That was such a life-affirming stretch of television, I barely still want to see Louis C.K. perform his new hour of comedy next month. I’m going to feel selfish, icky. I’d rather he go somewhere nice, like the Yangtze River, for several months and just eat ice cream and bask in what a good deed he did by bringing these thirteen episodes of Louie into the world.
Yes, that’s the sound of my final sliver of objectivity going up in smoke. Louie saved
my life his own life last night, and C.K. re-re-re-cemented his small screen filmmaking reputation as one that is flawlessly unique and essential. Louie gives a genuine glimpse at what it means to be human simply because it unblinkingly displays exactly what it means to be one specific human fumbling through this world. The less schticky stand-up comedians have managed this for decades, but it continues to feel revolutionary for a cable TV series to execute the same feat.
Okay, you want me to say one unfavorable thing? I didn’t care for the acoustic score in the beginning. But who can focus on that when watching how damned hard Louie works to maintain his utterly selfless end of the childrearing bargain? He loves his daughters, and rather than saying that in pedantic, hollow sitcom fashion, he painstakingly shows it every time. Louie loves Jane and Lily enough to not just brave a mobbed store for a silly blue monkey on Christmas Eve but to furtively perform open-head surgery on a delicate doll to find the eyes stupidly jangling somewhere inside her, and then to enact stovetop crayon alchemy to create the exact hue to mend the doll’s tarnished face. Not only will Louie’s daughters never know, they’ll only feel thanks toward an imaginary man in a fuzzy red suit. That’s love.
Before Louie can catch a flash of sleep under some wrapping paper, he has to weep, all over something of total insignificance to him and ultimate significance to one of the two people he loves most in the world. It reminds me of one of C.K.’s bits explaining how impossible it would’ve been to picture his present life before becoming a parent. I can’t track it down, but here’s a similar riff. It boils down to this: Once you’ve dealt with your daughter’s vaginal health and curiosity, there’s no question you’re putting yourself through hell on Christmas Eve just to make her smile. That’s nothing.
As we’ve learned, life’s value drains the moment Louie’s children exit the picture. (How about that family tableau, dastardly replete with the girls’ stepdad/stepdad-ish guy, fading behind the elevator door? Fancy. Or how C.K. coldly assassinates all of the apartment’s Christmas trappings the second he’s alone?) Daughter-less, Louie is — to again coin the forever-fitting phrase Chloë Sevigny dished up this season — drifting through life hoping that love (and meaning) will casually float into him “like plankton into a whale’s fucking mouth.” Both Sevigny and her bookstore predecessor Liz chastised Louie for his tentative, disconnected, shut-in tendencies. And now it’s finally stuck, because Louie’s going to China — right after he baptizes his new self in a cold shower because yes, even Louie is susceptible to the ol’ baptism symbolism.
Before I can scribble down “Parker Posey is back to secure her Emmy nomination!” she’s dying. A radiant hello on the airport bus — how brilliant is it that this woman we saw so much and so little of is, in her dying moment, about to take a flight somewhere? — and blood’s suddenly gushing from her nose. Less than 90 seconds of screen time later and she’s uttering the last words “Louie … bye?” and expiring in the ER a mere instant before the calendar year ends.
Call this random at your own peril — recall that teenage Liz battled a fatal carcinoma, and supposedly won. Or not. Thematically, her death is the furthest thing from cruel or arbitrary — Louie is finally so determined to take control of his life on the night when so many lonely folks off themselves (Nick Hornby wrote a good novel about it) that he won’t even let the traumatic death of the most intriguing woman he’s ever met stop him. Old acquaintance won’t be forgot, nor never brought to mind — Liz seemed to believe destiny’s not something that happens, but something you create. Louie’s desperately trying to remember that, to avoid becoming a shitty plankton-eater who disappoints and disserves his daughters.
Which brings us to China, which is actual China, not a budgetary American substitute like Texas and California masquerading as Afghanistan last year. Louie reenacts The Story About Ping — great in-episode throughline there, and also not the first time we’ve seen ducks on this show — and comes to the piddling Yangtze River without showing a flinch of disappointment. The journey can happily overshadow the destination, he’s finding out. For at least this one night, it’s the anti-Seinfeld: All hugging ( … metaphorical self-hugging) and learning.
• Amy Poehler! How good is a show when Amy Poehler is relegated to a stray observation? And after just seeing her and C.K. chilling at the Emmys, what did we do to deserve this pleasure only five evenings later? Anyway, after a season finally featuring continuity, which I never clamored for but I’ve enjoyed, Poehler is either a replacement sister or just another sister we’re just now meeting. She’s Debbie, she calls Louie “Bubba,” her gigantic Southern husband calls JFK “Left-Wing Kennedy Airport.” Debbie says “I love you, Louie,” a phrase that’s never been said on this show, I don’t think. (“I love you daddy,” yes.) Louie can’t reciprocate. A theme for next season? Are we going that far with continuity yet, Mr. C.K.?
• How was so much jammed into this episode? Courtesy of some Little Debbie–assisted dreaming, we get to see Louie’s sleeping brain picturing Lily and Jane as twentysomethings. Plus himself as a lonely old man whose most prized possession has to be his blue ribbon from that George Carlin lookalike contest. (Carlin is an idol of C.K.’s, and the man he’s cited as the reason he scraps his stand-up act every year and begins anew.)
• Pretty sure Jane and Lily’s future meet-up briefly featured a big rabbit head from Louie’s stoner incident in season one.
• Sorry to have misled you all about an hourlong finale. It ended up being a few minutes longer than a regular episode. Season two’s “Duckling” remains The Louie Movie. (Also the three parts of “Late Show” back to back could qualify as The Louie Movie II.)
• The whole Christmas preparation montage felt infinitely longer than the prolonged scene of Louie preparing chicken and smoothies for his daughters in season two’s premiere, “Pregnant,” which he just won an Emmy for writing.
• C.K.’s news anchor names: Fanny Chapcranter, Flappy Howserton, and Jim Calasanapanaco.
• Discounting Louie’s impromptu debut of new “material” for Jack Dall last week, there were zero stand-up segments in the season’s final three episodes. A few episodes earlier in the season also went without. A trend for next year?
• Also, three consecutive episodes of face-to-face Janet/Louie interaction. More next season, please.
• When the camera first swirled around Louie in Beijing, I worried he’d look around, maybe try talking to one person, and immediately fly halfway back around the world.
• Louie seems close to committing a Borat Goes to Beijing scene; then it blossoms into a poignant moment of spiritual-seeming body movements with a stranger. Wow.
• Anyone reminded in this episode of C.K.’s self-avowed horrrrible Chinese baby joke in the Beacon special?
• Dining in China, even in that spot of pure openness and human fellowship, I’m pretty positive Louie managed to amuse himself by clarifying if a Chinese man trying to teach him some phrases actually just said “ching-chong.”