Usually when you say a TV show is built around surprises, you mean plot twists: The heroine’s aunt is really her mother, and she’s trying to kill her! Or: The senator is really with the terrorists! Louie is every bit as surprise-driven as a plot-burning series, but the action is often mundane, and the surprises are almost entirely formal. It asks and answers the same question every week: What will creator-writer-director-star Louis C.K. do with television this week? Will a half-hour episode tell one story or two? Will the events be portrayed somewhat realistically, or will they soar into the realm of surreal comic hyperbole, as his stand-up routines sometimes do?
As I wrote in a Vulture piece a couple of years ago, the show’s great innovation is its ability to translate the supple voice of stand-up into cinema: “The results are hit and miss, just as stand-up routines are hit and miss, because at heart, it’s all an extended riff. Sometimes he’s reflecting on ethics or politics or teaching a moral lesson. Sometimes he’s telling you about a dream or fantasy he had, or an encounter that became fodder for a fantasy.” That’s why the stand-up segments with Louie standing in front of a brick wall are more than just a post-Seinfeld, stand-up-driven-sitcom cliché. They’re transitional elements that cue you into the kind of storytelling you’re about to see.
The fourth season of Louie is amazingly confident: every line and shot and cut keenly judged, every segment exactly the right length, every shift in tone expertly navigated. A lot of its surety might come from its creator realizing that he’s been doing this for several years now and it’s not new to us anymore. He doesn’t have to hold our hands and ease us into anything. He can just do it.
All of tonight’s premiere is weird but light, like material ripped from an artist’s sketchbook, observational humor made absurd through C.K.’s propensity to exaggerate. One of his daughters needs help with her homework assignment: write a letter to AIDS. The parameters sound more than a bit off, as if it’s not an actual homework assignment but one that’s been mis-remembered by a parent who skimmed the assignment sheet or is generally disgusted with the school’s super-crunchy posturing and wants to ridicule them. “Dear AIDS,” he dictates, “please cut it out. How’s the weather in AIDS land?”
The whole season isn’t like this, though. There are more “realistic” episodes, including one that’ll read as a miniature horror movie to parents, and another that feels like a gender-flipped answer to the Girls episode “One Man’s Trash.” An upcoming episode that will no doubt inspire several hundred think pieces takes Louie, and men generally, to task for their double-standard about attractiveness (i.e., a woman with roughly the same body type as Louie would never think herself entitled to date men as conventionally attractive as the women who reject Louie’s clumsy advances). What makes this episode remarkable isn’t just its message, but its unusual presentation: All of a sudden, we seem to have stumbled onto a middle-aged version of the Richard Linklater–Julie Delpy–Ethan Hawke Before trilogy, with a couple hammering out their differences in smart, very stagey dialogue that plays out with no cuts.
At every point along the way, C.K.’s photographer’s eye keeps finding poetic ways to express a feeling or a moment. There’s a Terrence Malick–worthy long shot of a convertible buzzing along a beachfront highway with tall grass waving in the foreground, and a wide shot of Louie on a beach dressed in soul-stifling black watching a young woman frolic in the surf that could’ve been stolen from an early Godard film. C.K. finds the beauty in the real and the reality in the beauty. I’m glad this show exists.