June 17, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Louie”


Voting is going on right now for this year’s Emmy nominations, and LOUIE is on the ballot as a “comedy.”  It’s not the only show to squeeze into a category where it may not truly belong–Orange Is the New Black and Shameless are “comedies” too, and the 8-episodes-and-done True Detective has decided that it’s not a miniseries–but Louie may be the only one for which any categorization at all is futile.  It’s not really a “comedy” anymore, but it’s also not a “drama.”  And this season, it was only technically a half-hour long, since FX ran its episodes back-to-back, and since no less than a dozen of its 15 half-hours were grouped into feature-length stories, the 6-part “Elevator,” the 90-minute self-contained “In the Woods,” and the 3-part “Pamela.”  (The other 3 half-hours were thematically linked to the rest, although not technically connected to any of them.)  Blessed with virtually unrestricted creative freedom from FX, subject only to cutting out the sound on occasional f-words and making room for commercials (the benefit of a tiny budget and overwhelming critical support), Louis CK has taken the notion of auteurist television to a new level.  Season 4 of Louie was CK’s most Woody Allen-ish yet, specifically the Allen of dark relationship comedies like Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry, and the truth is that CK (who appeared in Allen’s Blue Jasmine last year) is doing braver work these days than Allen has in decades.  

Although the season was full of tangents and diversions (the best may have been the act-long pause to examine a typical day in the life of comic Todd Barry), the subject that seemed to be on CK’s mind was communication, which is to say mostly the lack thereof, and the ways that influenced the relationships people got themselves into.  All through the season, characters didn’t listen to each other, didn’t understand each other, or simply ignored the truth about themselves and the people around them.  Some of this was played for laughs, like Louie’s non sequitur conversations with neighboring Dr. Bigelow (a hilarious Charles Grodin), or the early part of “Model,” where Louie bombed horribly at a benefit he was doing at Jerry Seinfeld’s request (Seinfeld, remarkably good as a cold-eyed version of himself, threw Louie under the bus), but often the laughs curdled, as when Louie’s fantasy night with a model (Yvonne Strahovski) later in the episode ended with him accidentally disfiguring her when she tickled him.  In “In the Woods,” young Louie’s teacher (a wonderful performance by Skipp Sudduth) deluded himself about the kind of person Louie was, and Louie, stealing from the school to pay for weed, broke his heart, and Louie’s heart, in turn, was broken when his older daughter Lilly (Hadley Delaney), started smoking herself.  The “So Did the Fat Lady” episode presented, but didn’t attempt to resolve, the split between Louie’s own physical condition and his lack of interest in dating a woman (another fantastic guest star performance, by Sarah Baker) who was overweight.  In “Elevator Part 1,” Louie’s younger daughter Jane (Ursula Parker, brilliant) decided to flout Louie’s instructions about never getting off a subway train without him.

In a sense, the main thrust of the season was the opposition between the relationships in “Elevator” and “Pamela.”  In “Elevator,” Louie and his Hungarian girlfriend Amia (Eszter Balint, a walking nod to the beginnings of indie film thanks to her role in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 Stranger Than Paradise) literally couldn’t understand anything the other was saying, but they had a genuine, mutually nurturing romance, albeit one that had to end when she went back home with her aunt (Ellen Burstyn, also superb).  Louie’s relationship with Pamela (Pamela Adlon, who was credited as co-writer of Parts 2 and 3 of the “Pamela” arc) was of a different order of miscommunication.  She and Louie were at constant, sometimes ugly, always awkward cross-purposes, as he blunderingly looked for romance from her and she rejected him bitingly when she wasn’t having sex with him–and sometimes even when she was.  (“Pamela Part 1” led to the show’s most controversial moment, when Louie physically forced a kiss on Pamela in a scene some interpreted as sexual assault, although the remainder of “Pamela” made it clear that the show didn’t see it that way.)  Although we left them seemingly content at the end of tonight’s season finale, sharing a companionable bath together (Louie’s embarrassment about his own naked body reflected back on “So Did the Fat Lady”), it seems inconceivable, considering her constant ridicule and his need for reassurance, that they could stay a couple for long–although in some ways they’re well suited for each other, especially in their similar senses of humor–and it’ll be interesting to see what CK does with the situation in Season 5, assuming that season will have any continuity with this one.

Louis CK has become a more accomplished filmmaker with every season of Louie (as usual, he directed and edited every episode), and this season belied the show’s famously miniscule budget, with special kudos to cinematographer Paul Koestner, who gave a rich look to the exteriors in particular, and also had to accomplish CK’s desire for lengthy hand-held sequences with constant camera movement.  The music by Matt Kilmer is also an important addition to every episode.  CK has become a subtle actor himself, and a remarkable director of other performers; apart from those mentioned, there was amazing work by Devin Druid (as young Louie), Jeremy Renner, F. Murray Abraham and Amy Landecker in “In the Woods.”

As with any ambitious film artist, some things that CK does over the course of an episode, or a season, work better than others.  His jagged, inconsistent interest in continuity can be frustrating (it may have been a nod to fans when Pamela asked in the season finale just how his black ex-wife had given birth to, as she put it, his nearly translucent blonde daughters, a question viewers have been asking since Season 1).  Working at a much more rapid pace than Woody Allen ever did, turning out the equivalent of 3 or 4 feature films in a season, he sometimes seems to be working out his feelings about a subject as he’s filming it, and he’s more content with ambiguity than many viewers are.  (Despite the years of rave reviews, Louie‘s ratings are small.)  None of that changes the fact that his work is the most exciting filmmaking being produced for the small screen by anyone right now, even in this, the most exciting period for small screen filmmaking we’ve ever known.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."