Sunday, August 17, 2014

Louie, Season 4 (2014)

Writing about television - especially for me - is hard to do in a timely manner. When it comes to television, I'm often stuck watching it on my own schedule, not on the schedule the show airs. On the one hand, it means I can take the time to really savor a series; there's no rush on me to throw up a quick analysis without having time to really let the show work its magic on me. On the other hand, I'm usually late to the conversation, discussing things after everyone else has moved on to the next big thing. The result is that when I do a review or analysis of a recent season or episode of television, it usually comes as interest has faded. This isn't necessarily a complaint; it gives me time to write something more thoughtful, and to even draw comparisons between shows.

All of this is to say that, nearly two months after the show's fourth season ended, I'm finally writing something about Louie. But this is a good thing: this recent season was a challenging, dark, and complicated work, one that needed time to be processed and properly analyzed. It defied instant reaction. Or, rather, it subverted instant reaction, teasing audiences with material that wouldn't be resolved until later.

If you'll allow me the analogy, the fourth season of Louie was Louis C.K.'s Yeezus.

More after the jump.

As I noted when I made the show my number-one last year, Louie has never really been a "laugh out loud" comedy. But this season pushed the boundaries of the "comedy" label even further, with most episodes passing with barely a chuckle. The once-familiar theme song never once appeared. Most of the laughs came from the traditional stand-up bits, but even those were used sparingly during the season. Instead, C.K. turned his focus on more surreal material, much of it emotionally fraught rather than humorous. Additionally, this season found the show exploring other genres as well, ranging from action ("Elevator, Part 6"), drama ("In the Woods, Parts 1 & 2"), and romance ("Elevator, Parts 1-6" and "Pamela, Parts 2 & 3").

If those episode titles above aren't clue enough, this season found the show structured differently than pervious seasons. Though season three of Louie had multi-part episodes ("Daddy's Girlfriend" and "Late Show"), eleven of this season's fourteen episodes are part of a grander saga, with only the season's first three episodes serving as stand-alone narratives. The six-part "Elevator" is practically a movie broken up into bite-sized bits, as Louie (C.K.) engages in a romance with his Hungarian neighbor, Amia (Eszter Balint), after helping her mother (Ellen Burstyn) when she's trapped in an elevator. This isn't to say that the entirety of these episodes are straightforward narratives: "Elevator, Part 4" spends most of it's running time focused on Louie meeting his ex-wife Janet (Susan Kelechi Watson) over their daughters' acting out, and "Elevator, Part 5" opens with a lengthy digression where comedian Todd Barry (playing himself) details a day in his life. This doesn't differ much from previous seasons, but it's notable that these aren't treated as separate vignettes in the title.

Furthermore, the season's airing schedule was structured differently than before. Each night, two episodes were aired back-to-back, burning through fourteen episodes in seven weeks. Yet the episode order was structured in a way that often delayed resolution at best or, seemingly, intended to provoke reactions. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz noted on Vulture, C.K. seemed to be "trolling" viewers, particularly critics who do episode recaps, by airing an episode the following week that would put the previous episode in a different light. The most notable examples of this are the juxtaposition of "Model" and "So Did the Fat Lady" and the delayed resolution to a controversial, bumbling rape attempt in "Pamela, Part 1," with "Part 2" not airing until two weeks later.

This is where the Yeezus comparison comes in. Last year, Kanye West released his sixth studio album, Yeezus. West was facing stratospheric expectations coming off the heels of his 2010 solo set My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z Watch the Throne, both of which have been hailed as masterpieces from one of rap's preeminent geniuses. But whereas those albums were in equal parts gargantuan, boastful, catchy, melodic, and engaging, all while spawning hit singles, Yeezus was the opposite. It arrived with very little publicity, and sonically it was brutal, abrasive, aggressive, discordant, and difficult. There were no immediately catchy singles. In fact, it felt like West was actively begging for people to hate the album, and to hate him. But here's the brilliant part: he demolished all expectations for his next album. There's no telling where West will go from here, and no one can put expectations on him. He tempered his own wild success to grant himself future success.

In a sense, this is what C.K. has done with season four of Louie. The season premiered nearly two years after the third season started, and during the interim year acclaim and expectations for the show only rose, thanks to critical raves for both the series and his stand-up tour (as well as his HBO special, Louis C.K.: Oh My God). So when the fourth season was announced, the most likely scenario was that if the show wasn't mind-bogglingly brilliant and funny, it would be labeled a disaster. So, in a certain sense, C.K. blew up these expectations by crafting a season of television that the audience couldn't anticipate. With the show's conventions defied, C.K. was then free to make whatever he wanted, both during this season and next season.

But there's more to it than just that. If C.K. had solely wished to zig instead of zag, there were certainly much different, less controversial ways to do so. Instead, he produced episodes in which he addresses social issues ranging from fat shaming to gender inequality to rape, none of which he provides easy answers or moralizing lessons toward. Louie goes from simply being a good-natured, bumbling version of C.K. himself into being something more: a warts-and-all look at a man who's clearly as messed up as anyone else in reality, struggling to be a good person but sometimes failing, sometimes in particularly awful ways. C.K.'s major goal for this season, then, seemed to be checking his own privilege - a common theme in his stand-up - in a way that would force the audience to confront both his and their own privilege as well.

Take, for example, the season's most controversial episode, "Pamela, Part 1." In this episode, Pamela (Pamela Adlon), whom Louie has pined for over the course of the series, has returned to New York. She met with Louie in "Elevator, Part 3," telling him that she may be interested in a romantic relationship with him, but Louie rebuffed her, since he was dating Amia at the time. In "Pamela, Part 1," he's depressed from Amia returning to Hungary and ending their relationship, and he returns to Pamela, in the hopes that she's still interested. But she's not. He pressures her. In his apartment, he blocks her from leaving. He ignores her repeated "no" when he tries to kiss her, leading Pamela to utter the charged line, "you can't even rape well." If C.K. hadn't meant for this to be viewed as an attempted rape, he wouldn't have used the word the way he did.

This scene immediately follows a stand-up bit - one of the season's longest - where Louie talks about how women are still kept down by society, and how there's still a long way to go in terms of achieving gender equality. The juxtaposition is uncomfortable and intentional, as C.K. is demonstrating that Louie's "good guy" nature is not infallible. He's just as capable of committing a horrific act of violence as anyone else. It's hard to sympathize with the character after this, it's true. And more likely than not, this episode put a lot of viewers off the show. But it also ignited a conversation: one in which viewers and online commenters were discussing rape, grappling for responses that the show was denying. More particularly, it focused the conversation on what rape is and who commits it; Pamela wasn't attacked by a bogeyman in the dark, but a close friend she trusted and had previously had romantic feelings for. C.K., then, seemed to have sacrificed his onscreen persona - and in the eyes of many, his offscreen one too - to provoke a serious, difficult, necessary conversation about rape.

It's not a perfect effort, though. This reading of the episode is muddled by "Pamela, Parts 2 & 3," in which Louie and Pamela seem to have a happy ending by entering a relationship together (though, it should be noted, Louie is still pushing Pamela into it). Intentionally or not, it puts a problematic button on a season of television that was already difficult to read. But that seems to be the point that C.K. is trying to accomplish. He's addressing his own problematic behaviors and thoughts, and channelling them into the series. This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this season: if previous seasons of Louie were C.K.'s attempts to make stand-up cinematic, then this season is his attempt to make his own psyche cinematic.

This is most evident in the two-part "Into the Woods." Louie discovers his oldest daughter Lily (Hadley Delany) smoking pot, and has to confront her on the dangers of the drug. The majority of these episodes take place in Louie's memory, as he remembers when he was roughly Lily's age and trying pot for the first time. Young Louie (Devin Druid) becomes more and more reclusive, damaging his relationships with his mother (Amy Landecker) and his favorite teacher (Skip Sudduth), and his use of the drug eventually gets him into crime, thanks to drug dealer Jeff Davis (Jeremy Renner).

It's not the content that makes these episodes so potent, but the way that C.K. - who writes, directs, and edits every episode - films them. Both episodes feel like memories, assembled in such a loose way that the passage of time becomes tenuous. Scenes tend to transition by having one action or image bleed into the next. The camera movement and framing of different scenes evoke the perspective of Young Louie; these are subjective images, likely being framed the way that Louie remembers them, not as they actually happened. As a result, they feel even more personal, connecting the audience to the character by engaging them in his memories.

More than that, though, these episodes speak to the anxiety that Louie has been feeling about raising his children. Throughout the season, a frequent theme has been Lily and Jane (Ursula Parker) acting out and being defiant, especially Lily now that she's approaching her teenage years. "In the Woods" is a flashback to Louie's own rebellious, troubled years of adolescence, as he remembers just how difficult it is to be that age. Now he's at a point where he has to guide his children through that same minefield, and he fears that he's not equipped to handle it. "In the Woods, Part 2" concludes with Louie giving Lily a hug and telling her he'll be there for her. It's all he's able to do; he can't protect her from the pain she's going to face, but he can offer support should she seek it out.

Parenting anxiety is present in "Elevator, Part 1," too, with that episode beginning with Jane waking up from a nightmare and insisting that she's still dreaming, but it's a good dream now. Later that day, she steps off the subway, still believing she's in a dream, sending Louie into a panic. There's a dreamlike quality to the whole sequence, with Louie pacing back and forth and yelling, Lily trying to calm him down by reminding him Jane knows "the subway rules," and Jane calmly standing on the platform. The faces of everyone around are blurred and distant; once he's off the train, the editing of his attempt to get back to Jane is patchwork, non-linearly jumping from one location to another. It's another manifestation of Louie's anxiety, this time in a much smaller but no less powerful dosage.

Surrealism has long been a part of this show's modus operandi, and there have been episodes in the past that have felt like extensions of C.K.'s innermost anxieties and struggles (season three's "Dad," for example). But more than any other season to date, the fourth season has been the most cerebral, the most likely to be mostly taking place in Louie's head. This is what makes this season so challenging to "enjoy:" it isn't necessarily meant to be enjoyed, but rather to be picked over, analyzed, and engaged with. It's an attempt by C.K. to give the audience a glimpse into his troubled mind, exploring delicate issues with his own admittedly-problematic takes and making it clear that he doesn't have answers or solutions to them. He's prompting conversations that need to happen, but aren't easy. He's tearing down his image as a comedic hero of various causes. He's reminding the audience that he's trying just as much as any of us, and he has his failings. He doesn't have the answers to living a good life; he's fumbling though it just as everyone else does.

That's the brilliance of this show, though. The fourth season is the most difficult season of Louie yet precisely because it is the most human. Confronting Louie means confronting ourselves, our actions, our thoughts. What's reflected back isn't picture-perfect. But it's trying.

Season grade: A

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