a duckling in tow. Or the devastating final minutes of the finale “New Jersey/Airport,” in which Louie confuses Pamela yelling “Wave at me!” from afar for “Wait for me!” and mistakenly believes that she’s in love with him after all. Or the first part of that episode, which features a unusually relaxed performance from guest star Chris Rock. Or “Eddie,” an episode that stands with the best drama episodes of TV I’ve seen, in which Louie tries to talk his struggling comedian friend out of committing suicide. Or…I could go on and on and on. Emmy voters classify Louie as a comedy for the sake of an easy binary. I disagree. Louie isn’t a comedy. It’s art.
It seems silly to say that there’s not much to talk about with the second season of Arrested Development. In a way, there’s not, unless you want me to transcribe a list of jokes I laughed at (we’ll be here all day), or performances I delighted in (pull up a chair), or episodes that astounded me with their narrative complexity (seriously, we’re going to be here a while). But really, what I want to say about Arrested Development boils down to this: when the show is at its best, it’s moving so fast that I can’t even catch my breath, let alone think of something to say about it.
The show went even more meta in season 2, most notably with the episode “Sword of Destiny,” which works in elaborate references to Fox’s decision to cut the show’s episode order midway through the season. And the network’s unceremonious intrusion shows in the last third of the season: the story doesn’t feel quite as tightly constructed or elaborately connected as the early part of the season does, because the writers simply didn’t have time to rework their story to fit neatly into the new allotment of episodes. No matter. By this point in the show’s run, the characters have been defined so strongly and the show’s central mission established so pointedly that basically anything that happens will be a success. Maeby turning into a film executive? Fine! The overly literal doctor returning time and time again to haunt the Bluths with portentous diagnoses? Great! Tobias’ foray into the Blue Man Group? Bring it on! Buster losing his hand to a seal wearing a bow tie? ABSOLUTELY!
I’ll probably never root for incest (with an asterisk, but still) more than I have between George Michael and Maeby. I never thought I would care about a show filled with people who do horrible, horrible things to each other on a weekly basis and rarely learn from their mistakes. I certainly never thought I’d care about a show in which a magician and a racist puppet record an album together, but gosh darn it, I want that album. Arrested Development is magic.