I recently ruminated on the vexing issue of ascribing authorship when evaluating cinema. That dilemma is even more pronounced when it comes to television programs. While we’re solidly into the era that venerates showrunners, television is undoubtedly an even more collaborative medium than film. Unless a program is being overseen by a near obsessive, such as David Milch, or a narcissistic self-sabotage artist, like Nic Pizzolatto, there’s sure to be a dizzying array of voices contributing to the creative process. One person may grab the baton and conduct, but the whole choir delivers the song. One of the satisfying pleasures of Louie, then, is that it comes as close as a multi-episode television endeavor can to being the platonic ideal of a single author creation. Louis C.K. is the star, producer, director, and writer throughout season two (sharing a writing credit with co-star Pamela Adlon on one episode), and he famously brokered a deal with FX that effectively prevented them from providing any unsolicited feedback on the work. No writers’ room, no network notes, no ideas lobbed by others that weren’t actively sought by C.K.
Of course, the appeal of that certainty is enhanced by the not insignificant detail that Louie stands as a tremendous accomplishment, arguably the high water mark in the flood of quality programming to be found in the so-called “Peak TV” era. From the beginning, C.K. operated with an agreeably downbeat shuffle that seemed plucked straight from the indie film playbook, especially the pages that were consulted most frequently during the nineteen-eighties, when casual understatement was most prized. Initially, he had a scuffling disregard for the rules of episodic television, blithely ignoring the sort of world-building — firmly established supporting cast, overarching storylines, recurring conflicts — intended to keep audiences hooked, coming back for new episodes out of a necessity to continue their commitment, not stepping away until the whole series reached completion. Instead, C.K. made a series that felt like a series of storytelling riffs, some comic and some more somber. Some of the more contrarian aspects of his creativity would eventually slip away, though he always operated by his own shifting set of guidelines, but the totally unique tone remained. He was clearly making what he wanted, how he wanted.
While the whole run is complex and rewarding, season two is the clear peak, if only because of the thrill that comes with watching C.K.’s sharp, exploratory sensibility cohere. Challenging as it is on most levels, the first season could occasionally step back into the safety of goofball absurdity, undercutting any external attempts to take it too seriously. Like one of those great early records by the Replacements, C.K. mitigates the risks he was taking by including moments that signaled a lack of serious intent. Plausible deniability is built right in, just in case someone levels mortifying criticism at the more heartfelt material. In season two, C.K. is more bold, directly addressing his own professional and personal anxieties in a manner that feels intensely vulnerable. He offers a consideration of the grind of his profession in an episode guest starring Joan Rivers and addresses a long-standing grievance related to Dane Cook’s theft of his stand-up material, casting the comic with smug rock star affectations in a phenomenal extended scene that is fiction informed by the schism of real-life lingering animosity.
Consistently throughout the season, C.K. tests the patience of the audience. This isn’t done in the same way as a cinematic sadist like Lars von Trier, but instead with an undercurrent of reassurance. There’s a resonant sense that C.K. is excited by the unconventional maneuvers he employs (an extended subway set piece that shows how beauty and ugliness coexist in New York City, a scene in which he sings along to “Who Are You” while driving in the car) and truly believes that whatever initial skepticism the audience might have will fall away. He implicitly asks for trust, and constantly rewards it.
C.K. shifted the axis of his stand-up career when he started following George Carlin’s advice to regularly scrap established material and start from scratch. C.K. noted the results were clear and unavoidable: “And I thought, well OK, when you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs and you throw those away, what do you have left? You can only dig deeper, start talking about your feelings and who you are.” When Carlin did that, he got fiercely political. C.K. instead veered to the personal, expressing his stress about being a father, a husband (and then ex-husband), and decent human being. That aspect of his creative voice becomes prominent in Louie, as well, with C.K. striving to get a new home to share with his daughters that is free of the burden of unhappy memories or laying his heart on the line for a woman he’s sure will never love him back (in a monologue that the twenty-year-old version of me, foolishly enraptured by romantic misery, would have memorized with pitiful pride).
The brilliant hour-long episode “Duckling,” a precursor to some of the longer form storytelling C.K. employed in later seasons, is the quintessential example of the self revelation that informed season two, made all the more impressive because it largely takes place while C.K. in on a USO tour in the Middle East, far from the now-recurring characters who presumably provide easy entry to exploring his conflicted emotions. A fictionalized memoir of C.K.’s actual time on such a tour, complete with fellow performers from that trip cast as themselves, it has the unmistakable heft of a truly transformative experience shared with grace and humility. As is often the case, its the unexpected distance from that which holds the greatest sway over someone that makes the power its pull most clear.
By C.K.’s reckoning, Louie is likely done, as it probably should be. Exceptional as it is as a television series, it does feel like the establishing of a creative voice, a testing of range. C.K. has moved on to another episodic work that plays like an extension of his sensibility, but structured with a whole other set of daring risks. So much of Louie is about establishing an admirable dictum: never settle. There’s surely no better way to honor that part of the vision — to preserve its purity — than to move on. There are new, different heights to reach.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three