I just finished the first season of "Louie," the FX series written, directed, and starring the acerbic New York comedian Louis C.K. It's been a critical favorite and it's not hard to see why. The show is unique in a lot of ways. Louis C.K. is the sole writer and director, who was given complete creative control in exchange for a relatively miniscule production budget of $200,000 per episode. Each installment gives a glimpse into the life of a fictionalized version of Louis C.K., a recently divorced forty-two year-old father who shares custody of two little girls, eight and four, with an ex-wife who never appears onscreen. He's a successful comedian and a good father, but well past his prime. Ongoing problems include trying to re-enter the dating scene after over a decade of marriage, and reconciling himself with the realities of middle-age.
Episodes are made up of one or two free-form vignettes, mostly mundane, day-to-day activities, which are bookended by short segments of Louie's stand-up performances. Some of my favorites include an encounter with a donut shop bully, Louie's misguided attempts to woo a checkout girl, and a confrontation with a heckler. Plots are uncomplicated, sometimes almost a stream-of-consciousness ramble that can quickly lead in unexpected directions, much like Louie's comedic rants. At this point, I should warn anyone unfamiliar with Louis C.K. that his humor is loud, rude, bawdy, and can get offensive. He'll start a set talking about parenting troubles, and segue into prostitution jokes at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, he's also smart, insightful, and very, very funny. And once you get to know his screen persona, one suspects that he's actually a very decent human being.
Some similarities to "Seinfeld" should be acknowledged, but "Louie" presents a far starker reality than just about anything else I've seen in a half-hour comedy. It uses a very raw, heightened cinema verite style, that is heavy on the drab grays and browns. This doesn't even vary in Louie's flashbacks and dream sequences. But though the visuals are unpolished, they fit the tone of the show. Characters swear and talk frankly about their sex lives. Hot-button topics like drug use, homophobia, and religion come up now and then, and are handled with just as much reverence as Louie thinks they deserve, which in some cases isn't a whole lot. Louie himself is balding, out of shape, prone to myriad vices, and all too aware of his inadequacies. He puts himself on display for the audience with startling honesty, so while he isn't a particularly compelling figure, he's an awfully relatable one.
You don't realize how much rigid structure and formulaic padding there is in a regular sitcom until you see something like "Louie," which gets rid of all the extraneous business immediately. There are locations, but no sets. There are a few recurring characters, but you really couldn't really call them a cast. Some of these include Louie's brother Robbie (Robert Kelly), Pamela, a single mother who Louie pairs up with for playdates (Pamela Adlon), Louie's therapist (David Patrick Kelly), and Dr. Nick (Ricky Gervais), a crass MD who makes Dr. House look milquetoast. Louie's daughters are played by different young actresses from episode to episode. The only constant is the presence and personality of Louis C.K., driving stories that are fiercely personal, and feature a very subjective worldview.
And not everyone could make that work. The low budget, limited concept, and having so much of the production dependent on a single person could have lead to disaster with a less talented lead. However, Louis C.K. proves he's up to the task, and the show gets better episode after episode, especially as he gets more comfortable with the format and starts to experiment. One of the season's best gags, that happens roughly halfway through the season, involves a bleary Louie in a coffee shop after a night smoking marijuana. Everyone around him is speaking gibberish, he has to order his coffee by miming, and patrons crowd against him menacingly as he tries to stumble to the door. It was one of those wonderful, absurd moments that served as a good reminder that though "Louie" might look like a documentary, the stories are heavily stylized, and most of the characters are caricatures. They're just not caricatured in the way that you usually see on American television.
And that makes me think that after "Louie," which I don't want to end anytime soon, Louis C.K. has the potential to do a heluvah lot more.