May 5, 2014

Louie: “Back” & “Model”

By Josh Oakley

“Life is short if you’re a child who died. But at 46 it’s not short anymore.”

Louie is exhausted. That’s been a thread throughout the run of the character’s eponymous show, but it rears its head here with a monotonous vengeance. Life is long and full of so many days that must be gotten through. You deal with friends, strangers and family, experience small victories and numbing losses and eventually get to fall asleep before doing it all over again. “Back” is minimal Louie, the mild events of the day spreading to the next until the events stop, at least for a moment. “Model” is a more adventurous story, but it has roots in the mundane with the circular storytelling granting Louie a smile, if nothing else. Both episodes are two sides of the same idea, exploring how even when the situation heightens the man remains the same.

“Back” begins with stand-up that sets the weary tone for the collection of moments to follow. The first scene is gratingly surreal, as Louie’s room fills with noise, then garbage men throwing trash and clanging cans. He takes this in relative stride, eventually giving in to the sound of the world and waking up. He then faces what must be the bane of most in his trade: “You’re a comedian, let me tell you something funny.” Tony the maintenance man butchers a joke about Pinocchio; Louie is unable to stop himself and corrects him. “Why you gotta clutter it up?” Tony asks, continuing the episode’s concern with the minor intrusions that end up separating one day from the next. Life can be flat, and often what moves it in one direction or another is that clutter, the stuff that forces the mistakes that fill the hours of the day.

The rest of “Back” has encounters with recurring Louie characters, from the calmly ruthless Todd Barry to the unsatisfied daughters to the poker table. The highlight of the conversation with Barry sees a young man running into Louie like a glitch in The Sims. The show is mocking this guy, but only to the extent that it looks at any intrusive force in Louie’s life. It’s clear how much of this is the exaggeration of his mind, making minor problems into avalanches that weigh on him so much that he needs to see a doctor for his back. Before that spasm, the final straw comes in the form of a sex shop. The two women that work at the store talk casually, and the clerk is patient with Louie. She’s clearly seen this kind of customer before, the ones who look down on themselves for something that shouldn’t cause shame. The scene makes Louie, the person uncomfortable with his own desires, the butt of the joke.

When Louie makes his way to the doctor’s office, he is forced to listen to a lecture about how humans walk incorrectly, which is the true cause of all back pain. We should be moving on our hands and knees, a ridiculous notion that informs the episode’s preoccupation with getting through the day in a number of ways. Chief among them is the idea that we’re all doing something wrong; even our instinctual behavior is a dumb mistake that keeps us from fully achieving happiness. The doctor tells Louie “every second spent without back pain is a lucky second”. We may get a lucky minute out of this eventually, but that’s about all. As the episode ends, Louie enters his apartment with a solution to the “buying a vibrator” problem. Over this we hear the beginning of another stand-up bit. “Lots of things happen after you die, just none of them include you.” The thing that separates the years we’re alive from the ones after we die is the fact that the former involves us and the latter doesn’t. “Back” never hits a level of cynicism where the character truly wants to die, but the fact that mortality comes up so often in a fairly humdrum episode explores what’s on Louie’s mind. Death and life are in conversation with each other, but death is a thing that happens and life is a thing that simply is.

In “Model”, the situation is more surreal but the tedious nature of life remains. After Louie tries and fails to hit on a waitress, Jamie, he’s asked by Jerry Seinfeld to open at a heart disease benefit. Even Seinfeld’s entrance here is bizarre; as the camera pans he walks into frame, as if he has merely popped into existence. The entire episode feels dream-like, which is even addressed at one point by Yvonne Strahovski’s Blake, a model and daughter of an astronaut. Blake is the only one who finds any humor in Louie’s set at the benefit. He shows up in a sloppy shirt and jeans, completely underdressed and unable to sell clean material of any kind. He grows so uncomfortable that he begins to dig into the wealthy donors for not doing their own grocery shopping. When Jerry gets onstage he verbally tears Louie apart, becoming an externalization of the bald cruelness of these surroundings. Though she’s in the dark, we see Blake crumple at Jerry’s set, always out of place with her peers.

Blake explains her infatuation with Louie in the next scene: it’s not the he was funny on purpose, but rather that he stood out so much from the rest of that world. The camera pulls her into focus when she explains why she’s fallen for Louie. She’s sick of the emptiness of wealth, at least temporarily. Of course, however tired of society Blake is, she still takes him back to her gigantic house on the beach. All credit to the show for never turning her into a cartoon; though she spends much of her time giggling, Blake is something more than a reaction to the shallowness of the one percent. She’s clearly never struggled in any real way, embracing the definition of “cutting loose” that only the rich can afford. But it’s in the way that she reacts to Louie’s “so then what did [your father] do” that makes both the character and Strahovski’s performance vital: she laughs a little too hard, but then she says "exactly". She isn’t an empty vessel for Louie to react off of, and she isn’t the dream she later jokes about being. She is a person that likes that this man makes her laugh and wants to have fun with him. The episode subtly turns this trope on its head; it’s kind of selfish to think that a model wanting to sleep with him is all about him. She’s the one that wants to have sex and hang out.

In a way, “Model” works as an impressionistic response to last season’s “Daddy’s Girlfriend”. Yes, both Parker Posey’s Liz and Strahovski’s Blake are odd ducks. But Liz plays so heavily into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype in order to make her emotional pivot have the gravitas it does. Blake is just looking to have a good time, to get away from the malaise of high society for at least a night. She’s never noticed just how beautiful the physical world around her is. You get the idea that even before she’s sent to the hospital, this would be an episode in a show about her life as well, which can’t always be said about the minor characters on Louie.

The end of the episode sees Louie go to the hospital, jail, and a small beige room with a lawyer (Victor Garber) full of bad news. Blake’s eye is permanently damaged from Louie’s reflexive punch, and her family is suing him for five million dollars. He’ll be paying this mistake off for the rest of his life. The scene is brutal, causing more sighs than laughter. As the lawyer says, “people are under the misconception that the rich can’t sue the poor.” He then says that a trial would end with money winning out as well. The scene buries Louie, sending him back to the waitress with whom the episode began. She finds this miserable tale so hilarious that she’s all over him, even offering to get them both drinks. And here is a victory in the eyes of Louie. After one of the show’s cruelest conversations, Louie is positively giddy. Everything hasn’t changed, but something good came out of this series of mistakes.

This is not a show overflowing with sentimentality. Most heartwarming moments are undercut in some way, and having those moments at all is rare. But this is also not a cynical show, one comfortable with resting on the idea that everything is a waste. That worldview doesn’t speak to the approach of something as ambitious as last season’s “Late Night” trilogy, or even the fleeting serenity present here. That all being said, those glances of something more do play against the notion that Louie can’t even remember what makes him laugh. This delicate balance of the beating and the uplift, and the tension between the comedy of humiliation and the drama of existentialism defines Louie. Mel Brooks’ famous take on the genre divide goes: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Louie is such a confrontation of a character, while simultaneously being locked into his mindset, that it’s at times impossible to know if we’re looking at a cut or he’s looking at a sewer. The mixture of the two is present throughout “Back” and “Model” in a precise way that’s found nowhere else on television. Whether we’re meant to laugh, cry or groan, I’m glad to be in that space once again.

“Back”: A-
“Model”: A-

  • Louis CK sent out an e-mail to subscribers on his site earlier tonight, and said that after the first three episode, we'll be getting a six-part story, a three-part and then a two-part. The three-part is titled "Pamela". This is shaping up to be a fairly exceptional time.
  • The “Dear AIDS” homework assignment is especially great after Louis CK’s recent twitter tirade.
  • Bad Beatles impressions are among my favorite things in the world, so I has overjoyed to see them make their way to this show, especially in the closest thing to a happy scene the first episode has.
  • “What is it, a panini?”
  • “They look like celebrities but I don’t recognize any of them”: a great way to make the episode easier/cheaper to cast while adding to the surreal nature of the satire
  • Though the new 24 gave her much less to do, tonight was an all-around great showcase of Yvonne Strahovski’s underrated talent. She’s sublime here, especially in her second delivery of “He walked on the moon”.
  • “Martin Luther Chicken” is incredible, but the biggest laugh of the night is easily…
  • “Chickens are dumb.”

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