The majority of half-hour comedies over the years have suffered from one strikingly obvious issue: they take place in an alternate reality. The problem wasn’t the Funny Factor: any comedic writer with half a brain can pump out one funny line in a 22-minute period, and these shows had the greatest writers of their time. What I’m talking about is how the problems of these worlds materialized, and in the same vein, were reconciled. Much of the time, situations arising from dire circumstances are surrounded by the always-comforting sense of ‘well it’s bad now, but they will figure it out.’ And that’s just not realistic.
Am I a sicko? Would I have gained joy if Carlton died from taking that speed Will left in his locker during the third season of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? Of course not. But the major problem with shows that are ‘just supposed to make us laugh’, is they accomplish it at the expense of reality and competency (or else both Barney from How I Met Your Mother and Charlie on Two and Half Men would be disfigured from STD’s by this point). There are shows which defy these stereotypes and cultural patterns, Seinfeld obviously being the best amongst them.
Seinfeld, although universally acclaimed and culturally transcendent, wasn’t a show loved by all. Some were turned off by the misogynistic undertones, but most were turned off by its unabashed nihilism. Those types of people probably wouldn’t like Louie, but I’d like to think they’d give it a chance. While much darker then the show it’s constantly compared to- and for some people, opportunistically offensive, although I find touches like this charming when done right- Louie succeeds where both Seinfeld and network comedies of the last four decades have failed: it manages to operate within a believable reality, and still have a heart.
Louie centers around the semi-autobiographical story of Louie C.K., comedian and divorced father of two young girls. The episodes consist of vignette-esque scenes depicting different aspects of his life, interspersed with segments of stand-up on various topic. There are occasional flashbacks to his childhood, and one interesting episode with an elongated tale of Catholic elementary school I found particularly entertaining. It’s nihilistic and can venture off the deep end for quick moments, but under the pool of bitterness and scathing social commentary, there is a man who has found something he really loves in the world: his daughters.
That little touch speaks volumes about a man who sometimes portrays himself as a little simplistic and conventionally edgy. It’s a welcome contrast to the occasional moment Louie strays into slightly uncomfortable territory, like some of his 9/11 references or homo-erotic rants on the microphone. Most of the time he makes it work with his intelligence or unique take on the human experience, and those uncomforting moments can be quickly forgotten. Every show is allowed its occasional dissonance, and the fact Louie is willing to accept these shortcomings, almost displaying them like a badge of honor, is a respectable move.
It was a dangerous move by FX, if you think about it. Giving one man the power to write, edit, direct, produce, and star in his own show could quickly turn into an exercise in self-indulgence, lost among the happy TV Land tales of happy endings and ‘life is so fucking good’-ness. It’s shot wonderfully (avoiding the “gritty NYC” stereotype, in favor of a darker, quirkier model), and Louie isn’t afraid to look in the mirror and admit he’s a loser, and has failed at most things in life. As he points out to a rude heckler in one episode, “we’re comedians… for most of us, this is all we’ve got.” He knows what he’s good at, and what he isn’t good at, he’s not afraid to show us. And when you’re existing both behind the camera and in front of it, it’s hard to not portray yourself as some cry-me-a-fucking-river Greek tragedy (just go watch any Mel Gibson-directed movie he starred in… or Kevin Costner… or Sylvester Stallone, but I’m getting off point).
Louie is a hilarious comedy, although many of its jokes are surrounded by somber faces. You see, Louie realizes something about laughter and comedy: it’s not a solution to our problems, it simply can’t be. If you want Mr. and Mrs. Brady to help you figure out your path in life, you’re screwed. The world is cruel and most things don’t work out how we expect them to, whether we want to admit it or not (or else Friends wouldn’t have ended with Rachel and Ross together). Louie realizes this, and even when there are moments it is stretching its morals or relying on conventions for a couple extra laughs, it never forgets where its mind, or it’s heart, is located. Those values, combined with a reality more familiar then one we’ve ever watched on television, creates a unique and deeply reflective television experience.
Characters: B+ (extra half-grade for a few fantastic cameos)
Production Values: A
(Louie airs on FX at 10:30pm on Thursday nights. It’s TV-MA, so if you spend the late evenings reading your Bible or watching TV with impressionable little ones, this show is probably not for you.)