New Television — From the September 2015 issue

New Television

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In Season 5 of Louie (FX), Louie is a new kind of superhero. Like Wonder Woman, the canonical superhero he most resembles, Louie’s distinctive superpower is love. With loving understanding, he transforms his sister’s aggressive, gun-wielding ex-boyfriend into a gentle, giggling man who learns to knit. With loving understanding, he relieves the sexual loneliness of a pregnant surrogate mother and, in doing so, hastens new life into the world. This enrages the (nearly evil) nonpregnant parents, who had a detailed birth plan. “Some things don’t work out the way you planned them,” Louie says to them as he exits the hospital, fleeing their aspersions and our cheers.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

And he is fleeing our cheers. Louie repeatedly attempts to correct the cosmic imbalance of things going so very right for him — as they have for Louis CK, the comedian and creator of the highly autobiographical and much-celebrated show — and so very wrong for pretty much the rest of the world. Louie seeks out rejection so that he can be himself.

The fourth episode of Season 5 begins with Louie’s brother, Bobby, calling to say that their uncle has died — which turns out not to be the case; the obituary was for another man with the same name. After the brothers attend the other man’s funeral, Bobby says he wants to share something important. Louie discourages him, but Bobby goes ahead. Bobby says that he is truly happy to see his brother’s success: “You got a beautiful wife, you got a divorce, you get part-time custody of two beautiful kids. Me, I got nothing. No money, no skills, no Twitter.” The overhead lights in Bobby’s apartment are on an electricity-saving timer, and at this point they promptly go out.

These scenes constitute just the first seven minutes of the episode. After that, Louie gets beaten up by a woman on the street while trying to stop a fight; his daughters laugh at him for being beaten up by a woman; his friend and love interest, Pamela, also laughs at him; and then, when he asks her for help covering his bruises with makeup so he can do that night’s comedy show, she convinces him to put on lipstick and have sex with their gender roles switched. When Louie later suggests that perhaps their relationship has reached a new level, Pamela breaks up with him. He’s great, she says, but she can’t give him what he needs and deserves. The last twenty seconds of the episode show Louie and Bobby at a diner, with Bobby laughing joyfully, presumably at Louie’s degradations.

Bobby’s joy is where the logic of the episode, and in some sense of the whole season, is clearest. Part of Louie’s superpower of love is his ability to occupy a position of humiliation and dejection, as if this might protect those around him from the same fate. Bobby’s laughter isn’t cruel, because we sense how relieved Louie is to have his debasement to offer to a brother he loves. Louie, for all his success, can’t give Bobby looks, charisma, or a career — “Tell me what you want,” Louie says; Bobby replies, “You’re throwing it in my face, right in my face” — but he can give him a moment of true humor and happiness.

Louie’s very presence precipitates expressions of weakness and longing. In one episode, he has nightmares — a gooey shirtless man pursues him, then he’s onstage naked from the waist down and unable to speak — that recur until a friend asks him to think about what happened just before the dreams began. Louie remembers that he’d failed to help a woman in need: the mother of a friend of his daughter’s asked for help moving a large fish tank, but Louie refused. When she started crying, Louie said, “I don’t really know you. So I feel like this is a private thing.” He then placed a blanket over her head, and left. Near the end of the episode, we see Louie arrive at her apartment with a bucket and a net.

The show returns again and again to moments when Louie the superhero is unfairly expected to save the day. On tour in Cincinnati, he rides with a driver who is chatty, socially and emotionally needy, and unresponsive to Louie’s cues about wanting to sit quietly. “I hope I’m not being rude,” Louie finally says. “I just don’t feel like talking.” He is too sensitive not to notice that the man, who keeps bringing up how friendly other visiting comedians were, wants to hang out. Louie tells him, “I’m forty-seven years old, I’ve been doing this for I don’t even know how long anymore. . . . So for me, now, the road, it’s not like an adventure. It’s like going to the toilet; it’s something I have to do. I don’t have a lot of choices out here, but one choice that I need to be able to make is that I can be by myself and not talk to everybody. And I don’t mean that to be insulting or unfriendly, that’s just what I need. . . . So I’m sorry if that’s a bummer for you, or if it’s disappointing. But it’s what works for me.” The driver cries. In the airport on the way to the next stop on his tour, Louie tries to help a lost Muslim girl, but she runs away before he can reunite her with her family.

Louie is ill at ease with his superpowers and nostalgic for his secret identity as an ordinary man, a disappointment. In the final episode of the season, he plays a weeklong run in Oklahoma City. Here he almost finds the hell he needs. He doesn’t like the club’s owner, the audience, or the comedian he is paired with, and they don’t like him. Oklahoma, apparently, is beyond even Louie’s capacities for love, and when he tries to make a connection with the other comedian — they agree that fart jokes are funny and try to bond over a bottle of whiskey — the man ends up dying from a drunken fall.

Louie did not begin as a superhero show. (To be clear, I don’t think Louis CK or anyone else describes the show in those terms.) The early seasons focused on fatherhood, with Louie acting in what we traditionally think of as a motherly, domestic role — associating gracelessly with other parents, picking his kids up from school, preparing meals. (There is of course a latent superhero aspect there as well.) In Season 4, Louie punches someone for the first time — she’s the beautiful, wealthy daughter of an astronaut — but the punch is an accident.

The fantasy sequences in those early episodes provided a kind of premonition of the heroics to come: one shows him on a subway car with a brown liquid sloshing in one of the seats; Louie takes off his shirt to absorb the filth, and his fellow riders celebrate. These sequences often contained the show’s most brilliant moments. He hears garbagemen outside his apartment banging cans as he is sleeping, and then they are climbing through his window and jumping on his bed. He decides to avoid a visit to his father by stealing a motorcycle, riding to the ocean, hopping on a boat, and heading toward the horizon. He spends Christmas sharing a meal with some peasants in rural China.

The one fully positive experience Louie has in Oklahoma is also a fantasy, and it ends the season. He attends a fair in a rainy parking lot and enters a tent where Civil War–style photographs are staged. After two women ask for his help — everyone is always asking for his help — he dresses up as a general and takes a picture with them. He treats them courteously and dances with them, and when he finally returns home to New York, he puts the photograph on the refrigerator. He explains to his daughter that the man in the photo is his great-great-great-great-grandfather — “His name was Bash, Bush, Blackbottom, uh, Bottompit. Blackbottom Pit” — a great soldier who was killed by snakes.

Part of the perfection of this closing is that the daughter seems to know that her father is telling her a fantasy, but still wants to hear more. “He shot the last shot of the Civil War and he missed. So they just quit. That’s why they quit the war, because it was such a bad shot. But then he went home and his wife had been eaten by a snake, so he killed the snake that ate his wife,” Louie says.

His daughter says, “Wait, I thought he was killed by the snake.”

“Yes. A whole other snake. Totally unrelated snake. About a week later. On a Wednesday. The snake ate him.”

“Wow,” she says. “What else?”

I watched Season 5 of Louie in a series of 6:30 a.m. viewings with my twenty-two-month-old daughter. She doesn’t speak much, and while I recognize that I should be concerned about “screen time,” I wanted to watch, and she wanted to watch, and, naturally, she drew my attention to aspects of the show that I had been missing. She dwelled on Louie’s mortal traits, not his superpowers. Three words in particular caught her attention, all of them from the opening credits. “Louie?” she would say hopefully each morning. Then, “Pizza?” — a reference to the slice he eats after ascending the West Fourth Street subway stairs. Finally she would say, without fail, “Die?” Which, I had never noticed before, is the last word of the theme song, as in “Louie, Louie, you’re gonna —”

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