After the exhilarating emotional high of the season 3 finale, Louie seemed to have won some sort of internal battle. Season 4 however begins with a much more downbeat tone and sees Louie return to an unhappy and lonely state of being.
Louie is a sitcom written, devised, and directed by Louie CK. It’s a show that has seen many pop culture icons grace its episodes. Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, and David Lynch are a few that spring to mind. In each instance, Louie is a show that likes to challenge and reuse familiar television tropes with an ironic, and humour orientated tone.
Mr CK often mines his own life and past experiences for inspiration and his self-directed HBO sitcom is often self-reflexive. Season 4 opens with a double bill and reminds viewers that this is the story of a very unhappy anti-hero. He’s not a success and his day-to-day life is pathetic to say the least. The latest two episodes see a Louie searching for sex toys, damaging his back, and sitting on a busy New York intersection unable to get the attention of passing cab drivers. Whilst on the pavement a group of kids make fun of the ‘fat man’ and an old lady has to call a cab and practically carry Louie to it.
Louie is poignant comedy
Often Louie is surprisingly poignant – in amongst his dick jokes and toilet humour based comedy. This new season is no exception and in a particularly bittersweet moment Louie is asked what makes him laugh. Louis finds humour for others in his daily life however he can’t define or remember what makes him laugh. He’s the tragic comic and it seems ironic that he can be such a funny comedian but can’t find humour or perhaps joy in his own life – it’s all for you.
The above scenario marks Louie out as innovative TV and the show is like no other sitcom currently airing. Due to the autonomous nature of Louie CK’s contract with FX he can come and go as he pleases and he has full artistic control over his show. This meant that season 4 was postponed initially due to Louie feeling that he had run out of content. This hiatus put season 4 on the back burner but the respite has more than paid off. Season 4 sees a Louie, often maligned and definitely adrift, chock full of jokes and new innovative plot lines.
Every scenario in Louie is designed with humour in mind. Yes, often it’s narrative direction that drives a TV show but in Louie it feels like the comedy takes precedence. Each sequence and action feels tailored towards making the audience laugh and this lends the show a degree of surrealism. The opening sequence springs to mind as a plain crazy metaphor for city noises impeding on sleep.
Louie has changed the traditional notions of what makes a TV show tick. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an essay for Vulture detailing “the rise of the bespoke TV series.” By this he was referring to television that doesn’t conform to the traditional format. This isn’t only to do with the type of narrative employed but also to do with the screening method.
“Pre-millennial TV was often denigrated as ‘the box,’ not just because the appliance was cube-shaped but because the storytelling was packed into boxes, too,” said Seitz.
Television seems to be changing but in many cases the industry model has remained exactly the same. Perhaps there’s a better argument for the rise of the television auteur and some of the best TV of the last decade has come from the mind of a singular person. This model however still has a long way to go and the recent Mad Men season will be split into two and air over two years. This was a devise used by Breaking Bad (or at least AMC) and it reflects the more archaic notion that television is sold for profit first and foremost.
New modes of delivery – Amazon and Netflix
There are some attempts to change the television landscape and new players like Amazon and Netflix are using a completely different distribution model to share episodes and seasons. But that content is still reliant on traditional legal considerations for the actors and often they have to sign long contracts. Really the only thing that seems to have changed in the last ten years (other than better content) is the distribution model. This has allowed shows that wouldn’t have survived in the past to live long after a traditional sell by date due to new viewing figure types pulled from the internet.
Louie is difficult to define
In this evolving medium sits Louie, a show that doesn’t quite fit into any of the usual categories. This is true in terms of funding, direction, and story telling devices. Season 4 opened last night with two very funny and decidedly uncomfortable episodes. The humour that Louie attempts to find in his actions isn’t particularly funny and nor is it supposed to be – well not exactly. Louie infuses these two episodes with melancholy and a sad bastard droopy face.
Comedy is often shot in well lit, brightly designed spaces however Louie often sets his show in small settings and ones that are often dark – both in terms of lighting and thematically. The existential despair that he struggles with is reflected in the tone and mood of the show. At no point is Louie a straight up comedy and often we find ourselves laughing at an ostensibly helpless and unhappy man just trying to live his life and find some connection or meaning.
The humour then is perhaps derived from the fact that we also know there’s no singular truth or meaning and Louie’s long lasting mid-life crisis is an exercise in futility. All there are are moments of triumph, seconds of luckiness that if you let them add up could materialize into a lifetime of happiness. It’s all a matter of perspective it seems and for now, on a Monday night, we can share in Louie’s.
Prior to the airdate of season 4, Louie CK sent out an email with a brief outline of this years offering:
‘I took a year off between last season and this one, mostly so I could have more time to do the show, to make it better. This season is very different from past seasons. The first three episodes are pretty typical of what we’ve done in the past, self-contained stories. But the next 6 episodes after that are all connected in one story. Then we have a three part story and a two part story. So lots of… parts stories. Yeah.’
Any television fan can see that this is a non-traditional format to say the least and the smaller stories will likely function as microcosms of Louie’s wider life. This is a show that resists definition in a number of ways; narrative structure, distribution modes and although there are distinct similarities to Seinfeld, Louie is its own man.
The ‘box’ is changing
The ‘box’ is changing and hopefully will no longer have such an influence on TV content. It’s an unfortunate truth that no matter how innovative a television show is it still has to conform to its time slot and genre specifications. Louie is constantly challenging this form and with CK’s disposition to release his stand up content directly to his fans there may be a point where he does the same with Louie.