Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
Occasionally, it feels pointless to cover older television when something very special is happening right now. So, in a break with tradition, this installment of Recurring Episodes will take on an episode of television that hasn’t aged much at all—about a week, in fact—last week’s installment of FX’s Louie.
The Show: Louie first aired almost exactly a year ago to the day, June 29, 2010, on FX. It is a half-hour comedy and is the brainchild of a stand-up comedian, Louis CK, and a good deal of its runtime is dedicated to CK performing stand-up in the same New York basement comedy club. It is there that the similarities to Seinfeld end, because Louie is not a sitcom in the traditional sense. CK already tried that with his HBO show Lucky Louie, an attempt to revive working-class Norman Lear-style sitcoms for the modern era that had its moments but ultimately failed.
No, Louie is more like a series of short films, each episode independent of the others, with stand-up comedy accenting, contrasting, or illustrating the themes of what occur in those shorts. For something appearing on mainstream television, they are often weirdly experimental, truly a vision of what is going on inside CK’s head as he navigates his life as a single dad and stand-up comic following a recent divorce.
Why Louie? Louie is groundbreaking television in a number of ways. For a show created by (and usually directed, written, and edited by, as well as starring) a comedian, it is unafraid of avoiding comedy altogether when it chooses to. While many of the episodes in the first season had plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, perhaps the strongest was “God,” an episode that featured no real laughs (outside of the stand-up segments) and also, almost no CK, as the short film depicted a childhood Louis being terrified and guilt-stricken by a Catholic school incident.
It is also different in that though there are a few recurring characters—his stand-up buddies, playing themselves, and Pamela Adlon (his wife on Lucky Louie and an accomplished voiceover actress known for her work as Bobby on King of the Hill) as a fellow single parent—this is truly a show about what’s going on inside one man’s head. The vision of what is occurring onscreen is not necessarily to be trusted—it’s the world how Louis CK sees it, and that’s perhaps the show’s greatest strength.
The Episode: The second season premiere, “Pregnant,” aired last Thursday. It opens with CK lovingly brushing his young daughter’s teeth. As he does so, she guilelessly tells him that she likes staying with Mommy better. Not just because she makes better food, but because “I love her more.” All CK can do is shake his head—kids say those kinds of things, and have no idea what they may really mean, or how they may make somebody feel. Eventually, when she turns away, the brushing done, CK quickly gives her the finger behind her back, but it’s obvious that in no way does he love her any less.
From there it seems like it will be an episode entirely about parenthood, and the stand-up bears this out, ending the episode with CK talking about the ambivalence that comes with being a dad. “Any parent who is honest will tell you, you live with that ambivalence. You look at the face of your beautiful, lovely child and you think two things at the exact same time: I love this kid so much that it’s changed my whole life, I love other people more because of how much I love her […} She’s completely given value to life that didn’t exist before and I regret every decision that led to her birth.” His delivery is perfect, giving just the right hint to the laugh line at the end without sacrificing the melancholy in the statement.
That opening and the closing stand-up bit alone would make this a solid entry for the groundbreaking show, but the short film that makes up the meat of the episode takes that even further. CK is visited by his older sister, who’s had herself artificially inseminated—finally, after cycling through guy after guy, she knows what she wants, and it’s not a man, it’s a child. Rusty Schwimmer plays CK’s sister believably—she looks the part, speaks in a similar cadence, and holds her own in the (occasionally-bleeped) profanity department. They have the same sorts of discussions about parenthood and children that occur in the stand-up sections, and it seems that’s the way the episode is going to go. Louie heads off to bed.
Then, his sister wakes him up screaming. She’s in pain, she fears she’s going to lose the baby, and she can’t move. She’s already lost a child before birth in the past, and it seems immediately like it’s going to happen again. Louie gets to her, to try and help her, but he can do nothing. He’s frozen by panic. He’s not cool, he’s not calm, he’s not collected, he doesn’t make a joke to calm her down like one would in a sitcom. And, because Louie is a show where the unexpected happens, it really seems like she might die.
Luckily, CK’s neighbors hear, and quickly come to help, and the episode becomes about something else entirely. To say too much would spoil the surprise for any who would watch it, but it’s funny and it feels real and it feels sad at the same time. “Pregnant” is the perfect beginning for the second season of one of TV’s strongest young shows.
Odds & Ends: The story goes that CK was offered quite a bit of money to do a more traditional show on a broadcast network. FX countered that offer that he’d receive a lot less money but that he could do whatever he wanted with his show. It’s to CK’s credit that he took the offer for creative freedom (he’s said he makes more in a week of stand-up than a season of Louie) and to FX’s that they trust his vision. Thus far, it’s paid off very well.
The second episode of the second season airs tonight. Tune in at 10pm on FX.
Recurring Episodes will be off a week to celebrate the birth of America and the writer’s laziness and back with another exciting installment on July 14.