There’s nothing like pooping your pants to get you to think about your choices. It’s funny that “A La Carte” makes fun of an artsy black-and-white French film, because it reminds me of one, specifically Last Year At Marienbad. Now, that’s not about a woman pantomiming sadness against a flat background as a male narrator calls her a failure to her gender, but I suspect Pamela might react similarly nonetheless. Marienbad’s about storytelling. It starts in the middle of some narration, it goes along and tells its story, it imagines hypothetical versions of that story, it doubles back and finds a different ending.
“A La Carte” gets hypothetical too. As Ken Cosgrove might put it, it’s about the life not lived. There’s an inkling of this in the opening sequence. Louie needs to poop, but he can’t poop in a public restroom. There are lots of false starts on his journey home, which is to be expected in a scene like this, the comedy increasing along with the tension. But then a remarkably unhelpful deli worker calls Jane, “You little white bitch.” Suddenly the scene changes. Louie has to address this, doesn’t he? There’s a pause, but only a brief one, because Louie has no time to waste, and he’s off to the next closest restroom without saying anything. It plays like he’s going down a different path, choosing not to deal with the deli guy, closing off that story option.
There are all kinds of funny moments like that—Louie drifting off into a reverie about third grade and Pamela nixing the flashback, the talk about whether or not to see the French movie in the first place and then what to do once they’re there, the fantasy of sex with the woman credited as Parmesan Cheese Lady (Lauren Doucette)—and the two central scenes hinge on the idea of considering one life and choosing another.
I’m talking about the two meals Louie has with people, both negotiations, one with him in the power seat and one with him out of it. In the first, Louie tells wannabe comic Bart Folding (Nate Fernald) that he should save himself a lot of grief and abort his comedy career before it’s begun. The scene plays out on one side of them and then purposely flips the 180 when Bart responds with a decisive no. “I can’t quit. Never. I’ll die first.” Bart’s closing himself off to that story, and the camerawork responds accordingly. So Louie gives him some half-hearted advice (use a funny voice) and walks away. In the other scene, Louie asks Pamela to move in with him. Her response is to flag a waiter and then babble about how good the food is. Eventually she confronts the issue and lays out her case. Haven’t they learned anything from their own marriages? Don’t they want to try to break the cycle, to try another way? She doesn’t want to be locked into a narrative. Even if the result is the same, she wants to keep making the choice to be in that narrative.
Her argument is awfully mature for someone whose ideal relationship involves sleepovers and then going home to play with her own toys. She doesn’t even want to talk about moving in at first, because “scary is fun-ruining. And I like fun.” She’s being childish in a way, but she’s also, in her mind, being an adult and making a case. When she belittles Louie’s idea to see the French movie, she’s not trying to shut him down. She wants him to be an adult and convince her. If he would just make an argument for moving in together, maybe she’d feel differently. Instead he sort of lets her convince him, “sort of” because he seems reluctant and only sarcastically agrees at the end, but he himself says, “I don’t know why I’m on this side of the argument. I guess I just, I feel insecure.” (And her response sounds childish, but is again surprisingly mature: “So? That’s all right.” It’s natural to feel insecure. That doesn’t have to mean doom.) Louie would prefer to be in a more exclusive, traditional relationship, but he doesn’t have it in him to make a case for it, so he settles for the “à la carte” relationship, which sounds at once immature and mature.
The episode keeps bumping into the uncanny, the simultaneously familiar yet not. Look at the phrasing Louie uses to ask Pamela to move in with him. He’s talking about their houses: “What if they’re the same place?” That’s not just Louie’s awkwardness. That’s diction with a purpose. The entire open mic night takes place in The Twilight Zone, starting with Louis CK introducing himself. There’s talk about projecting what’s on the inside of all of our heads on top of one another. Hard to think of something more uncanny than coincident imaginations. Mike Bocchetti begins his set: “Most of the women that I have sex with are all the same.” At least, I think that’s what he said. There’s also a rule against putting two girls on in a row, another example of two people being the same yet not. Even Bart’s stand-up brings us to a similar headspace, when he tells a story about how his mother would beat him for wetting the bed, and that only made him wet the bed more. The episode opens with Louie buying a box of something (Candy bars? Fruit snacks?) that his girls don’t like very much so the food will last longer. When they challenge him on it, he crumples, admitting it’s something his mother used to do to him, and he recognizes that it’s mean. From past episodes, I don’t think Louie would say his mother doesn’t love him, but there is some overlap to the two stories.
That’s because “A La Carte” isn’t just about the life not lived. It’s also about the life that’s already been lived, most explicitly the cycle Pamela describes from friendship to divorce and alienation. “There’s more than one way to be together. Do all roads have to lead to ruin?” So now Louie’s going to try another road. Or take what Louie says to Bart: “Start with what’s funny to you.” Success is not about what everyone else does. It’s about finding your own way. At the end, when the sleepover gets to the sleep part, Louie’s lying in bed and catches The Tonight Show. Another life not lived. In a week, Bart Folding has gone from untested open-mic amateur to late-night. There’s some cheating in the delivery—his open mic performance is sweaty, he clears his throat, he gives you a piercing stare, whereas on television he’s polished and ever so slightly amused—but he tells the exact same story with a funny voice, and it kills. Bart took Louie’s terms, and look where he is now. Maybe Louie giving into Pamela will bring him happiness too.
- Last week I whined about the loss of discontinuity, but whaddyaknow, things are back to being à la carte. At least, I assume Louie wasn’t in a relationship with Pamela when he had sex with the surrogate.
- Louie might get into some heady ideas, but “A La Carte” goes down easy. The third-grade flashback, the French film, Parmesan Cheese Lady—every break in reality is delightful. And the opening bit is hilarious (with the caveat that some people don’t like poop jokes, no matter how, uh, clean). It had me from the moment Louie flings his grocery bags into the trash so he can move faster. The scene builds to a tearful separation where Jane’s screaming and Lilly pulls her away, saying, “Let him go,” which, fittingly, she means in two different ways at once.
- I love the final shot of the Louie-Bart diner scene. Louie’s gotten up to go and we’re watching Bart absorb his advice. Then Louie’s disembodied hand pats him on the back, retracts, and pats him again, and then Louie walks off, but he’s dressed in black and we never see his head. It’s just Bart and this symbol of half-hearted support as the shadow goes off into the background.
- When Louie drifts off, Pamela interrupts: “I don’t wanna hear this. Please. It seems long.” Sounds like some of the responses to season four.
- The French movie has some curious ideas. “Even in her sorrow she could not cry. She was a failure in every way as a woman.”
- About the funny voice suggestion, Louie himself uses a funny voice in his stand-up segments here. Both when he gets the mic from Mike Bocchetti (“Mike Bocchettay, give him a hand”) and when he describes the cities he visited in North Carolina.
- At the movie, Pamela says sarcastically, “This doesn’t suck at all.” Another delightful double-meaning.