Hope Lies on Television #6 – One man, one show, one vision
Later today, the second season of the sitcom Louie will premiere on the cable channel FX in the United States. This is a cause for celebration amongst television fans, since the first season can comfortably claim to be one of the best things to air last year, alongside the third season of Breaking Bad, the first season of Boardwalk Empire, and This Is England ’86. More importantly for the purposes of this article, the return of Louie offers the opportunity to discuss the idea of television as an auteurist medium. This will be the first in a short series which will examine the works of writers who are able to work within the boundaries of television and created an oeuvre which is uniquely and distinctly their own.
Louie has been chosen because, of all the shows currently airing, it’s the one which can most easily be identified as the work of an auteur. The series was created by Louis C.K., a man who spent much of the first decade of his career in show business as a writer for shows like Late Night With David Letterman, The Dana Carvey Show and The Chris Rock Show, for which he won his only Emmy to date. He also collaborated with Chris Rock on a number of films, writing the screenplays for Rock vehicles like Down To Earth and I Think I Love My Wife. He even wrote and directed the little-loved blaxploitation spoof Pootie Tang, a spin-off from a sketch on The Chris Rock Show.
So, the first decade of his career was successful, both commercially and, in some cases, creatively, but it was fairly also unspectacular. In his second decade, though, C.K. re-emerged as arguably the greatest stand-up comedian of his generation. For those unfamiliar with C.K.’s work, it can broadly be characterised as inventive filth at the service of brutal honest. His routines deal candidly with his insecurities and neuroses, the problem of being a father to two young daughters (Clip) (incidentally, that clip and the subsequent ones are NSFW), and the daily tribulations of marriage. These are not new subjects for stand-up, but the fearlessness that C.K. brings to his routines, putting his most intimate fears out there for the purpose of comedy, has earned him a deserved following. It also helps that he is incredibly funny and intelligent, and can tackle such tricky subject matter as race (Clip), or the use of words like “faggot” (Clip) or phrases like “the n-word” (Clip) with a wit and intuition that belies the occasional bluntness of his delivery. It says a great deal about his willingness to use his life for his art that, following his divorce in 2008, he not only didn’t shy away from it in his sets, he made the fallout from it one of the central threads of his most recent special, Hilarious, choosing to mock himself rather than going the easy route of attacking his ex-wife.
Louie is essentially an extension of his stand-up persona; C.K. plays Louie, a newly-divorced father of two young daughters who works as a stand-up comedian living in New York. Each episode follows him as he encounters a variety of problems in his personal and professional life, with each incident often serving to illuminate something about Louie, the character, or the worldview of Louis, the creator.
On paper, Louie sounds like the latest in a long line of personality-driven television shows in which comedians play characters that riff on their established persona for comic effect. It’s a tradition that extends through the work of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, all the way back to Andy Griffiths. What makes Louie so thrillingly exciting is that it lacks the filters that those similar shows used to make them more readily accessible; vehicles like Seinfeld or Home Improvement may have been shaped by the viewpoints of their respective stars, in doing so creating a distinct worldview for the show, but they were still filtered through traditional sitcom tropes and techniques. They had heightened realities, but they existed within recognisable versions of our own world.
Louie, by contrast, is like a Being John Malkovich-style portal into Louis C.K.’s brain. Most of the episodes are divided into two halves, with each functioning like a short film about a single subject or event, and C.K., who writes, directs and edits every episode in addition to starring in them, uses this structure to reinvent the world of the show every week, sometimes every 15 minutes. In some instances, he uses the show to tell small, intimate stories from his life, such as the rightly celebrated sequence in the sixth episode in which he, whilst on-stage, viciously tears down a heckler in the audience. (Clip) (Note: That clip is most definitely NSFW.) The segment is a masterful example of the comedy of discomfort, in which the audience is unsure just who they are meant to sympathise with; Louie, the main character of the show, or the woman who becomes the target of his truly vitriolic and prurient disdain. The ending, in which C.K. is confronted by the heckler and waxes lyrical about the sad nature of the life of a working comedian, further complicates things, making it unclear who, if anyone, is right in the situation. It’s emblematic of the raw, abrasive quality that makes C.K.’s stand-up so electrifying, and the show would be duly lauded, if difficult to watch on a weekly basis, if every episode was like that, and some of the show’s strongest moments, including one in which his mother reveals to him that she is gay and another in which he contemplates the existence of God, are sublime pieces of low-key, unassuming television.
However, in other sections, Louie is shot through with a playful surrealism that verges on the absurb; when Louie hails a cab, three show up and the drivers engage in shouting matches and acts of physical violence as they battle to get Louie into their cab; Louie goes to get coffee whilst battling a raging hangover, only to discover that all the various hipster types inside appear to be talking their own gibberish language that he can’t understand, in a scene which ends like some demented zombie film (Clip); and when Louie goes in for a kiss at the end of a terrible date, the girl he is with not only gets up and runs away from him, she gets and runs away from him into a waiting helicopter, which then flies off over the Hudson. Moments like these can range from just a few seconds in an otherwise straightforward segment, or they can become whole segments in themselves.
What stops these disparate moments from turning Louie into a structurally and tonally incoherent mess is that they all underpinned by Louis C.K.’s particular sensibilities. Even though the events that take place in each segment can vary wildly in terms of tone, style or plausibility, they all share his authorial voice, and there is a fair amount of overlap between the two kinds of segment. C.K. uses even the most surreal elements to examine some aspect of his life or personality – the ‘bad date’ segment is a pretty sharp examination of the insecurities of a 41-year old man who suddenly finds himself having to remember how to date women after ten years of marriage – and even the most seemingly down-to-earth segments can have an undercurrent of weirdness. In one episode, Louie goes home with a girl he meets in a bar who admits that she has a festish for older men, so whilst they are having sex, she makes him talk about things from his youth as a substitute for talking dirty to her.
In one sense, Louie could be viewed as almost expressionistic. Not visually, since the show maintains an effective lo-fi, unshowy aesthetic that never distracts from the jokes, but in its world. The reality of the show is elastic enough that it can change to suit whatever theme or idea Louis C.K. wants to explore, yet the steady hand of its creator means that the show never feels inconsistent, even though its very nature means that it is. It is the undeniable, unwavering vision of its creator that makes Louie such a remarkable, exceptional television show.
The first season of Louie is available on Region 1 DVD, the second season begins airing on FX tonight.