LOUIE: Thursday 10:30PM on FX
WHERE WE WERE: In the mind of Louis C.K. It’s a place where a moderately successful working stand-up comic named Louie shares custody of two daughters with his ex-wife and lives a mostly lonely life punctuated by gigs in comedy clubs. But it’s also a world that can encompass all manner of hopes (mostly dashed), fears (mostly justified) and annoyances (both everyday and existential), up to and beyond the point of mere realism.
WHERE WE ARE: Same place. In the course of the season premiere’s half hour (written and directed, as always, by C.K. himself), he more or less passively allows his girlfriend of 6 months (Gaby Hoffman) to talk herself into a break-up–it’s ambiguous whether it was something he wanted or not–watches his car get destroyed by a construction crew that literally doesn’t know what it’s doing, buys a motorcycle and almost instantly has an accident that lands him in the hospital, and passively lets the same woman talk herself into being broken up with by him again.
LOUIE can’t be compared to any other show on television, either network or cable. As is well known, C.K. made a deal with FX that, in exchange for an almost impossibly low budget (reportedly $200K per episode in Season 1, 10-20% of what a “real” sitcom costs to produce), gives him virtually total creative freedom, except for minimal basic-cable standards requirements and the need for act breaks to accommodate commercials. As a result, Louie doesn’t follow any of the usual rules. Sometimes each act will tell an entirely separate story, or episodes simply ignore narrative continuity. (Before the season premiere, that 6-month girlfriend had never been seen before.) Some stories carry over to multi-episode arcs, while other seemingly important characters vanish after a single episode. Harshly realistic moments are followed by inexplicable events; rude humor rides alongside deeply uncomfortable drama. Even big-name, big-schtick guest stars like Joan Rivers and Dane Cook remold themselves when they take part. The show moves with its own distinctive rhythm, which includes extended dialogue sequences and no fear of lengthy silences. (In Seasons 1 and 2, C.K. edited the show himself; in Season 3, those duties are handled by Susan E. Morse, whose not-too-shabby credits include every Woody Allen film from Manhattan in 1979 through Celebrity in 1998, after apprenticing with the legendary Ralph Rosenblum on Annie Hall and Interiors.)
The Woody Allen connection certainly isn’t accidental, as C.K. has become the closest we have to the Allen of that period when every new film he made was an adventure, springing with inexhaustible invention from austere drama to sophisticated comedy, from fantasy to satire. (There’s a brief sequence in Louie‘s Season 3 premiere with Louie riding his new motorcycle–pre-accident–through the streets of New York and a jazzy song playing on the soundtrack that feels like a conscious Allen homage.) But Allen (except perhaps in Deconstructing Harry) has always been very careful about preserving his comic schnook persona no matter what genre he’s in, never cutting that particular character to the bone the way C.K. does with “Louie.” C.K. seems to know no fear, and he’s creating the equivalent of a Sundance-worthy independent film each week, an achievement that makes Allen’s incredibly steady one-film-per-year output seem lazy.
Louie can be so funny it’s almost impossible to watch and breathe at the same time, as in Season 1′s already classic episode about a poker game that included Louie’s gay friend. It’s just as often heartbreaking, as in the half-hours dealing with Louie’s unrequited crush on a neighbor (Pamela Adlon). The show obeys no boundaries, and sometimes, to be sure, it can be flat and pretentious. Those are the risks of a weekly tightrope stroll wearing heavy boots and with no net. There’s no show on television, though, as consistently exciting and surprising. You don’t know, week to week, just what kind of show Louie is going to be, but there’s no doubt it’s not to be missed.