Four episodes of the fifth season of “Louie” were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
The fourth season of Louie, which aired last spring, should have been a shoo-in for the top Emmy; however, it may have been a more appropriate winner for drama series than comedy. That collection of 14 episodes was wildly different from anything creator Louis C.K. had ever attempted on his FX sitcom, which was already wildly different from any other scripted comedy on television. With episodes making brutally honest observations about teenage drug use, sexual assault and plus-sized people, Louie experimented with subject matter and style each week. It was both the most indulgent and most intelligent that the show had ever been, with several benchmarks of unflinching, bruised humor (such as “In the Woods,” his 70-minute opus) that C.K. may never touch again.
Where season four was audacious, season five – returning for a shorter, eight episode block in April and May – looks more like the FX comedy in its early run. The tuneful title sequence is back, as is the elliptical storytelling. Despite its more modest goals, the comedy remains pointed and potent. The pain that permeated through the last two seasons, as Louie dealt with the struggles of raising teen girls and dating a collection of volatile women, is still there. But instead of sprawling outward in scope, C.K. moves inward, keeping the stories moving nimbly while focusing on matters like the generational gap and the protagonist’s continued disconnect to the people in his life.
“Potluck,” the first of four episodes screened for critics, begins with C.K. on the Comedy Cellar stage, talking about his lack of curiosity about intelligent life in the universe. (The camera holds on him for much of this set, continuing with the series’ fly-on-the-wall approach that often feels more like theater or documentary than a sitcom.) He jokes about the improbability of landing on a planet populated by one friendly alien. That joke registers over the four episodes, as the protagonist becomes that alien in a variety of circumstances and situations.
At the last minute, Louie decides to attend a potluck with some of the parents from his daughters’ school, but he has a hard time fitting in with the intimate conversations. When he has to attend his uncle’s wake, Louie is taken aback by how nobody in his family thought of telling him about the death. He is an island of sexual frustration and bristling anger, and to the show’s benefit, C.K.’s writing never shies away from moments that expose the character’s discomfort and annoyance with others.
Louie is still as stubborn as ever. In one of the most suspenseful sequences in the show’s history, Louie’s refusal to use a public restroom as he grocery shops clashes with his need to go to the bathroom. Daughters Lilly (Hadley Delany) and Jane (Ursula Parker) – who only seldom appear in these episodes – realize his woe and try to motivate him during a prolonged walk back to their apartment. (His clenching up in the city streets is some of C.K.’s best work doing physical comedy in recent memory.) Similar to his stilted scenes with a doctor played by Charles Grodin last season, Louie is still having trouble adjusting to middle age.
As a divorced New Yorker raising two daughters, Louie has grappled with fatigue and intimacy issues for much of the series’ run. In these four episodes, there is a special focus on his thorny relationships with the women in his life. On again, off again girlfriend Pamela gives him some acerbic criticism about his foibles as a boyfriend in the second episode. When he suggests they move in together, she shoves that idea aside. “Do all roads have to lead to ruin?” she asks, before explaining that living in the same apartment will only push them further apart. “Can’t we just be ‘a la carte?’”