Louie, Season 3, Episode 1: “Something Is Wrong”
Written by Louis CK
Directed by Louis CK
Airs Thursdays at 10:30pm ET on FX
An an exercise to prepare for reviewing Louie on a weekly basis, I did something I hadn’t in years: I watched Lucky Louie, Louis CK’s previous attempt at a TV show. Since Louie has risen to prominence, the show’s been reconsidered in a few places, like this Vulture piece claiming the show was an underrated, ahead-of-its-time classic. Frankly, I don’t buy it. If anything, Lucky Louie appears worse with time, now that we know what CK is capable of as a writer, director, and actor; the show is too often too bleak and nihilistic in its treatment of family for its own good (the clear product of someone going through a seriously tough marriage), further hampered by CK’s stiff, awkward performance, and dragged down by its aimless supporting characters. The concept of an edgy but doggedly “classic” sitcom must have looked ingenious on paper, but despite a few shining moments, it remains one of CK’s creative misfires.
Louie, conversely, has been excellent from the very beginning, a creative playground for CK to elaborate on life, the universe, and everything, in a voice that’s no less critical than in his Lucky Louie days, but with a considerably greater sense of optimism. Many artists thrive when under restriction – be it budgetary, thematic, or formal – but CK, we know now, seems to do best when he has as free a canvas as can be afforded him. Louie benefits greatly from feeling like a vastly different show (albeit )from week-to-week, bucking the trend of increased serialization in favor of constant realignment, In the relatively unassuming third season premiere, “Something Is Wrong,” we get at least two firsts. We get to see Louie in the context of an honest-to-goodness relationship (with former child star Gaby Hoffmann), albeit one on the verge of collapse, and we finally meet his ex-wife, the mother of his children, for the first time (here played by Susan Kelechi Watson). As per usual, we have no reason to expect we’ll ever see either actress again.
And also as per usual, there’s a thematic through-line connecting the show’s one constant (the standup segments) with the rest of the episode. In the cold open, Louie talks about needing reading glasses for the first time in his life, which he comes to realize when he sits down to masturbate and notices that his ever-dependable dick has suddenly gone blurry. “Nearsightedness” might as well be the name of the episode, except that CK doesn’t seem overly fond of spelling out his thematic concerns for easy assembly.
“Something Is Wrong” features Louie, the character, at his least articulate. When he sits down at a diner with his girlfriend, he appears uncomfortable and very possibly ready to end the relationship, but he’s unready or unwilling to actually say the words. That she has to divine his feelings herself, winding up “breaking up with herself,” as she puts it, makes for precisely the sort of scene that Louie nails that other shows wouldn’t even attempt. Where another comedy (like, say, Louie‘s new timeslot neighbor, Anger Management), would gladly have mined cheap laughs out of her neurotic, talky explication of their relationship status, Louie allows her to be completely in the right: why shouldn’t she be frustrated that her partner doesn’t even have the dignity to break it off with an ounce of forthright honesty?
After Louie’s car gets totaled in spectacular, classically hilarious fashion, he responds in precisely the manner one might expect from a middle-aged man who still hasn’t learned how to articulate his desires: he buys a motorcycle. That this results in mild injury and the totaling of said bike is far from shocking, but it’s a natural beat for a character whose kneejerk response (or non-response) to difficult situations, whether relationship-oriented or not, is, well, nearsighted. (When he ends up in the hospital, an elderly woman in the next room deliriously asks, “what about Obama?,” which might be the only repeated line of the series, and takes on unexpected, accidental relevance in the wake of today’s Supreme Court reaffirmation of Obamacare.)
When Hoffman reappears in his apartment to briefly tend to his wounds and feed him, Louie finds himself just as sadly inarticulate as he’d been before the accident, unable to either mend his connection to this slightly odd but also endearingly straightforward woman, or to even complete a sentence that isn’t flatly ridiculous, in contrast to his lucid, perceptive onstage remarks, in which he ponders a future filled with male-genital transplants. In the closing credits scene, we return to an earlier setting, with Louie trying futilely to interpret a constellation of contradictory parking signs. “Be a man,” she implores at one point, and the “Something” that’s wrong here is just that: what does that entail, exactly? Louie continues to probe that nebulous question in ways that are surprising, funny, touching, tragic, and real. I’m so very glad to have it back.