deep reads

Wrestling With Louie, Part 1: Is Louis C.K. Trolling the Internet?

Photo: FX

I don’t know when Part 2 of this article will be published. Maybe I won’t even feel the need to write a Part 2. The title is an acknowledgement of the reactions Louie has provoked this year and one way in which I think it has provoked them.

Bottom line: I wonder if the show’s creator and star Louis C.K. is aware of how Twitter and Facebook and recap culture have changed the way we watch TV, particularly by putting social pressure on viewers to have a loud and definite opinion on an episode right now. I wonder if he’s airing the episodes in an order that encourages everyone to jump to conclusions that they’ll have to retract, qualify, or amend later. I don’t think this is the only thing he’s doing, mind you — but it’s not hard to imagine that it’s at least a part of it.

I’m not sharing this bit of idle speculation in lieu of actually talking about Monday night’s disturbing incident with Louie and his buddy Pamela, which includes the horrifying and maybe emblematic line, “You can’t even rape well.” I’ll get to that episode, “Pamela Part 1,” in a second. But before I do, I want to acknowledge up top that Louie, more so than any other current scripted series, is proving David Simon’s assertion that the instant reaction model for 21st-century TV watching has severe limits.

Don’t get me wrong: I love recaps. I write TV recaps. I’ve loudly defended TV recaps. I think recaps are useful and illuminating in many ways, if for no other reason than for their value as critical EKG readouts that tell us how certain episodes were received by critics and regular viewers alike when they first aired. But I also think that if a series thinks long-term, it’s better to make sweeping observations after the term is up. Another way of putting it: If the TV series is in some sense the New Novel, we shouldn’t figuratively close the book until we’re done reading it. Easier said than done, I know. But still.

Louie has been airing two episodes per night this year. The first pair ended with “Model,” in which Louie accepted a Hamptons charity gig at Jerry Seinfeld’s request, bombed big-time, went home with a stick-thin young model who found the whole disaster funny for her own reasons, then accidentally lashed out and hit her in the face after she tickled him. (Louie specifically warned her not to tickle him, but she did it anyway. This detail seems more significant in the wake of Pamela’s repeated use of the word no Monday night. Will Pamela “lash out,” in some sense, at Louie?)

Several articles appeared the morning after “Model” aired. Many asked whether Louis C.K. was (1) insensitively using violence against women for laughs and (2) indulging the TV and movie star’s prerogative to pair up with young, skinny, conventionally pretty sexual partners who might never give an old fat white guy the time of day if he weren’t rich and famous. (Girls creator-star Lena Dunham gets similar complaints, but the tone of the complaints and the politics behind them are different.) As Vulture’s recapper Danielle Henderson observed, “The knee-jerk reaction is going to be ‘Oh shit, Louie punched a woman,’ but you have to move past that to what he’s actually trying to do. This is somehow, miraculously, a commentary on class. Once he’s at the hospital, he calls Jerry, his richest and, in terms of proximity, closest friend, who pawns him off on a lawyer (played by the wonderful Victor Garber) in an effort to save face.” That’s not all that the episode was doing, of course, and recognizing rather pointed class critique in the episode doesn’t absolve C.K. of being clumsy or insensitive in his use of loaded images (in this case, a small woman getting hit by a big man, however accidentally). The very next episode, “So Did the Fat Lady,” felt like an answer to “Model,” in some ways the conclusion of an implied two-parter — and not just because it showed a woman as overweight as Louie (Vanessa, played by Sarah Baker) confronting our erstwhile hero over what the Daily Beast’s Amy Zimmerman called “his own fat, white guy privilege.”

We can agree to disagree on whether Vanessa’s monologue was brilliant and necessary or condescending and clunky, or something in between, or some other thing entirely. I thought it was brilliantly directed — the roving camera denying us a fixed point-of-view on the monologue and saying, visually, “We’re not on anybody’s ‘side’ here” — but rather cloddishly written, and too obviously a “teachable moment.” But whatever your feelings on the scene, you now see that it was an answer to, or a continuation of, issues C.K. has been obsessed with for three-plus seasons, and that were articulated quite pointedly in “Model,” which had the look and tone of that old Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries, where the clothes and real estate and scenery were part of the softcore experience.

After watching “So Did the Fat Lady,” one could still think that C.K. used an image of violence against a particular woman in “Model” without thinking it through as carefully as he should have, but you could not help seeing the totality of what C.K. was trying for with that pair of episodes. At the very least you could see that they were in fact a pair, in addition to being squares on an elaborate fourth season quilt that includes the six-part “Elevator” (basically a movie in pieces) and “Pamela Part 1,” which feels like an answer to the climax of the “Elevator” cycle. In the latter, Louie’s left feeling not just bereft but angry and frustrated at his inability to fall in love, resolve his irresolvable differences with a woman who truly meant something to him, enjoy a tender long-term relationship again with anybody post-marriage, “win” or “get” a woman or “girl,” and all the female apprehensions and male assumptions that those various words and phrases imply. And he returns to Pamela — a friend who briefly considered being more than friends with him but has now retracted the offer — determined to make things “work” between them, as lovers, even if she doesn’t want that. Even if it’s against her will. As Danielle Henderson wrote, “The beauty and hilarity of Pamela is that she always has the upper hand with Louie, and it was really uncomfortable to see her acquiescing to him out of fear. The fist pump was the worst part; did Louie think he had actually accomplished something good? That a kiss under duress is better than no kiss at all? This preempts the #YesAllWomen conversation on Twitter, but is totally reflective of the “good guy” credo — “how can Louie be a creep when he’s so ineffective?” The juxtaposition of that scene and one prior, in which he tells a nightclub audience, “Women are really kept down, even today … A lot of people like to argue that things are equal, but they’re really not” muddies the situation even further. Not in terms of what Louie, the character did, which is pretty clear, but what Louis, the creator, is trying to say.

After “Elevator Part 6” and “Pamela Part 1” and whatever’s coming up next week (“In the Woods” parts 1 and 2), the seven-day gap between “Model” and “So Did the Fat Lady” feels, in retrospect, like a formal provocation, but one carried out with a scheduler’s pen rather than with cameras and microphones and editing software. It was as if the show had a mind of its own, was quite aware of how TV gets watched in 2014, and decided to fold the audience’s urge to render a powerful next-morning verdict into the experience of watching Louie — so that you watched the following episode and found yourself wishing you hadn’t said precisely what you said about it the week before, because you were wrong about last week’s episode, or more right than you knew, or just because you had new information.

I won’t go so far as to say that Louis C.K. is trolling his audience by parceling out the episodes this way — and I’d rather not ask him about it right now, because even if he answered the question, I’d rather have a pure reaction to whatever he’s attempting in season four. But the thought has occurred to me at various points during Louie’s run. It occurred to me again last week when I glanced at the show’s episode guide and realized we have to wait two weeks for “Pamela Part 2” and “Pamela Part 3.” C.K. showed us a profound romantic rejection which led into a fairly withering bit of stand-up about men and women and sexism and entitlement, which in turn led into Louie’s attempted rape (if the episode did not want us to think of it as rape, it would not have repeatedly used the word).

We have to wait two friggin’ weeks to find out what Louis C.K. was thinking and/or trying to say, and whether it was worth sticking his face into a critical and sociopolitical hornet’s nest to say it, and whether we can ever love Louie again after the blundering stupidity of “Pamela Part 1.” I wouldn’t presume to guess what bigger picture C.K. is trying to paint. Maybe he doesn’t even know. Maybe he’s as clumsy artistically as Louie is physically and emotionally, or maybe he’s more cunning than anyone can see right now. I just don’t know, and I’m all right with not knowing.

Is Louis C.K. Trolling the Internet?