“I don’t know how to live a life anymore,” a weary-looking Louie is saying to his therapist, “and it’s scary. Because I’m not that great anymore at coming up with a reason to keep trying.” It’s the setup of the first four episodes of season five of FX’s “Louie,” that Louie is depressed, lonely, and feeling even more like a lost boy than usual.
As he airs his darkest existential sorrows in a burst of catharsis, the therapist’s eyes get heavy and then heavier, his eyeballs go loose in their sockets, he falls . . . asleep.
It’s a great joke, the kind that recalls the many links that have been made between Louis C.K. and Woody Allen. But the gag is broader than a lot of what really counts on “Louie,” which returns in terrific form on Thursday at 10:30 p.m. On “Louie,” the mundane is the meat of the matter.
This is a show that has taken the comedic rhythms of TV to a different level, that moves at the slower, more intimate pace of an independent film. It’s less about making jokes and more about the sad, routine life that leads a passive bear of a man to find a respite in making jokes. As we watch Louie trudge through his mostly joyless days, trapped by his own docility, ducking at what New York City — the capital of randomness — has to throw at him, we see what drives him onto the stand-up comedy stage, that place where we watch him triumph for a few minutes every week.
The first episode is classic “Louie,” in that it ends in a place — an awkward and strangely Freudian place — that you could never have seen coming. The half-hour is a kind of miniature Joycean journey through a day of disconnection and crisis, with Louie wandering through a series of painfully awkward travails on his way to and after he leaves a school potluck dinner for parents. Ultimately, the episode builds to a few powerful and unexpected scenes — one of them set to the sound of Louie peeing in the bathroom, most of them set to the evocatively brittle banjo of a busker in the park.
As you watch, you can imagine Louie narrating the day he had onstage and making it funny; watching it unfold, though, isn’t. Likewise, in next week’s episode, Louie has to poop while at the market with his daughters. The three of them embark on a desperate search for a usable toilet, a much realer side of the “Seinfeld” New York. It sounds hysterical, and Louie could certainly make it funny onstage; but in the episode, it’s an utterly painful and demoralizing view of being human.
Fortunately, Pamela, Louie’s lover-friend-type-person (played with fantastic presence by Pamela Adlon), is back for a few episodes this season. She’s the active, passionate yin to Louie’s passive yang, and — like a number of the other women Louie has been involved with — she challenges him to come out of himself, to be more expressive, to, as she puts it, “make a case.” She always stirs things up. On a movie date, though, he and Pamela do a funny, subtle “Annie Hall” thing that gets darker and darker, as we see that Pamela, for all her bluster, is ultimately blinded by a fear of intimacy. As always, “Louie” is a dark comedy with the emphasis on dark.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.