How Louie Embraces its Medium Through Episodic and Elliptical Narrative

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The contemporary culture around TV viewership is one that favors binge-watching over moderate consumption. Whether you’re catching up on an older show or checking out the latest series from a streaming service, binge viewership has become thought of by many as the default mode (when possible) for enjoying TV. The verb form of the phrase (i.e. “to binge-watch”) was shortlisted for the 2013 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.

While binging certainly has its merits, there are certain joys which can only be attained by watching a show’s episodes over an extended period of time, ideally in the once-a-week doses suggested by traditional TV distribution. Watching one episode per week of a show is a fundamentally different experience from watching an entire season over the course of a few days, and it’s one which allows viewers to appreciate the series in a different way than they would if they were to binge-watch it.

Most contemporary shows don’t take advantage of the possibilities afforded by the weekly format. If anything, the majority of current series improve when they’re being binge-watched, allowing viewers to follow characters, plots, and themes without the handicap of having to wait a week before returning to them. However, one series benefits from the time lapse of TV, and doesn’t work nearly as well without it: FX’s Louie. In the show, creator/showrunner/star Louis CK has experimented with episodic and serialized narrative, and both are best experienced once a week (or, at most, twice a week, as the fourth season was released).

Let’s start with the episodic stories. Throughout the show, the title character travels around New York and elsewhere, encountering a variety of personalities, many of whom appear for only one episode. When these various run-ins are bunched up, they become an overwhelming kaleidoscope of experiences which blur together and lose their individuality. Without the week to reset, going from a suicidal comedian to a maniacal blind date to an unrequited love feels unfocused and lacking in cohesion. Even in the disparate, ADD-addled contemporary world of nonsensical GIFs and “Too Many Cooks”, the diversity of character types and plots seen on Louie feels exceptionally all-over-the-place. However, when the viewer has time to digest the various narratives, they fit together better and make sense as disparate elements in a confused man’s life.

Another reason the show’s episodic segments benefits from the weekly structure is the variety of tones and modes they utilize. The episodes range tonally from the deathly serious to the absurdly hilarious: although Louie is ostensibly a comedy, many episodes are mostly laugh-free. On top of the varying levels of humor in the show, the adherence to reality ranges from the stark realism of “In the Woods” to the Lynchian surrealism of the “Late Show” trilogy. As with the range of characters, these contrasts come across as discordant when they’re experienced via binge. The seriousness of the dangers of drug dealing feels undercut by the bizarre hilarity of an unexplained teenage agent. By contrast, when they’re seen a week or more apart, their separation is clear, and they avoid being the messy blur into which binge-watching makes them.

Finally (for the episodic components), Louie skips through the life of its title character in a fairly unpredictable manner. Each week, you can never know whether you’ll see him as an impressionable youth or a jaded divorcee. The issues with the use of flashbacks in stories are a subject for another column (in brief, they’re often used as a cheap way to compensate for weak characterization), but suffice it to say here that the stories about young Louie come across as fundamentally different. Rather than serve as shortcuts to explain why the character acts as he does at his present age, they function as self-contained stories about him during different periods in his life. Louie’s traumatic experience in Catholic school doesn’t necessarily relate directly to his encounter with a Christian anti-masturbation activist; they’re both simply anecdotes about the man from various points in time. They both contribute to who he is, but they’re not inextricably bound to each other, and seeing them removed from each other allows the viewer to understand that.

Beyond the episodic parts of the show, its serialized episodes also make more sense when they’re viewed week by week. The most obvious case study here is the fourth season; specifically, the six part “Elevator” arc and the three part “Pamela” story.

In the “Elevator” episodes, Louie romantically pursues a Hungarian woman, Amia, who will be returning to her native country shortly. Over the course of the six installments, viewers come to understand Louie’s unrequited passion, even as we’re disgusted by his persistence despite her refusal of him. (The “better bye” scene is among the most uncomfortable interactions I’ve seen on TV in recent memory.) The four weeks we spend with the two of them allow us to ruminate on the complications of their relationship in a way which binge consumption of the six episodes would not permit. “Elevator” isn’t a movie in disguise, as some critics have suggested: it’s a six part, unabashedly televisual work.

Perhaps an even stronger example is the “Pamela” arc, for which CK received much criticism for his portrayal of rape. In the first part, which aired the same night as the conclusion of “Elevator,” he attempts to rape Pamela after she rejects him in his home. In the second and third parts, not aired until the end of the season, she forgives him for his actions (after minimal effort on his part), and the reconciliation with which their story ends feels straight out of a romantic comedy.

If watched in a short span of time, the episodes feel unforgivable. It seems as if Pamela has immediately forgotten about Louie’s past actions and decided to move on.

Although the titles of the episodes suggest this sort of reading, the timing of when the episodes were aired suggests otherwise. The appearance of the first part of “Pamela” immediately after the sad conclusion of “Elevator” indicates that Louie is in a particularly bad place when he goes after her. The filming of the attempted sexual assault certainly doesn’t condone his actions (it might be the only recent scene on TV I can remember being more disturbing than “better bye”), but the context suggests why he acts as he does. The viewer’s sympathies are still firmly with Pamela, but the explanation of Louie’s actions creates a nuanced understanding of a horrific occurrence.

When Louie finally gets back in contact with her, a significant period of time has passed in the lives of both the characters and the viewer (if the viewer isn’t binge-watching). We’re implicitly put in the shoes of both characters and made to understand the complexity of their situation through the time that goes by between the two interactions. Given the gap in time and the past behavior of both characters, their newfound affection for each other makes us uncomfortable, but it also feels inevitable in the context of the show’s overall arc. Once again, it’s the sort of nuance that’s not possible if the show is being binge-watched.

The nuance is like the show’s shifts between characters, in fidelity to reality and level of humor, and through time periods: they only achieve their optimal effect if they’re viewed week by week. In the era of binge-watching, Louie stands out for being a show which stubbornly clings to an older model of television distribution. Much of the show only works as it does thanks to the weekly style of TV viewership, and because of that, it demonstrates why we love television.




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