My first day back at work, I’ve been catching up on some screeners and episodes I missed while I was away, which is another way of saying that I have no real problems. One of those was “Duckling,” the hourlong episode of Louie set in Afghanistan, and while it’s too late and time too short for any complete review, it was a special enough episode (in the sincere, not derogatory sense) that I had to at least tip Tuned In’s hat.
When I interviewed Louis CK this spring, he was about to go shoot the episode (on location in California and, I believe, Texas), and he told me a little about it. (At the time I wrote that it was the season finale, which may have been either my misunderstanding, from the fact that it was the last episode shot, or a change in plans; the show has fiddled with episode running order before.) One thing he mentioned was that he was concerned that FX would give him the budget, which, he said, was about double the show’s usual cost–which, despite some second-season raises for crew, was still in the ballpark of the $250,000 the show started with. In any case, the upshot is that this episode cost far less than what it costs to put a typical network sitcom on the air, or even to get someone like Ashton Kutcher to walk on set.
And “Duckling” showed that you simply can’t put a price tag on creativity and directorial vision. No, the episode did not look like Afghanistan in 2011—more like Korea via M*A*S*H—nor did it have the technical look of an HBO show or a big-budget feature. Yet the episode managed to create a documentary sort of feel, in its patient recreation of Louis CK’s real-world USO experience (e.g., the pickup soccer game) and in the loose but thematically rich way it told a story that was ribald, slapstick, empathetic and sincerely good-hearted.
There was no intricate plot, but the central device of Louie shepherding his daughter’s stowaway duckling through a war zone—leading to his defusing a conflict through the universal appeal of watching a middle-aged man chase after a bird—gave the hour tension and a comic-relief ending that was feel-good without being cheap. The story of two cultures finding common ground in something like a pratfall is an old one, but I especially liked how this story of empathy (a recurring theme of Louie) was echoed in Louie’s own USO peregrinations, as he shared a stage with a country singer with a very different act and outlook and connected with a Christian cheerleader (even if he failed to pick her up).
I loved it, but it built to a conclusion that was more earnest than Louie’s usual tone, so I’m curious to hear Tuned Inland’s reaction: was it a special episode or a Very Special Episode?