Louie: “The Road Part 2”

TV Reviews
Louie: “The Road Part 2”

There are sitcoms that just want to make you laugh, there are sitcoms that seek meaning through the addition of emotions like sadness and anger, and then there are sitcoms that seek those depths with a studied absurdity that slowly transforms into sincerity—and then back again. Louie belongs to that third category, but let’s go a step further: The category exists because of Louie. Nobody else is doing it.

There’s a famous quote from Vladimir Nabokov that I’m going to paraphrase—”true artistic genius has only itself to imitate.” That was the writer’s defense when critics complained that his books followed the same well-trodden paths, and if say that episodes of Louie can be formulaic, his fans might use the same line. And in fact, I agree, and count myself among them—when you’re doing something as unique as Louis C.K., a common style that runs throughout each episode is not a real problem. To use a cliche comparison, nobody complains that all rainbows look alike—seeing one is a rare and happy experience, so we don’t moan when the colors come in the same order. In the same way, it would be moronic to complain about a thematic similarities in Louie—the show is so undeniably different that its internal common threads don’t subtract an ounce of impact.

If there is a formula for Louie, it would go like this: Disasters ranging from annoying to semi-tragic befall our hero, and they’re always tinged with an inhumanity that becomes absurd. Our hero struggles gamely in the face of a seemingly uncaring world, sighs, over-acts just the slightest bit, and presses onward despite a lack of hope. Just at the moment when he’s about to crack, an unlikely character delivers a big speech with a lesson that is emphatically delivered, but simple at its core. Our hero understands, is somewhat renewed, and immediately subjects himself to the pain of being human, with results that are never redemptive, but still somewhat reassuring—the juice of living is worth the squeeze of existence, even if we can’t quite explain why.

There are exceptions, of course. Season four’s two-part return to Louie’s childhood, featuring Jeremy Renner, was as sincere as it was spectacular. For the most part, though, the formula holds, and by that standard, last night’s season five finale, “The Road Part 2,” was fairly ordinary. But if Louis CK has succeeded in inventing a formula that never becomes redundant, how do we judge his work? The answer, I think, is within the formula—how profound are the lessons, how effective are the performances, how pointed are the absurdities?

In this case, I think the answer to each is: Not very. The episode begins with Louie arriving in Oklahoma City, where the daughter of the club owner picks him up. She’s a vapid, texting-while-driving type, and casually racist—she warns Louie against the city’s downtown, since there are too many “sickies,” which, in her universe, is a derogatory term for Mexicans. Next, he meets his condo-mate and opening act, Kenny (Jim Florentine), who wants to drink whiskey with him at 11 am in the morning. They don’t get along, and the situation grows worse when Kenny kills at the club with humor that barely rises to the level of sophomoric, while Louie’s sad-sack “I’m old and depressed” material goes over with a whimper.

The tension between the two ratchets up to a critical point, and reaches a climax with an aggressive confrontation in the condo living room—Kenny says Louie is a bore, Louie says Kenny is a hack. Louie realizes there’s some truth to the idea that his life has gone off track because he’s taken comedy too seriously as an “art,” and they get drunk and puke and behave like idiots until—absurdity returning alert!—Kenny cracks open his head while trying to take an “upper-decker.” As long-time Louie fans would guess, his death is announced with total nonchalance by a doctor who could not care any less about the fate of the patient or the feelings of those who are waiting to hear his fate.

It’s always been possible to see this show as Louis CK’s treatise on life as it might have been had he made a few bad decisions along the way—the tentative, much-abused Louie is different from the confident, assertive real-life CK. It’s almost like he’s teaching himself lessons with every episode, but the “himself” is an altered, less fortunate version. So, what was the lesson this time? It’s best summed up by a line Kenny delivers after their argument:

“It’s about being funny and having fun and being outrageous…you go out there and act like a big asshole…it’s not an art, stupid, it’s a bar trick…you gotta get outta your head, man. The funny is in your ass.”

This comes just after Louie breaks down crying because he realizes he’s lost the magic of something as simple as laughing at farts. But for whatever reason—the shallowness of the moral, maybe—it doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as the show’s greatest episodes. In truth, it’s not even close. When you think back to the Charles Grodin monologue about heartbreak, or the deep hurt of the Pamela episodes in season two, or the intense identification many of us felt when he tracked a bully back to his parents’ home in season one, there’s no comparison. That was groundbreaking television, while this is just “interesting.”

For such a novel show, it almost feels ungrateful to bash one episode that happened to fall flat. Of course, it won’t help that the rough ending came in a short season already plagued by dismal ratings—CK’s absolute dedication to the art of this show has always preserved quality at the expense of viewership, and the profit to FX has always come in prestige. But truth is truth—this was a lackluster finale, and the formula became formulaic. If it’s true that artistic genius can only imitate itself, Louie will be constantly compelled to match its own high standard. In this case, it was a pale imitation at best.

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