The brilliant comedy series “Louie,” by Louis C.K., will be returning to American television (and to Israeli television on the Yes Oh cable channel) on May 5, after a 19-month break. This is happy news not just for viewers, but also for the state of American television.
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Louis C.K. (real name Louis Szekely), the star, director and screenwriter of the series, gave the show a particularly long break in the autumn of 2012. He said he needed some fresh air and a time-out to make him hungry to come back. He had been feeling stifled because of the timetable of the series’s first three seasons.
During the break, for the first time in the series, he wrote all the episodes before beginning the filming. This gave him time for polishing and space to fulfill his aspirations, as he said at an American television festival several months ago. Anyone who has watched the first three seasons of this ambitious, innovative series that moves between moments that are wistful and those that are fairly gross, between scenes that are brilliant and scenes that are bizarre, can only imagine what an even more tightly prepared season will be like.
Louis C.K. says the new season will contain more multi-episode stories as well as more short takes, more outright funny pieces along with more of the kind that he says give him a bellyache. There will also be a bonus episode, since the FX channel asked him to come back with 13 episodes for the new season, like in the previous seasons, and he came back with 14.
But Louis did not disappear completely during his break. He offered his first film, “Tomorrow Night,” which debuted at the 1998 Sundance Festival, on his website; it costs $5 to download. He also met up with Jerry Seinfeld on the latter’s Internet series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” and appeared as a guest on Conan O’Brien’s show. He showed up in the films “American Hustle” and “Blue Jasmine,” and wrote a series pilot for the FX channel together with Zach Galifianakis. He guest hosted on “Saturday Night Live” and will be appearing there again (on March 29 in U.S. broadcasts, and on April 12 on Yes Comedy in Israel).
But his series “Louie,” which begins with Louis C.K. climbing the steps from a subway station as the song “Brother Louie” plays, was greatly missed. “Louie” is a rare combination of rollicking comedy, surprising drama, moments that cause viewers real discomfort, and the personality of its creator — a stand-up comic, director, screenwriter and actor who is open and up-front, uninhibited, clever and original, big-hearted and with a moral compass he is unashamed of. Like Lenny Bruce in his day, Louis C.K. is more than a funnyman; he is a kind of philosopher.
One of a kind
In the current television landscape, and particularly in the area considered less commercial, “Louie” is one of a kind.
In the field of quality drama, almost all the protagonists are flawed and corrupt — the Machiavellian Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) from “House of Cards,” Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) in “True Detective,” Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from “Breaking Bad,” Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) in “Boardwalk Empire,” and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in “Mad Men.”
Not even comedies these days are free of negative characters. Unlike the dramas mentioned above, they have no murders, but they sometimes arouse less sympathy than the dramas do. A prominent example is Lena Dunham’s HBO series, “Girls,” whose third season concludes next week. To a lesser extent, anti-heroes also appear in comedies such as “Looking,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “V.I.P.” and “Eastbound and Down.”
“Louie” exceeds them all in sensitivity, and perhaps it succeeds because it camouflages that quality very well in stories on topics such as bathtubs of diarrhea. It has tough moments that portray relationships gone wrong, unfulfilled hopes, dysfunctional family relationships and quite a few homeless people that he keeps his eye on. He is far from living in an ideal world, and does not sugar-coat reality; he even makes it hyper-ugly.
The demand to prettify life, after all, is one of the reasons he hated his previous series, “Lucky Louie,” a sitcom that ran on HBO in 2006 and 2007. As in his stand-up shows, Louis C.K. in “Louie” talks a great deal about masturbation, simulates it and preaches it — but the secret of his charm is that his pre-occupations go beyond just himself.