Louie returns to UK screens today, with Season 5 of the comedy series beginning on FOX. Chris Tapley looks at how this formulaic-sounding sitcom about a stand-up comedian living in New York has somehow become one of the most beautifully unique shows of all time.
Louie documents the struggles of single father and comedian Louis CK, who plays a loosely fictionalised version of himself. It is a brazenly peculiar show which has found huge critical acclaim by breaking almost every rule in the sitcom rulebook – to the extent where some argue whether it can even be called a sitcom. That is precisely why it is so important.
Unlike almost every other TV show in history, Louie is written, directed and edited entirely by the same person: Louis C.K. Refreshingly, he has resisted larger episode budgets and more prime-time scheduling to retain this level of creative control. This has given him free reign to deal with ‘difficult’ topics using the same skewed perspective which has made his stand-up so popular (and which would never gets past the idea stage for most shows).
Scenes such as So Did The Fat Lady, the poker game sequence or the so-called ‘rape scene’ have generated unprecedented levels of serious discussion around the intentions of a sitcom. While often controversial, his approach to these topics always has an underlying sensitivity and consideration of the wider issues which is absent in 99% of “shocking” comedy – something which emerges from a sole view-point and retains the caveats of complexity that come with that (something all too often filtered out by committee). Thankfully, most audiences now seem to appreciate being challenged – and being given reason to second-guess their initial reactions.
Follows its own rules
Modern audiences are well versed in the narrative structures applied within different TV genres, and once you get to grips with season one of a show you pretty much understand it’s internal logic and any element of surprise is greatly diminished. Louie is way out on its own though, still taking detours which confound and amaze after multiple seasons.
Even down to its genre, the lines are blurred; it’s a comedy, but it pays little attention to the gag ratios which most sitcoms strive for, and you never know if an episode will make you laugh or cry (or both). Episodes range from barely connected vignettes to sprawling multi-episode arcs. There is no need to re-establish the equilibrium of the episodes beginning, because Louie already lives in his own kind of chaos – the structure and skewed logic reflects this.
Some of Louie’s transgressions are built silently into the show, like the fact that his ex-wife is played by a black actress but his children are not mixed race. More often it is a surreal punchline, like when Louie tries to save a terrible date by delivering a rousing speech before leaning in for a kiss only for his date to leg it; making her escape in a conveniently placed helicopter. Neither is ever explained, but somehow it all just makes sense in the world of Louie.
Is this funny?
Louie is not always laugh a minute stuff, and some argue that this makes it a bad comedy. But really it just has more tragedy in it than most – and that’s what makes it special. We are used to sitcoms dealing with trivial minutia but, like in CK’s stand-up, the most prominent themes here are death, the decaying body and fatherhood. Fairly lofty themes which can’t always be funny and so on-screen, freed from the shackles of a live audience baying for laughter, the pathos is given room to breathe. The humour is then drawn from the ways people connect with one another in those darkly universal circumstances. There is a basis of bared humanity in almost all of Louie’s best moments, but sometimes there are just really good dick jokes too.
The show is best when embracing such pathos, like the beautiful scene in which Amia (the Hungarian non-English speaking attention of Louie’s unrequited desires) has an impromptu violin duet with Louie’s 10 year old daughter. In earlier seasons Louie shared a weirdly poignant moment with a kid who just shit in his bathtub; visited a strip joint with Robin Williams for a funeral; and lectured Osama Bin Laden while being molested by his dentist. These moments of human connection amid crass surroundings elevate the show way beyond being ‘just a sitcom’.
The whole package
Louie transcends the restrictions of structure, genre and industry red-tape which have quietly defined television for years. Both in its unique approach to form and its auteured production methods, it will undoubtedly become influential. Yet the real reason for Louie’s success is simply that it’s the most consistently surprising, hilarious and often moving thing on TV right now.
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