“I want season four to go somewhere new,” Louis C.K. said when he announced he’d be taking an extra year to complete the latest season of his FX series Louie, which wrapped up last night. What resulted was a season of Louie made up almost-entirely of multi-part episodes, with C.K. using the complete creative control FX gives him to make three movies, spread across multiple episodes, instead of creating 14 individual, self-contained episodes. Past seasons have seen C.K. straying away from vignettes and toying with multi-part episodes (like with season three’s two-part episode “Daddy’s Girlfriend,” following Louie’s adventurous first date with a mercurial woman played by Parker Posey, or the three-parter “Late Show” that saw him seeking Letterman’s job), but season four saw Louis C.K. primarily using his show for these feature-length (or near-feature-length) installments for the first time.
While the first three episodes of Louie season four were self-contained stories, what followed made this season great: three mini-movies—“Elevator,” “In The Woods,” and “Pamela,” each with a self-contained arc airing in episodic installments, two at a time every Monday for the past seven weeks. The doubled weekly serving size was logical for showcasing the season’s multi-episode movies, but the pairings weren’t as neat as they could have been: “Elevator 1” aired after one of the season’s standalone episodes, “Elevator 6” went straight into “Pamela 1” without any space for reflection on the former, and “In The Woods” was presented as a 90-minute episode separating “Pamela 1” from “Pamelas 2 and 3”. The result was a welcomely pleasing schedule that felt just a bit imperfect, not unlike Louie climbing into a romantic bath with Pamela only to send half the water seeping over the sides of the tub.
“Elevator” (six episodes)
In the season’s first and longest movie, Louie falls for his neighbor’s niece Amia, who’s visiting from Hungary and doesn’t speak English. In the absence of comprehensible dialogue, Amia communicates via an expressive face and tone, with most of her comedy physical, sometimes even mime. The language barrier between her and Louie is played for laughs—when Amia wakes up having spent the night with Louie, she struggles before reaching the English words she wants: “not good.” These are heavy on Louie, who’s already told so many people—Pamela, his doctor, his ex-wife, all his Comedy Cellar friends—that he’s seeing someone great, despite having only shared pie with her and seen her play violin.
The other “Elevator” arc features Louie’s younger daughter Jane, who starts the movie with a dangerous misinterpretation of her family’s “subway rules” that results in a livid Louie shaking her, encouraging her to cry. While in previous seasons this might be an independent vignette, like when Louie tells Jane she doesn’t get to be bored, this is just the beginning, with Jane’s problems at public school forcing Louie and ex-wife Janet to examine their options. In a cinematic flashback, Late Night with Seth Meyers writer/performer Conner O’Malley skillfully portrays a younger Louie opposite younger Janet, who in a funny, double move of color-blind casting is played by white actress Brooke Bloom. Both actors, more noticeably O’Malley, skillfully adopt the couple’s mannerisms and tones, shedding light on the earliest strains on Louie and Janet’s marriage.
For the flashback, C.K. shifts completely to behind-the-scenes, which he does again in “Elevator”’s most straightforwardly comedic chunk, in which Todd Barry narrates his most typical day, from a free pity-donut to a mediocre triumph over a misspelled sign, to a fascinated crowd of diners. Outside of Barry’s shining moment, though, “Elevator” has plenty of funny elements, a highlight being Charles Grodin as Dr. Bigelow, whom Louie masochistically consults for non-medical matters despite the doctor’s obvious disdain for him. Grodin’s sage, degrading wisdom and his three-legged dog forge a connection between “Elevator,” “Pamela,” and the season’s non-movie episodes.
“In The Woods” (two episodes)
“In The Woods,” the season’s only movie to air in full on a single night, tells an incredibly simple and distinct story. Louie seethes when he sees his 12-year-old, Lilly (played by Hadley Delaney), smoking a joint, and when the pre-teen snarls, “What would you know about it?” the answer shows itself in a coming-of-age story: suburban 1981, young impressionable Louie discovering pot. Like O’Malley, the actor playing Young Louie (Devin Druid) captures the comedian’s essence, albeit more distantly because of the greater time jump. Jeremy Renner guest stars as a dealer whose casual suggestions lead Louie to stealing. The episode features some of Louie’s bizarre re-casting—the actors playing Louie’s mom and dad have in previous seasons played his mom, his date, a New Jersey swinger, and an uncle, and, in the most potentially significant re-casting, Josh Hamilton, formerly Louie’s stoner neighbor in the Season 1 episode “Dogpound,” plays a counselor who tries to help Louie get over his drug problem.
For a comedy that has never shied away from dramatic elements, “In The Woods” plays almost entirely as a drama, with primarily adolescent humor, i.e. that one kid who only asks fart questions of his science teacher, slipping in naturally. Louie’s shift from good kid—the kind who teachers want to ask their daughter to the dance—to stoner king to burnout could easily have fallen into after-school special territory, but the geographical and generational differences between young Louie and young Lilly instead have the movie establishing itself as a period piece, complete with a soundalike score mimicking Zeppelin and The Cars, and a second coming-of-age in which Louie learns to parent an adolescent, rather than a lesson on the morality of pot-smoking. With Louie more present in his daughter’s childhood than his mom was able to be in his, he does all he can and knows to do, says, “I’m here and I love you,” giving her a hug, the sweetest, least judgmental ending possible for a movie like this.
“Pamela” (three episodes)
The previous two movies’ looks at Louie’s gracefully awkward relationship with Amia and his nervous youth highlight the best aspects of his lengthy courting experience with Pamela, who is much less elegant than Amia in her denial of Louie’s advances but who plays so well with him, undoubtedly aided by actress/writer Pamela Adlon’s creative role in the show and her experience acting with C.K. in prior seasons and on his short-lived HBO series Lucky Louie. Although Pamela and Louie’s relationship is nothing new for the show, the decision to visit it in depth for a three-part adventure twists the familiar in such a way that makes for an exciting but comforting season finale.
When Louie plans a romantic evening with Pamela, including a very funny gallery trip and an almost-romantic moment under the stars, she’s charmed into sleeping in the same bed as him. When Jane and Lilly ask the next morning if she’s their dad’s girlfriend now Pamela makes Louie turn around in front of them so she can point out his lack of ass, and the girls love it: “Well that’s true,” Jane says, “My daddy poops out of his back.” By “Pamela 3,” Louie’s love interest has opened up to him more than ever before, even inviting him into the aforementioned full bath, which he missed his chances at last season. On first glance, the ending of “Pamela” seems too happy, a misguided outcome for a show whose humor has always stemmed from loneliness and misfortune, but even this relatively neat ending is tinged with the negative—Pamela is, of course, mean to Louie, and his advances are often not fully welcomed, making their relationship pretty unhealthy. Like the end of “Elevator” where Amia leaves to go home, or of “In The Woods” where Louie must accept his kid is growing up, there is a tinge of sadness, that though not outright funny, is the source of humor for Louie.
This season’s ambitious new format expanded stories that otherwise couldn’t have been told on the show and expanded on the loneliness and desperation that had previously made Louie so good. Louis C.K. said in a Reddit AMA in 2011 that he wants to save up $8 million to make a movie, but he seems to have since realized that he can just use Louie to make movies.
Jenny Nelson is a writer located in Brooklyn.