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“Back”

Erik Adams: “I aged two years in a minute.” That’s the punchline to the very first stand-up sequence of Louie’s fourth season, a clever acknowledgement of the show’s extended hiatus as well as a well-honed comedic button. In the nonlinear, compressed timeline of series television, Louie really has aged that much that quickly: Since last we saw him in September 2012, Louis C.K.’s TV alter ego has a acquired a few more gray beard hairs and added a touch more paunch under that black T-shirt. If he’s feeling the pains of advancing age—the sort of thing he expresses in the groan that punctuates the sudden-onset-maturity bit (expertly timed to a crescendo in Matt Kilmer and Sweetpro’s jazzy instrumental score)—“Back” wants to catch us up to that fact immediately.

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There’s an introductory feel to the fourth-season premiere, a series of slice-of-life vignettes that reacquaints longtime viewers with Louie’s world while also holding the door open for curious newcomers. And yet, even as one of those longtime viewers, I found myself caught off guard by the floral arrangement that’s set up stage left during the Comedy Cellar interlude. There’s no reason that I shouldn’t have noticed it before: It’s been a decorative fixture of these sequences from the start. But for whatever reason, the flowers seemed much bigger, more colorful, more prominent in these shots than ever before. I kept waiting for another shoe to drop, the sudden and startling reveal that Louie wasn’t just doing another set—that someone had died and we were witnessing the venue’s tribute to their life. By framing the flowers as such, C.K. there’s a funereal thread subliminally laced into “Back.”

But nobody’s dying and nobody’s dead—everyone’s just exhausted. “Back” mirrors that state: It’s not a logy episode, but it is a depiction of how someone winds up feeling as logy as Louie might when he picks up Lilly and Jane from school. Bolting from one part of the protagonist’s day to the next, the direction and the pacing key the viewer into Louie’s exhaustion. In the first half of the episode, the camera only sits still when Louie’s sitting still; otherwise, it’s following down the hall to the elevator, tracing his path down the sidewalk, or bobbing along beside him as he does his fatherly duties at home. The character finally casts off the exhaustion when he hits the stage at the Comedy Cellar, the one place in the world he feels comfortable and confident, but that’s a fleeting high with a long comedown at the poker game, with its low lighting and pre-hungover atmosphere. When the talk at the table turns blue, it even makes masturbation sound like a chore. To quote William Stephenson, “Ah shit: I forgot to jack off today.”

Stephenson’s line is mostly non sequitur, a tossed off little nothing about not tossing off that leads to the loose riffing and chops-busting that sets up the legit physical wear-and-tear of “Back.” But it’s also a succinct summary of what this show is and what it does so well: Its effortless, low-key dance along the border of what’s laughable and what’s to be taken seriously. As a comedian, it’s in Louie’s job description to both understand this divide and blur it as often as possible. But that’s also a big component of why the characters is so consistently misunderstood by the people around him: The girls adore the silly guy they can badger into doing halfway-decent impressions of all four Beatles, but Lilly is frustrated when her father mocks her (admittedly mock-worthy) homework assignment “Write a letter to AIDS.” It’s a common affliction among the comics in the episode, none of whom pulls back when Jim Norton expresses the greatest degree of vulnerability and woundedness we may ever see from the author of I Hate Your Guts. But expecting these entertainers to either be one thing or the other leads to the episode’s other key line, this one from the super in Louie’s building: “Why do you gotta clutter it up? I mean, aren’t you a comedian?” Unspoken answer from the guy sharing the screen with Louie in the scene’s immediate follow-up: a withering, deadpan, very Todd Barry “Depends who’s asking.”

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With all that built up behind it, it’s only natural that Dr. Bigelow (Charles Grodin, who’s welcome to come back to Louie whenever he likes, please and thank you) doesn’t take Louie’s back pain seriously. The “second pilot” vibes of “Back” are increased by the number of Louie pet themes and subjects the episode states and restates: The cruelty of strangers, the full spectrum of parental emotions, mortality, and masculinity are all represented. (Jim’s story about the vibrator and Louie’s subsequent trip to acquire one of his own are especially potent on that last count, diverging as they do from the masculine norm.) But the sequence between Louie and the doctor gets at something far greater than all of this, as the camera pulls in tighter on the characters and Dr. Bigelow strikes a tremendous blow to Louie’s self-absorption: It’s not Louie’s back pain–it’s the whole goddamn human race’s back pain. “Back” isn’t about old people, young people, male people, or mean people—it’s about people, period. To paraphrase Bigelow, we were given a spine that’s meant to function like a clothesline, but we treat it like a flagpole, and there’s nothing we can do about it for the next 20,000 years or so. There are just some universal absolutes that can’t be denied, that can’t be joked away.

In other words: Welcome back to Louie.

Stray observations:

  • Louie’s suggested opener for Lilly’s homework assignment: “Dear AIDS, please cut it out?”
  • The girls’ detested babysitter, Mrs. Frame, is, appropriately, only seen with her back pressed to the wall, just like her namesake.
  • In Louie’s ongoing commitment to using only the most eye-catching, underutilized New York City locations, the lobby of Louie’s building just might be the most gorgeous thing you see on TV this week.

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“Model”

Todd VanDerWerff: The most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen walks past. You look, of course, maybe even if you aren’t attracted to women, because she’s just so perfect, and you’re trained to appreciate perfection. But do you approach her? Do you even dare? She lives on some other planet than you do, where oxygen tastes like cotton candy and roads are paved in gumdrops. And then the other feeling sinks in, the one that settles into your stomach like spoiled milk: If she is perfection, then you are not. You are an imperfect, flawed little bug, and if she wanted to squash you under her (surely immaculate) shoe, she would be right to. She maybe looks at you, but she doesn’t see you. If she did, she would look away, and you’d be yanked out of her world and forced back into yours. You’d burn up upon reentry.

“Model” is absolutely brilliant television. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, and it makes me so glad to have Louie back. It’s, at once, a perfect little jewel of a flight of fancy on Louis C.K.’s part, while it’s simultaneously a parody of anxiety dreams, a commentary on straight men’s secret fears of what might happen if they ever ended up with one of the beautiful women they ogle, and a really weird parable about vampire capitalism. I love it as much as any episode of this show that I’ve seen, and I think it sets a great tone for the season going forward: This season is going to be not just about love but about how the only way it’s possible to find that love is to start being honest with yourself—about your failures and your successes.

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In true Louie fashion, the story is a ramble. It opens with Louie trying to hit on a waitress named Jamie, then transitions to the most horrifying benefit ever, in which the comedian tries to work clean for an audience of billionaires and trillionaires, only to completely bomb. He’s there at the behest of headliner Jerry Seinfeld, who winces at just how thoroughly terrible Louie is. And it’s not like Louie is just wrong for this crowd or anything (though he is that). He’s utterly, thoroughly, completely unprepared, and he misreads the room so disastrously that he starts joking about how the assembled rich people have slaves. Throughout, only one woman is laughing, and she’s laughing less at his jokes than at how wrong he is for this situation. And Louie, throughout, is out of costume, wearing a security guard’s jacket because he didn’t show up in a tuxedo and, instead, wore a T-shirt and jeans, only for Jerry to scowl at the thought of him appearing before these people in that. It looks, for all the world, like Jerry Seinfeld stopped off at a mall and trusted some random security guard to open for him. These are the sorts of people who might only be glancingly aware of Louis C.K., to say nothing of the riff on his persona that the Louie character is meant to be. Tellingly, when Jerry steps up to offer up his material, he makes fun of Louie for a while, then leads with a joke about golf, something you can’t imagine Louie joking about in a million years. These people and Louie live on different worlds.

The brilliance here, however, is that by being so terrible, Louie somehow gets a brief invitation to the lives of the rich and beautiful, in the form of a blonde woman played by Yvonne Strahovski. She was laughing at his jokes earlier, and now, she wants to go for a ride with him, back to her house out on the Long Island beaches. Strahovski’s an actress who’s hit and miss for me, often forced into roles where she’s asked to play the “hot girl” without really given much else to differentiate those parts, roles where she struggles to bring something human to the part. But C.K. gives her character—whose name turns out to be Blake (the perfect daughter’s name for the idle rich)—a rich humanism, and Strahovski rises to the challenge. She laughs and grins and offers up the barest hints about her life. (I love the way she gives two different readings to this line about Blake’s father: “He walked on the moon.”) This is a woman who’s never had to worry about a thing in her life—both because she’s beautiful and because she’s the daughter of a very rich man—but she’s still a human being, with hopes and desires and fears.

It’s clear from the first that Blake’s time with Louie is a kind of vacation from whatever her life normally is, but that life is so far away from Louie’s reality that he can only perceive dim slices of it. It’s like the old argument about how you, a three-dimensional creature, would appear only as an impossibly thin strip to someone who was two-dimensional, or about how we might be able to catch a glimpse of someone four-dimensional in flashes and shadows. In that way, this plays almost as science fiction, right down to the suggestion that Blake might as well be from another planet—her father walked on the moon after all.

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Because this is Louie and because Louie is who he is and because he is like all of us and not meant to occupy the same space as this woman, everything ends disastrously. She tries to make him laugh like he makes her laugh by tickling him. He’s violently opposed to tickling. He flails backward and hits her in the face, and she’s out cold. And her family wants restitution—restitution he will pay out in the form of $5,000 per month likely for the rest of his life (because his lawyer, played by the brilliant Victor Garber, thinks he can get them down to $5 million). I don’t think a critique of capitalism is the primary mission of this particular episode at all, but it’s there all the same. Louie was invited to this other world, only to learn that the costs were so very substantial. This is not the place he belongs, and like all mythological characters who ascend (or descend) to some other plane of existence, he pays a heavy cost—literally, in this case. Louie’s lawyer assures him that people think the rich can’t sue the poor. But that’s not true, he adds. They can, and they will. They want Louie to pay. They want everything Louie can pay.

In that tiny moment, “Model” glances ever so slightly at what it is to live in an America where it feels like some tiny portion of the country is rocketing toward the moon while the rest of us are shrugging our shoulders and slouching back toward the caves we wandered out of so long ago. At least, however, we might have a little companionship, as Louie finds when he’s able to use the story of his nightmare gig out in Long Island as a chance to get closer to the woman he really wanted to sleep with, Jamie from the bar, who wanted nothing to do with him and now seems interested because of his brush with those she might see as his betters. Does he care? Of course not. He ends the episode with a smile on his face. You never realize how screwed you are—and maybe you aren’t.

Which brings me to one other idea: Does any of this really happen? I don’t mean within the reality of Louie, which is self-consciously mutable and endlessly malleable. I mean within the reality of the episode itself. Look at how perfectly this plays as an anxiety dream you might have after eating too much right before bed. The Louie we meet in the opening feels like a young comic just trying to make it, the kind of guy Louis C.K. (and the Louie of the show) hasn’t been in years. When he shows up at the gig, he’s dressed incorrectly for it, and then he’s forced to wear a costume that a.) doesn’t fit and b.) is even more inappropriate. He pivots from there to hooking up with the hot girl, but he pays a hefty cost for doing so, and things just get worse from there. No matter what he thinks he can run away from, he just can’t. Granted, the whole thing has far more resolution than a dream might, but nightmares often have a ruthless structure to them, don’t they? I’m not trying to suggest that this whole episode is a dream or anything, but I think the way it plays with the logic of a dream makes it all the more elemental and powerful. We’re sucked into another world and cast out right alongside Louie, and we can relate, because we’ve all had elements of this story in our dreams since we began dreaming.

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The first time Louie sees Blake, she’s in shadow, laughing at his jokes, but the lights will always keep him from making her out. The second time he sees her, she’s all the way across the courtyard, out of focus. But then she comes up close for a moment, and he’s in her orbit, just for a little bit. But he can’t stay there forever. “Model” contains a shot that sums this up, a shot as beautiful as any I’ve seen on television. Louie stands on the beach as Blake whips off her dress and races down into the waves, dusk settling on his shoulders. He’s watching her run away in shadow, and she’s moving back toward a place where she’s blurry and indistinct. There are a huge number of reasons Louie must stay on the shore—he lacks the natural self-confidence she has, he’s not a beautiful blonde with a perfect body, he lacks the carefree nature of a child of riches—but the point is not that he’s on the shore. It’s that she’s running away. Because she always does, no matter how many times you meet her. She always runs away.

Stray observations:

  • I really need Louie’s Awesome Possum T-shirt, so if anybody knows where I can find that, thanks.
  • The woman who plays Jamie is Bree Sharp, whom you may best know from her brief hit single “David Duchovny (Why Won’t You Love Me).” She’s now a comedian with the UCB and almost certainly is tired of being identified for a novelty song. Sorry, Ms. Sharp!
  • “Can you not say dirty sex boob dogs having sex with vagina dirt?” Jerry Seinfeld, ladies and gentlemen.

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