Eszter Balint (FX)
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“So Did The Fat Lady”

Erik Adams: The prevailing debate about Louie in my house revolves around how much of season four is taking place inside Louie’s head. Or, at the very least, how much of it is playing with perception and dream imagery to a greater degree than any previous season of the show. The invasion of the garbagemen comes across as prelude to a more fantastical Louie, and the second of tonight’s episodes has one character repeatedly insisting that she’s dreaming—sometimes directly to the camera.

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The conversation started when my wife and I were dissecting “Model,” and I voiced an impression that’s starting to shape my whole take on these new episodes: I think Louie’s fudging the details. I think he suffered an embarrassing injury in some mundane fashion, but then his storytelling instincts kicked in and he started elaborating on the details. Nobody from the “Model” story is around to corroborate the details: Not Jerry Seinfeld, not Blake, not the lawyer played by Victor Garber—who’s played by Victor Garber because he’s precisely the actor you’d cast in your own horrifying story of sexploits and punitive damages. In essence, “Model” casts Louie as the subject of the type of joke told at the end of “So Did The Fat Lady”: A puppet in the hands of a comedian that eventually goes “pop” in the punchline.

The evidence that might get both of us on the same side of the debate comes up at the conclusion of “So Did The Fat Lady,” when a commentary on weight, dating, and dating while overweight turns stunningly blunt. But as my wife pointed out—and thus I can’t really take credit for—Vanessa (Sarah Baker) might be owning up to being “a fat girl” so directly because those are the words that are sinking in to Louie’s head. She might not be monologuing in such a theatrical manner, but this is a moment that deserves to be presented as such—in Louie’s head and on the screen. The sequence certainly makes a clean enough break from the rest of “So Did The Fat Lady” to back up this interpretation: Prior to the faux pas that takes the attention of the camera off of Louie and places it on Vanessa for an unbroken seven or eight minutes, “So Did The Fat Lady” is more lyrical, more indirect in its approach to the subject matter. But being oblique and artful only gets you so far, and skirting around the issue—“Well, you’re not, I mean… You’re not fat,” Louie says, before Vanessa can stop him—is the mistake the fictionalized Louis C.K. makes that opens the door for the most poignant passage of “So Did The Fat Lady.”

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It’s never directly stated why Louie turns down Vanessa’s advances earlier in the episode, and that damns the character as much as it damns the viewer. In our heads, we know why: Because pop-culture (and culture in general) has us expecting the mistreatment of the fat girl. Sarah Baker has played that type of role, the type that Vanessa is masterfully written against: As a series regular on Go On, the actress portrayed a lonely woman who winds up in group therapy because she’s mourning the death of her cat. At one point in the short-lived series, she copes with the loss by getting too many cats. The camera looks at women like Sarah Baker and says “Based on looks alone, this is a person who could only ever know the love of a feline companion.” Louie’s job is to implicate us all in the perpetuation of this image, too—before Vanessa lashes back in a display of all the nuanced inner turmoil and angst an overweight female character never gets to voice, proceeded by the confident, self-reliant tenacity the character type rarely gets to show, either. Prior to the rant, Vanessa proves she’s a multifaceted personality, vibrant and charming and funny and compassionate. She’s only worked at the Comedy Cellar a short while, but she stops to bid Dave Attell farewell before leaving; even though Louie keeps turning her down, she offers him the hockey tickets anyway.

This is why the turn of the camera at the end of “So Did The Fat Lady” is so, so important. The filmmaking’s important (if blunt) throughout the whole episode, set up as an all-seeing, all-judging eye. Things get heavy-handed in this episode, but only because Louis C.K. wants to call your attention to the themes and the subject matter. Characters are framed and blocked to appear smaller, more insignificant than others: not only Vanessa, but Louie and Bobby, too. When the brothers are at the second stop of their “bang bang”—their term for eating two huge meals, back to back—the diner waitress played by Kaija Matiss towers over them. No one in this world escapes the tyranny of looks—or the surface of a mirror, which completes the diner illusion—but it’s the combination of words and images that allow the tiny injustices Vanessa faces every day to truly come across.

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The “bang bang” sets up an important contrast with Vanessa’s closing monologue. It’s established as a shameful act, a farewell to the flesh before the diet that neither Louie and Bobby will ever undertake. (And, in a further reiteration of the episode’s themes, they’re under no great pressure from society to lose weight. They get to make this decision for themselves—and brush it off just as easily.) All guilt aside, the sequence at the Indian restaurant is carefully photographed in order to celebrate the meal, to display the amount of ecstasy this food brings to the guys. And you can tie that into Vanessa’s bit about the “basics of human happiness.” Just as declaring her struggles with weight and dating would be misinterpreted as distress signals, to enjoy eating in such a fashion would wind up garbled by somebody else’s perception. In the world dictated by the double standard that her monologue decries, you’d never see two actresses participating in a bang bang. If you did, it’d be set up like the regular takeout binges on Gilmore Girls or 30 Rock (two other shows that kept one foot permanently planted in fantasy), and the actresses would resemble Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, or Tina Fey more than they would Sarah Baker.

Initially, I had some misgivings about the conclusion of “So Did The Fat Lady.” I felt like the rest of the episode says what the monologue says, only with a little more finesse. I really enjoyed the ambling, Woody Allen/Richard Linklater feel the episode takes on during Louie and Vanessa’s date, reminiscent of other Louie rom-coms like the second-half of “Subway/Pamela” or the pre-rooftop passages of “Daddy’s Girlfriend (Part 2).” But “So Did The Fat Lady” isn’t an episode of finesse—it’s an episode about moving beyond finesse, about being able to approach tough, difficult topics of conversation without fear of upsetting someone. (In that respect, its closest Louie parallel might be “Eddie.”) Because that’s another thing Vanessa argues for, an argument that goes crucially uninterrupted in that glorious long take that has finesse for days: To just be able to fucking talk about this stuff, and have somebody hear and listen to her. And then to have that person know she wants her hand held, to treat her like somebody deserving of that gesture out of affection, not pity.

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If much of what’s forming season four is what’s going on in Louie’s head, the coda of “So Did The Fat Lady” places us squarely within that head, letting us see with Louie’s eyes and hear with Louie’s ears. But that’s only part of it, because the camera’s mobile, giving us a chance to look at Louie from Vanessa’s perspective or pulling away to put us in the shoes of the theoretical people “standing over there,” looking at Louie and Vanessa. And the neat trick of the whole thing is that even as the show works from the headspace of its creator, it still has the capacity to speak in many voices.

Stray observations:

  • For more on the topics tackled by “So Did The Fat Lady,” check out this excellent For Our Consideration essay by Libby Hill.
  • I love that Dave Attell and Louie are wearing more or less the same outfit when Vanessa lets them know she quit the Comedy Cellar. It establishes the characters as two sides of the same guy, while showing that Louie’s silent rejections (or Jim Norton’s out-loud disgust) don’t speak for all comedians or all men.
  • Another smart staging move: There’s a never-ending stream of “fit” people jogging past Vanessa and Louie during the big confrontation scene.

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“Elevator, Part 1”

Todd VanDerWerff: Here’s a thing I’ve been noticing in watching these first four episodes of Louie: The women that he’s trying to connect with are always being removed from him somehow. Sometimes, as in “Model,” they’re moving away from him physically. Sometimes, as in “So Did The Fat Lady,” the camera is positioned in such a way that we can sense Louie doesn’t really want to be in the same space as them. And then sometimes, as in the opening of “Elevator, Part 1,” he is being physically pulled away from them. Except in this case, the girl he’s being taken from is his own daughter, the girl he’s supposed to protect until she’s old enough to protect herself. And there’s really nothing he can do about it. He’s on a subway train, rocketing toward the next stop, and she believes she’s in a dream without end. I’d point out the metaphor here, if it weren’t so obvious.

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But when Louie is in the same frame as the woman from the elevator’s niece at the end of the episode, they’re on the same level, in the same space. The whole scene is visually coded as a kind of first date in romantic comedy terms, even if she’s just dropped by his apartment to give him a tart to thank him for helping her aunt out after she got stuck in the elevator. This then segues into a quick bit of standup from Louie, talking about how he loves women, how when he loves somebody, they tend to be a woman, that sort of thing. Despite the considerable barriers that exist between Louie and this woman—language for one—the show is suggesting that we have the Louie equivalent of a meet-cute going on here. The two met under preposterous circumstances, but this could be just what Louie needs.

As indicated by its title, “Elevator, Part 1” is the first part of a multi-part saga about… well, it’s not immediately clear. The safe money is on this story being about what happens after Louie and the woman (the closing credits list her name as “Amia,” so let’s go with that) meet and hit it off and try to overcome their differences and fall in love. It’s a fitting idea for the season to pursue as a centerpiece storyline. After all, these first three episodes have all featured Louie meeting up with different women and not quite clicking, with the season premiere offering the stakes for this particular season: Louie’s getting older, and he’s no closer to finding anybody to share that aging with, a natural human desire. And all the while, the daughters who have given a form to his existence are getting older, less in need of him. Indeed, Lily seems incredibly self-possessed in this episode. When Jane gets off the train and Louie reacts in horror, it’s Lily who tries to calm him down. She’s more and more the young adult every day.

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If this is the story of Louie and Amia hitting it off, however, then why are there so many other things going on around the two? The obvious answer to this is that this is still Louie, a show where the storytelling style is looser and more improvisatory than it is on a lot of other shows. At its best, Louie takes on the structure of a long, funny story you tell to friends, one that wanders off the path and gets caught up in other adventures along the way. The other easy answer to this is that Amia enters the story so late, so we don’t get a real chance to get to know her, as opposed to her aunt (played by the marvelous Ellen Burstyn), whose elevator panic at least informs us slightly as to how she reacts in a fearful situation. We mostly just see Amia sleep, then watch her chase Louie out of the apartment. Later, she brings by a tart. We can’t even understand what she’s saying. So, then, this episode is all setup for whatever’s coming next. (And please bear in mind that I have no idea what’s coming next. Maybe it will all be about the characters realizing they’re trapped in Jane’s dream and need to break out, Inception-style. I somehow doubt this will be the case.)

No, I think the reason we spend so much time on other stuff is because we need to be reminded of something that Louie has deliberately obscured throughout its run: At some point, Louie was married to a woman named Janet. They had two daughters together. The marriage fell apart. Though the two are mostly amicable with each other—and a very model of co-parenting—she’s with another man now, and Louie is not. Though it may not be entirely fair to Louie, the show is at least trying to suggest that everything that happened was, on some level, Louie’s fault. The thing keeping Louie from connection—whether it runs away from him or is pulled away from him or is something he deliberately tries to shy away from—is himself.

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What’s wonderful about Amia, then, is just how long it takes Louie to even notice her. He’s gotten so comfortable and set in his ways that he gets dropped into the middle of this romantic comedy situation and doesn’t seem to realize it. He goes up to the aunt’s apartment. He lets himself in. He walks past Amia dozing on the couch several times before he sees her. It’s only when he’s about to leave that he finally notices that she’s there, and he doesn’t try and tell her anything about her aunt. (He has good reason, since she would likely be terrified—and ultimately is—by the presence of a strange man in her apartment.) Once again, Louie is missing something that should be—literally in this case—right in front of him. And when she finally re-enters his life, it’s because she comes to his apartment, bearing gifts.

I feel weird having talked about the Amia stuff so much, because the part of the episode that hangs with me more is the section about Jane getting off the train and Louie’s panicked rush back to her. But there’s probably a simple reason for that: Jane’s storyline is the perfect encapsulation of a parent’s worst nightmare (one that, thankfully, resolves without heartbreak), while the elevator story is a little weirder, a little more wistful. (“Wistful” seems to be the watchword for this season of Louie.) Jane and Lily’s presence is important to the episode, but they’re also a self-contained unit, a reminder of everything Louie has, as well as everything he once had and might have again with someone else.

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Yet if there’s something to keep coming back to with the girls, it’s that notion of everything being a dream. That certainly applies to the idea of falling in love, to the thought that when you find the right person, everything starts to dissolve into mist but them. But there’s also always the danger of waking up, of coming to in a situation where you realize you’re in over your head and did exactly the wrong thing (as Jane eventually does when her mother confronts her). The characters on Louie—even beyond the central figure—have a tendency to walk around in their own little fogs, waiting to see somebody else who might make sense of them. But they rarely pursue any vague figures they might see in the mist. It’s a kind and caring universe, even when it’s being dyspeptic, and it’s a universe where almost everyone has some shred of decency to them. But it’s also one where everybody is just a little bit alone. After all, it’s a show that’s about just one guy.

There’s another line I keep coming back to in “Elevator, Part 1.” In it, Louie advises Amia’s aunt that she needs to not think about the elevator she’s stuck in as a place where she’s stuck. Instead, she should just think about it as a waiting room without furniture, somewhere that she has come to voluntarily. But lying to yourself about your situation doesn’t mean you’re any less stuck, even if you’re able to change your perception enough to convince yourself you’re exactly where you want to be. Louie is where he wants to be, and where he needs to be, but he’s also really not. He’s fooled himself—as we all do at one time or another—into thinking that this is it. Now, because of an unlikely connection, out of an unlikely situation, he might realize there’s something more.

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Stray observations:

  • For as many great moments and lines as there are in this episode, my biggest laugh came when Jane hightailed it for her room after Janet came over with an angry tone of voice. I think we’ve all been there.
  • There’s often no good way to deliver exposition like Louie making the girls remind him of the subway rules, but I thought the show made the best of it. He really would probably reiterate these points to the kids every single time they got on the train, and the actors had fun with the bit as well.
  • Another link between Louie’s new love interest and his daughters: The final two standup sequences are about the idea of loving women more generally and then about the idea of his daughters as women. (Or possibly men. If that’s what they want, Louie will get them the best dick money can buy.)

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