Tuned In

Louie Watch: Yin and Yangtze

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Spoilers for last night’s season 3 finale of Louie follow: 

Some sitcoms have ideas behind them. Some wind up episodes with little lessons or observations about life. But it’s a rare sitcom that has a philosophy—that sets itself up, not as a source of answers, but as an investigation into the question of how to live. It’s a rarer sitcom still that can pull that off without seeming ridiculous or full of crap, and while still being funny.

Louie is that sitcom, and last night’s season finale, “New Year’s Eve,” encapsulated the hilarious, surreal, openhearted ways this season has pursued that quest.

Louie is not a show big on consistency. Louis CK posits a character with the same name as him, some of the same life circumstances and a few constants (two daughters, for instance). But if he wants to change his number of siblings, or cast the same woman as his mother in one episode and his date in another, he’ll do it. Major events will take place and then just sort of vanish, once they’ve served their story purpose. (See Louie’s taking in his niece late in season 2.) It is at the same time granularly realistic and unpredictably surreal. It’s brilliant, but it’s messy.

Season 3 of Louie had more in the way of serial stories—the Late Show arc, e.g., and the recurrence of Liz—but what it had above all was a theme. In big ways and small, it was about its central character, a divorced single dad, repeatedly forcing himself out of his comfort zone to meet new people and deal with new situations—whether it was going on a setup date, making a new friend in Miami, steeling himself to see his estranged dad (and ultimately bailing) or trying to get a job that he’s afraid he’s not good enough to get (and, maybe, afraid of getting).

His attempts don’t always succeed. Sometimes they fail, sadly or uproariously. Sometimes they lead to embarrassment or hurt. But Louis CK manages to get the opposite of a nihilistic message out of them: that the important thing is to try, to experience, to engage with the outer world even when the world makes that difficult. You have to take yourself out of your comfort zone, because that’s where you find happiness, life, yourself.

You may get your heart broken, you may almost kill yourself climbing a flight of stairs, “Daddy’s Girlfriend” showed us, but you’ll also experience sights and flavors you wouldn’t have experienced. The phenomenal sequence in Russ and Daughters was one of the best visual expressions of this I’ve ever seen—Louie gobbling down odd pickled things with Liz, smearing fish eggs on bread, gobbling down whitefish with his head tilted back like a seal: it’s just living, reduced to a sweet, funny, lustily joyful montage.

One neat trick of Louie’s storytelling is that the same season and the same stories can be read as dark or uplifting. On the one hand: Louie begins and ends the season alone; he puts his all into landing a big job and doesn’t get it; he makes a deep connection with someone and she dies. On the other hand: he has a series of new relationships and encounters; he proves that he’s capable of hosting Late Show even if he doesn’t get to; he repeatedly takes himself outside his comfort zone and survives. He wins by losing, which is why the “bummer” ending of the “Late Show” trilogy of episodes ends up being so surprisingly affirming.

“New Year’s Eve” was not my favorite Louie of the year (that would probably be the “Daddy’s Girlfriend” duo), but it was an effective, weirdly moving reprise of the season’s themes. Nearly every mode of Louie was on display here (except the standup segments, which the densely packed latter episodes have omitted). There was the flat-out funny: Louie’s attempt at doll-trepanation to fix his daughter’s Christmas present (culminating in that too-familiar-to-parents sob of frustration). The sentimental: his talk with his worried (new) little sister, played by Amy Poehler. The surreal: Louie’s morbid dream about his grown daughters’ pity of Future Louie (“We’re probably in our twenties or something!”). The dark: Louie’s finding Liz again, only to see her—in what seemed like a dream sequence itself—collapse and quickly die in the hospital.

And the soaring, disorienting beauty that only Louie among sitcoms today can manage: Louie making a snap decision in the airport and wandering Beijing alone, looking for the Yangtze River from his daughter’s Ping book, for connection, for hope… for something. And finding it, in the form of a crappy little brook and a No Reservations-style, language-challenged encounter over a bowl of lunch with some Chinese countryfolk.

It’s not true love, it’s not a new job, it’s not the answer to all his problems. He’ll go home to be alone as he was before. And yet here, in this moment, he’s laughing, he’s eating, he’s sharing hospitality and connecting. He’s having the kind of experience that can only come from making a dumb decision, getting lost, giving yourself up to chance, letting yourself be ridiculous, saying yes to things.

It’s another great ending image to fit those of the first two seasons: Louie in the diner with his girls, Louie yelling at Pamela across an airport. Louie may be a “dark” comedy in many ways; it literally starts off with a theme song reminding its lead, “You’re gonna die.” And yet, starting from memento mori, Louie somehow manages to end up in the same place: smack in the middle of life.