Back for its fourth season, “Louie” continues to be TV’s finest oddity.
The FX series — created, written, produced, and directed by its star, Louis C.K. — doesn’t easily fit into any single category or genre. It’s a refreshingly indescribable piece of TV that dips into observational stand-up, lingers in pathos, touches on tragedy, specializes in uncomfortable truth-telling, dissects gender politics, dabbles in life’s “Seinfeld”-like coincidences, reaches toward philosophical statement, plumbs despair, and adds in a few laugh-out-loud masturbation jokes for good measure. It’s a unique compound of very different elements.
Each episode of the show, which returns on Monday at 10, seems to adhere to a slightly different tone and format. You might get a string of loosely linked comic vignettes, or a quietly sustained half-hour-long narrative, or a farce with surrealistic interludes. You’re put in a position that has become much too rare for entertainment audiences, who are deluged with advance press and trailers that spell out every plot turn; you have almost no idea what “Louie” is going to deliver from week to week. It surprises at every turn.
Not that the show feels random or disjointed. All the varying forms that “Louie” takes are united by C.K.’s sensibility as an insecure, lonely, divorced middle-aged comic with two young daughters. Onstage, he has extroverted catharses and moments of brilliance. But between those performances he’s a far more vulnerable and dejected guy, suffering through friendships with unpleasant comedians, getting pushed into assisting an elderly neighbor he’d rather ignore, helping his daughter recover from a bad dream only to submit to a nightmare of his own.
The show is also unified by New York; “Louie” gives us one of TV’s most authentic and atmospheric portraits of the city. There are many things about the show that feel as if they’re out of an indie movie, not least of all the late-night and early-morning shots of Manhattan. Rather than the slick, glossy cities that appear in most TV comedies, “Louie” gives us a moody, lonely, mysterious, and sometimes amusing place where bleary comedians crawl out of their holes for late-night sets.
The first of two episodes on Monday — FX is running two per week all season — is a prolonged and somewhat formless musing on life’s small displeasures, including Louie’s bad back, his visit to a crass doctor (played by Charles Grodin), and the street noise that invades his apartment in the morning. It’s a small slice of life that is slowly paced, shapeless, mundane, and yet riveting. C.K. is teasing out the truth of his mid-episode observation that life isn’t short, as people are wont to say; life is long, as we face countless indignities daily. The episode isn’t exactly grim; C.K. always delivers a few funny and ironic twists. But it’s thoroughly downbeat. The second episode continues with the theme of indignity, but — as Louie gets swept off his feet by a wealthy beauty played by Yvonne Strahovski — the action speeds up and, in a sense, crashes. The slow grow of the first half-hour sets up the velocity of the second.
FX sent out four episodes for review, and the third, airing next week, is one of C.K.’s best efforts, along the lines of his episodes last season with Parker Posey and Melissa Leo. Called “So Did the Fat Lady,” the episode is about a comedy-club waitress played by Sarah Baker who asks Louie out on a date. She’s funny, and they click, but Louie doesn’t accept her offer because, we assume, she is overweight. From there, as always on “Louie,” the script goes to a place you don’t expect, and it leaves questions and an opportunity for reflection in its wake, not least of all about the difference between being an overweight man versus an overweight woman.
“So Did the Fat Lady” also features Louie and a friend doing what they call a “bang bang” — going for two big restaurant meals in a row. It sounds like an opportunity for jokes, but C.K. portrays their splurge in a much more somber and provocative way. You feel the joylessness of the project; you can see them stuffing their feelings. “Louie” isn’t the only “comedy” to do drama; “Nurse Jackie” and “Girls” also take some very dark turns. But “Louie” musters a finely tuned bleakness and anguish that is all its own. The show invites us to ponder the pains of aging, the inevitability of death, the strains of romance, the terror of parenthood, and, ultimately, amid all the fear and dread, the essential value of laughter.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.