Tuned In

Louie Watch: Self, Love

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Last night’s double-shot of Louie was an example of a recurring structure of season two Louie episodes, and an unusual one for a sitcom. Louie is going about his business—work, life—and comes across another person. They talk. They just… talk. For a long time. And then the conversation goes in a direction you would not expect it to.

The first episode, “Come On, God,” looked like a pretty familiar set-up of conflict. Louie is booked on Fox News’ late-night show, Red Eye, to debate masturbation with an abstinence advocate (who turns out to be an articulate speaker and very hot). They take the stances you’d expect them to take; she comes across righteous and a little condescending, he gets riled up, gets in some zingers and makes a questionable-for-cable-news joke about God masturbating. Then they meet up in the green room and go out for a drink.

The beginning of the episode seems like it’s set up to make her look like a prig and Louie like our reasonable, if crude, hero. They go out and talk, and she invites him back to her hotel suite, and if anyone was taking bets among the audience, they might have guessed that she would have jumped Louie bones, or tried to humiliate him, or otherwise showed herself to be either a hypocrite or an obnoxious prude.

Instead, Louie steers the encounter toward a place you would not expect a sitcom to go: respect. The anti-masturbationist, Ellen, turns out to be a sport, listening to Louie’s filthy, hilarious story about losing his virginity to a handjob that ended with an embarrassing fart. And while he does try to kiss her in her room, her response is a mesmerizing, patient monologue about the pleasures of waiting for sex that turns out to be deeply felt and sincere, as well as sincerely hot.

It’s interesting that Louis CK began the episode with a debate on cable-news, because it points up the contrast between a fight conjured up by news bookers and an actual human conversation. (Sporting of Fox News and RedEye, by the way, for lending themselves to this subject matter.) The talk in the hotel doesn’t prove either of them right or wrong. Rather, it’s simple a really thoughtful acknowledgment that both of them can make a strong case for their paths in life, and both of them have given up something in the process. Ellen is deeply content with her choice, but it comes with the necessarily limiting trade-off of some human experiences; she’s fully committed to one path, one human partner, and whether it truly works out for her is something she’ll only know late in life, if ever. Louie, on the other hand, chooses his own, messy path, but it comes with the price of doubt and regret: he’ll never have the kind of certainty Ellen knows.

It’s one of the most mature discussions of these two attitudes toward sexuality I’ve seen on TV, and yes, I am saying that about an episode that concludes with a man masturbating and farting on a toilet.

“Eddie,” on the other hand, is a kind of callback to last week’s episode in which Louie tries to get Lady Gaga tickets from Dane Cook and ends up airing out their differences. This week, he meets Eddie, an old, less successful comic friend. Eddie’s bitterness is not necessarily directed at Louie so much as the entire world, but in a way, Louie is Eddie’s Dane Cook.

We’ve seen much more of Louie the comic this season, much of the stories addressing the notion of him as a “comic’s comic,” who’s been successful but has missed out on megafame to a certain extent because of his vision. There’s a fine line between integrity and peevish acting out (you could argue, as Joan Rivers did, that he crossed it in Atlantic City). There’s also a fine line between integrity and excuse-making. And in Eddie, we see a kind of extreme version of this, a grotesque alternative Louie, living out of his car and muttering that “comedy clubs are where comedy goes to die.”

They hit an open mic show in Brooklyn (Louie doesn’t go onstage, maybe not wanting to take advantage of the wind-assist of his fame in front of Eddie, or any other comics for that matter). Again, two ways you might expect this to go: Eddie is an underappreciated comic genius, or Eddie is uncomfortably awful. But no: Eddie is pretty funny. There’s a certain discomfort to his style, a certain hesitance, but on the page, his riff about online porn and the “recommendations” section of YouPorn could easily be a Louis CK routine, in all but the delivery.

The flashback scenes are more what you might expect: Dave and Louie supporting each other through the crap work of getting established in comedy, Eddie getting embittered over Louie’s break in landing the Letterman gig. (Excellent casting, by the way, on twentysomething Louie, who really gets Louis CK’s affect.) But it builds toward the episode’s story of roads not taken, exploring the difference between nurturing the spleen that comics thrive on and becoming the kind of crabbed person who ends up “railing against water” and rejecting any human connections. As Eddie recognizes, “I don’t want anything. I don’t want anybody. That’s the worst part. When the want goes, that’s bad.”

And then that fantastic confrontation by the bridge in Brooklyn, when Eddie tells Louie his plan to commit suicide as a last goodbye–or, maybe, one last passive-aggressive dig at him. I could spent two thousand words unpacking it but I’ll just say: what an incredibly difficult thing for a TV comedy to attempt, and how incredibly well does the episode pull it off.

It would be so easy for the scene to become preachy. It would be so easy to deflate it, to lower the stakes and puncture the tension, to assure us that, nah, Eddie not really going to off himself in a crappy motel in Maine. Instead, Louie never relents on the idea that this is a dead-serious moment, and it has the character Louie make the case for life in a drunk, angry, humanly imperfect way—acknowledging, too, that he runs the risk (as he says in the closing monologue) of getting “a little too proud of [himself] for not being a piece of shit.”

It’s just another reminder that Louie has evolved from a surreal comedy about one comic’s take on life, to a funny show about the serious subject of how to live. “You know what, it’s not your life. It’s life. Life is bigger than you.” That’s the best secular statement of faith I’ve heard in quite a while (if, OK, reminiscent of this one), and I’ll say amen to that.