“Louie” isn’t really a sitcom so much as a collection of half-hour-long short films. Many of the episodes could easily stand on their own, personal slices of life with a Woody Allen bent. Like literary short stories, they are crafted, focused, microcosmic, and evocative.
“Picture Paris,” a short film starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and written and directed by her husband, Brad Hall, has a similar feel to it. The half-hour piece has a single story line that is told simply and with artful compression, and with a twist or two that recall O. Henry. I’m not sure it would have landed on HBO, where it airs Monday at 9 p.m., if Louis-Dreyfus weren’t starring in the channel’s “Veep”; but the presence on TV of this kind of eccentric format, like the presence of “Louie,” is a welcome expansion of TV’s conventions. Film shorts, like short stories, are less marketable than full-length material, but they can be truly satisfying.
Is “Picture Paris” satisfying? Almost. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I can’t explain why Hall’s ending is largely unsuccessful. But until the final moments of “Picture Paris,” I was enjoying the bittersweet but comic tone, the French scenery, and, most of all, Louis-Dreyfus. She plays a suburban housewife, Ellen, whose son is about to go off to college. To calm her empty nest anxieties, she has been fantasizing obsessively about a trip to Paris with her husband (D.W. Moffett), studying the language, and taking French cooking classes.
Once the story shifts to Paris, we see Ellen sipping coffee in cafes and breezing through the quaint, romantic streets, as if she’s in a travel promo or one of those charming little French films. It’s picture perfect. “Picture Paris,” by the way, is narrated in French, adding to the dreaminess of Ellen’s journey.
Gradually, we learn that Ellen may be a more complex character than she seemed at first. The film is about transitioning from one chapter in your life to another, and those transitions don’t always go as planned. Watching Louis-Dreyfus play out Ellen’s transitional adventure is the central attraction of “Picture Paris.” She’s humorous when she needs to be, but only very slightly. She uses none of the more exaggerated facial tells that have made her shine in all of her TV series, including “Watching Ellie,” which Hall also created and wrote, and “Veep,” which is one of TV’s more promising new comedies. I’m not sure whether or not Louis-Dreyfus could play straight-up drama, but she is gifted enough to bring a poignant touch to what is otherwise a light-hearted outing.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew