Monday, June 20, 2011

On DVD: "Louie: The Complete First Season"

In July of 2009, comic Louis C.K. summoned a handful of Twitter followers to the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village to act as extras in a pilot for FX. While his crew set up, he explained that the show would intercut stand-up scenes—like the ones they were shooting that day—with vignettes of a character based on himself. A fan asked what the title of the show would be. Across the room, another one shouted, “Seinfeld!”

There were scattered, nervous laughs. C.K. bristled a bit, then smiled. “Hey, I should be so lucky,” he said, and the shoot continued.

When the show premiered just under a year later, it soon became clear that the fan’s comment—which seemed a good guess based on the information at hand—was wildly off the mark. Unlike Seinfeld, a traditional three-camera comedy (complete with big-laughing studio audience) that tied its stand-up segments and multiple plotlines together into tight, sometimes credibility-stretching packages, Louie is a foul-mouthed single-camera slice-of-life that seems patently disinterested in narrative precision. But beneath its shambling, loose exterior lurks trenchant, often piercing social commentary. Quietly, on basic cable, Louis C.K. is mounting what may very well be the most subversive comedy on television.

Louie is far from the first attempt to raze the sitcom tradition. In the late 1980s, when The Cosby Show was king, both Married… With Children and Roseanne debuted with ad copy labeling them as anti-Cosbys; early in its run, The Simpsons moved to Thursdays at 8 in a direct face-off withthe Huxtables. But some controversial content aside, those shows were still traditional sitcoms: family of stock characters, A/B/C plotline structure, standard set-up/punch-line joke construction. The same could be said of C.K.’s first television showcase, the HBO sitcom Lucky Louie, which ran for a single season in 2006. Shot with three cameras in front of a live studio audience, it had a familiar style but no boundaries on language or content. Trouble was, the frank language and focus on the intricacies of sex serviced fairly generic sitcom plotlines. With Lucky Louie, Louis C.K. had all the words he wanted, but nothing new to say.

That’s not the case with Louie, where the rough language and spiky content feel organic with the show’s low-fi aesthetic. Louie writes and directs every episode; shooting in small nightclubs and on New York streets with a RED camera and a very small crew, he looks like he could just be another (admittedly older) NYU film school student, throwing a short film together guerilla-style in the Village.

That scrappy aesthetic spills over into the messiness at the heart of Louie. Unlike Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, Louie doesn’t tell much of a story from week to week; it doesn’t tie its plotlines together, doesn’t accumulate scenes in the march towards inevitable pay-offs. His dialogue is more awkward character moments than “jokes,” but without the gentleness of shows that traffic in that style (like The Office or Parks and Recreation). C.K. pushes his scenes further and holds them longer. They can turn serious and hurtful on a dime, and he doesn’t let the audience off the hook with an easy exit.

Take, as an example, the show’s sixth episode, “Heckler/Cop Movie.” As per normal, the episode begins with Louis on stage, doing his act, but he is soon distracted by a chatty woman, talking loudly at a table near the stage; the scene slowly degenerates into a rather ugly back-and-forth. But then, atypical of most television comedies, he goes a step further, showing us the testy off-stage confrontation that follows. The scene is tense and believable—the stakes are real and there’s genuine drama there, without the red flags (sad music, overwrought dialogue) that usually signal a “dramatic scene” in a sitcom. And then, somehow, he pulls one more laugh out of the scene, when fellow comic Todd Barry admonishes him for going too far with the admittedly beautiful woman: “You had a shot, up until that last thing. You coulda turned it around.”

And then, poof, she’s gone. The second half of the episode goes in an entirely different direction, with a new plot that finds Louie miscast in a small film role. What separates Louie from just about any other sitcom imaginable is that it just lets that first half go. There isn’t some crazy, unexpected tie-up twist; the pretty heckler doesn’t turn out to be, say, the wardrobe mistress on the film set. Nope, the incident with her was just a thing that happened, and then something else happened after that; the episode doesn’t fold up into a neat thematic box. It sounds like messy, lazy storytelling, but C.K.’s personality-driven writing and precise direction give the show its snap; it’s as if he’s rewriting the rules, or that the old ones no longer apply.

A refusal to be roped in by the tidiness of the form is part of C.K.’s comic DNA. In a 2006 Fresh Air interview, he remembered the Norman Lear sitcoms he grew up watching as “these raw theatrical productions…where you just feel this kind of kinetic energy of the honesty. That’s what I thought sitcoms were supposed to be, so when they became this trading of Harvard-written writerly lines and cuteness, I stopped being interested.”

His television influences are even clearer in the show’s naturalistic approach to social issues, which are addressed on Louie with a directness and honesty seldom seen (in sitcoms, anyway) since Lear’s time. Take the second episode, which begins with a long scene of Louie and his stand-up buddies playing poker and talking trash. But one of the guys is gay, and the scene subtly shifts into a frank discussion of the mechanics of gay sex, and a candid examination of casual homophobia. It doesn’t feel like some kind of “very special” episode about the gays; it feels like exactly how these guys might talk about this stuff.

In the ninth episode, “Bully,” Louie’s moderately successful date is ruined by the humiliating (and humiliatingly real) intimidation of a young tough guy; he ends up following the punk all the way home to rat him out to his parents. We’ve been conditioned by sitcoms to expect a wacky turn of events—the kid turns it so Louie looks like the bully, or the dad threatens to beat him up on behalf of his son, etc. What happens is what would probably happen in real life: the father smacks the son (hard) and screams at him, prompting Louie to wince and yell at the dad. But then the father follows Louie out the door, and they share a smoke and talk, plainly, about being parents. It sounds maudlin and easy, like Lessons Being Learned. But it’s almost uncomfortable to watch—like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation that’s painfully personal and private. And along the personal/private lines, there is the “God” episode, an extended flashback to Louie’s youth that becomes a mediation on religion, discipline, and authority; mostly played straight (and, when played for laughs, for very dark ones), it is an audacious and daring piece of television storytelling.

The first season’s most remarkable episode, at least from a socio-political point of view, is “Dr. Ben/Nick.” The second half of the show (unconnected, as usual, to the first) concerns his relationship with conservative comedian Nick DiPaolo. After DiPaolo bombs with some anti-Obama material, the two get into a heated argument that turns into a chaotic, awkward, unchoreographed fistfight. But the next scene is when it gets really interesting; as they sit in the hospital waiting room, they half-heartedly joke their way past the incident and end up talking about their marriages (Louie’s is over, Nick’s is in trouble). “You can have both of those conversations with a human being,” C.K. explained to Terry Gross, shortly after the episode aired—i.e., you can fiercely argue politics while respecting and identifying with personal struggles. And though he would never come right out and say it, the episode becomes a kind of broad illustration of our current political discourse—the extremes from which we’re communicating (or not communicating), and the shared experiences that we’re forgetting about.

To some, Louie may not seem all that special—it’s yet another stand-up comedian’s sitcom, funny little scenes and pieces of his act. To argue that the show is subversive because it adopts a verité style, discards the formulas of traditional television script writing, and occasionally wades into more thoughtful waters than its peers might strike some as weak sauce. But in a television landscape populated by the likes of Two and a Half Men, House of Payne, Outsourced and $h*! My Dad Says, a show like Louie is downright revolutionary.

"Louie: The Complete First Season" hits DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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