Louie is utterly unique to the television landscape. There are very, very few shows of which this can be said. It’s part standup, part experimental film, part character study, part whatever else Louis C.K. wants it to be, and in its first three seasons, the series that started out well grew increasingly confident, playing with form and stretching C.K. as a filmmaker and storyteller. After C.K. decided to take 2013 off, some viewers may have been concerned he wouldn’t be able to recapture the magic of the first three seasons. Fortunately, with “Back” and “Model”, C.K. picks up right where he left off, as sure and relaxed as ever.
The first episode of the season, “Back”, follows the model of the first season, with a series of vignettes loosely following Louie (Louis C.K.) through his day. Notably, the premiere opens with standup, as Louie explores aging, the theme of the episode. In season three, C.K. moved away from these segments and while that allowed him more freedom to play with structure and pacing, it also slowed the energy of the season. Much of this series is centered on Louie as a passive or sadsack figure. Being able to contrast this element of his personality with his onstage persona heightens both- the secure, upbeat standup and the confused, uncomfortable single father. A scene like this week’s flustered visit to a sex shop is made particularly effective when placed alongside yet another confident set at the Comedy Cellar.
After the opening standup, we get our first bit of expressionism, as Louie’s awakened by garbage men outside his apartment who eventually burst in through the windows and continue their clanging in his room, trashing it as effectively as they did his peaceful slumber. Sequences like this are what set the series apart and make it so difficult to describe to potential viewers. What other series would spend 90 seconds on their lead being woken up? More than anything, Louie captures mood and experience, and this is a prime example.
The next series of vignettes detail Louie’s interactions with various recurring figures in his life: his super, who butchers an already hackneyed joke, his buddy Todd (the delightfully cutting Todd Barry, whose “Your kids suck. And you suck at comedy” is a highlight of the episode), his children, and, after a mid-episode break for some more standup, his poker gang. In each of these scenes, C.K. is a generous writer, giving the bulk of the dialogue and laugh lines to others while we watch Louie react. The usual Louie as everyman approach is present throughout; the audience may think he’s funny or insightful, but Lilly (Hadley Delany) and Jane (Ursula Parker) are unimpressed by his attempts at wisdom (Jane’s backpack) and humor (Lilly’s Dear AIDS letter). They’d rather he just “do the Beatles”, a lovely and straight up adorable moment that counters nicely the next portion of the episode.
Which is of course Louie’s quest to purchase a vibrator, spurred on by the sex toy discussion at the poker game. In his attempts to stay active and virile, Louie injures himself and only emphasizes his (and, as Dr. Bigelow illustrates, all humanity’s) frailty. Charles Grodin is great as the good doctor, slowly eating his sandwich and utterly disinterested in Louie’s pedestrian back pain. The entire episode is deliberately paced, from the opening to the scenes of Louie staggering around the city, and that space welcomes audiences back to the comedic, contemplative world of Louie.
That pacing continues in “Model”, which is paired with “Back” on Louie’s premiere night. Unlike the episodic “Back”, “Model” leads to and focuses on one major interaction, that of Louie and Blake (Yvonne Strahovski); just as “Back” recalls season one or two, “Model” is reminiscent of season three. Louie’s journey from shot down to sharing a drink with a waitress at a club he’s working is a circuitous, but entertaining one. All it costs him is a busted nose and $5k a month for the rest of his life!
C.K. is on point in “Model”, from Louie’s hilariously horrible standup in the Hamptons to his disbelief and eventual relaxation with Blake to his dazed, but happy befuddlement at the end of the episode. His physicality, perfectly placed and sized bandage, and glazed over expression in these final moments are particularly impressive and memorable. It’ll be interesting to see if Louie’s impossible financial burden is mentioned again or if this is an element that will remain a one-off. Louie’s creative approach to continuity is one of its strengths, and while it’d be wonderful to see Victor Garber pop back in at some point, C.K. could just as easily never mention Blake or this incident again.
Yvonne Strahovski is vivacious, funny, and completely at ease in “Model”. More than most of Louie’s bit players, Blake’s story begins and finishes offscreen. She’s a fully developed character and we’re seeing only one small piece of her arc. Blake is reminiscent of Liz (Parker Posey’s memorable character from season three) and though we wind up spending far less time with her, Strahovski’s performance promises just as interesting an interaction, until the episode takes a left turn at tickling.
The latest in Louie’s line of guest superstars (as compared to those who are hilarious and famous in comedy circles, but under-known to non-comedy fan audiences) is Jerry Seinfeld, who drops in to mostly demonstrate how uncomfortable a fit Louie is with the Hamptons crowd. His skepticism of Louie’s basic competence is great (and well-founded, apparently), as is his inquiry to Louie on working clean: “Can you not curse? Can you not say dirty sex poop dogs… having sex… vagina dirt?” Seinfeld gives his moments the right blend of disappointment, exasperation, and exhaustion, while still remaining absolutely relatable, and it’s neat to see Seinfeld however briefly at the mic, tying Louie in with that certain other all-time classic comedy series to prominently feature standup as episodic bookends.
Both “Back” and “Model” prominently feature another of Louie’s best assets- the music by Matt Kilmer and SweetPro. From the premiere’s opening standup, underscored by jazzy solo saxophone, to the garbage men sequence, with its upbeat combo sound, to the second episode’s relaxing French bossa nova throughline, Kilmer continues his fantastic work on the series, complimenting Louie’s easy feel while leaving plenty of space for C.K. to play with. It’s a partnership that got stronger throughout season three and it’s great to see this element back in fine form for season four. If Louie is as consistent this season as it’s been in the past, and these two episodes are an indication of where it’s headed, TV fans are in for another amazing, refreshing season of comedy.