Louie, Season 5, Episode 1: “Potluck”
Written by Louis C.K.
Directed by Louis C.K.
Airs Thursdays at 10:30pm ET on FX
If you’re one to approach art from any kind of structured analytical angle, trying to divine the thinking behind an episode or arc of Louie can be vexing. Sometimes, it develops themes over the course of an entire season; other times, C.K. is simply throwing ideas out to see what sticks. Sometimes it’s easy to mistake one of those occasions for the other thanks to an unforeseen bit of continuity, or the utter abandonment of it. The point is: when you’re talking about Louie, the usual sources of wisdom and commentary often don’t apply.
The reason for this preamble is that, having seen the first four episodes of Season 5, I really have no idea what inspired C.K. to write “Potluck,” what its thematic purpose is in the greater scheme of the show or the season, or (in particular) what possessed him to make it the season premiere. The likeliest answer: he thought it’d be funny. C.K. has spoken about how he intended for this season to be lighter and more openly comedic than season four, the series’ heaviest to date. “Potluck” is an episode out of time – it could have appeared in any season. There’s no Pamela and no daughters, the intro is intact, there’s standup material, and segments appear with no clear relation to one another. “Potluck” is pared-down enough to be a second pilot, possibly moreso than any episode in three full seasons; overthinking that decision is probably unwise and uncalled for.
Really, the wavering on this point is mostly here because “Potluck” simply isn’t that great of a Louie episode. It has laughs, and Louie being thoroughly debased, and some typically surreal tangents, but none of them really connects to the other to make for a coherent (or compellingly disjointed) half-hour. The episode (and the season) opens with a standup bit about no longer being interested in the mysteries held by the cosmos, including the possibility of alien life, which Louie thinks we shouldn’t be going in search of, as they’ll likely make Earth “the South America planet to their America planet.” It’s a sharp bit, one which taps into C.K.’s richest vein of standup: making a mockery of arrogance and stunted thinking.
That specificity of perspective is missing from the rest of “Potluck,” which is mostly just a fitfully amusing lark. Louie, following a shrink’s visit in which he discovers that his depression is boring, decides he should be more proactive in life, calling up a fellow parent to join in on the informal school potluck. En route, he fries up some chicken (in a meticulous sequence that, in its delicacy, actually counts as one of the episode’s best moments), before heading out for what he assumes will be a rare moment of social competency.
“Potluck” holds up through the following sequence, which finds Louie crashing a cult ceremony when he walks into the wrong apartment. Things seem normal – if unusually warm – at first, until the party’s charismatic host begins to prompt the partygoers on the “first,” “second,” and “fourth” questions of existence (the third is never mentioned!) before prompting Louie for the fifth. As he’s quietly ejected from the gathering, the host can only add, repeatedly: “forgive yourself.” That three or four minutes crams in so many evocative, tiny notes typical of on-point Louie: awkwardness, warmth, confusion, surreality, and, finally, as Louie realizes he’s not going to get that beautiful plate of fried chicken back, resignation.
Unfortunately, the episode more or less nosedives when Louie finds the “right” apartment. He’s immediately greeted by the host (Judy Gold) as an unwelcome intruder in all but name, and his new, KFC-aided offering is taken with disgust. Immediately, we’re thrust into the least interesting of Louie’s pet scenarios: Louie as the sane man in an ocean of insanity. Louie works best when Louie is legitimately challenged in some way, and the party is so stacked with irritating, heightened caricatures that he can’t help but seem reasonable. This is followed up almost immediately by another tired Louie theme, that of Louie hooking up with a younger, attractive woman (Celia Keenan-Bolger) thanks to extraordinary circumstances. Admittedly, this formula has allowed for some incredible episodes (especially season four standout “Model”), but “Potluck”’s variant – Julianne, the woman in question, is a nine-months-pregnant surrogate – isn’t compelling enough to make this portion of the episode feel distinct, despite the presence of yet another impressive long take. Even the predictably gross punchline – Julianne’s water breaks just as…you get it – feels like a limp retread of the climax of season two’s “Pregnant.”
Despite some great moments, “Potluck” is a strange, miscalculated misfire. That said, all three of the other episodes sent to critics are superior, and there will be much to discuss. Much.
Welcome to season five coverage of Louie. I previously wrote many words about season three, but I was in the wilderness while it aired last year, during which time the excellent Kate Kulzick and Randy Dankievitch took the reins. It’s good to be back.
The first, second, and fourth questions of existence: “Why are we here?” “Where do we come from?” “When will we know?”
While the actual potluck sequence is weak, I did laugh at Judy Gold’s reading of the quintessentially CK-sih line “We got sperm from our friend at work who’s gay and who died.”
Supporting players on Louie have a tendency to be everywhere shortly afterwards – half of the audience must be made up of NYC casting directors – so expect to see more of Celia Keenan-Bolger, who acquits herself well despite the ludicrous writing.
Seriously, season five. If you remember what it was like to watch the first episodes of the series, you may realize how insane this is. Bless FX for their foolhardiness.
Next week’s (quite good) episode introduces a theme that I expect will define the season, and brings back some key players.