Monthly Archives: August 2012

Daddies

Dear, dear TV,

I would apologize for being so very late on my response to Lili’s wonderful recaps (three episodes!), but it would mean repeating a narrative we’re all familiar with. Belated apologies, nonetheless: Louie’s and mine (but mostly mine).

Apologies are difficult. As Louie shows in “IKEA/Piano Lessons,” they’re often best repressed to the point of being forgotten. When Maron explains to Louie that they’ve already had this conversation five years ago, Louie comes off even more the jackass. Does he have to apologize for having forgotten to apologize now too? Does it matter since the sincerity behind all Louie’s apologizes has now plummeted to hover right above zero? If Louie’s initial apology to Maron comes from not realizing that they fell out over an issue entirely Louie’s fault, then how much are we urged to believe that all of Louie’s estrangements are founded on an ability to blame the other (so as to obliterate his own guilt)? It does begin to seem that all relationships—all scenarios—in Louie could go either way: “fuck you, or sorry.”

As Lili writes, “Everything that’s wrong is everyone’s fault, probably, but the point is something else.” The pointed finger also often falls somewhere else, until (as shown in the final scene of “IKEA/Piano Lessons”) it returns directed at one’s own chest. And again, and on, and on.

While many note the elements of surprise and off-model counterintuitiveness that energize Louie, the show often feels to me like a continuous circle—or at least a spiral. There is a kind of balance to the episodes—and I don’t just mean in how the frequently dash-split titles weigh one premise exactly against another. No matter what, we always return to Louie—and there is stability, predictability, and safety in that. As the show grows increasingly claustrophobic in its Louie-inflected dream sequences (“Dad”!), Lili suggested that Louie might be a tad insane. It’s true that the surrealness of some episodes might stretch our systems of realism and belief, but if we’re willing to buy into the fact that Louie’s world is, well, Louie’s, then any train of stolen vehicles also feels routine.

Much later, yes, let’s talk about Dad.

That title is great! It implies a dash without drawing a typographical one. There’s Louie as dad, opening the episode by castigating the virtuosic Jane for playing the violin. Then there’s Uncle Ex (a sort of surrogate dad to Louie), treating him to Cornish hens at an expensive restaurant Louie would otherwise probably not frequent. There’s, of course, the illusive literal dad (and figural Dad) of Louie’s, who we never see because son flaps like a young hen and chickens out just as dad’s shadow approaches the door.

Having two actual dads (Louie’s and then Louie himself) seems too much for one title, not to mention one scene. As Uncle Ex colourfully describes with a condom metaphor, the encounter at some point might just become too close: “Between the father and the son there can be no separation. No boundary. A father calls; A son answers. A father beckons; A son comes.” What happens, though, when the son becomes his own kind of father, as Louie so clearly is at the start of “Dad?

Moreover, what happens when you’re both dad and single dad, yet still someone’s son? The existential crisis was worked out beautifully right up until the hallucinated end (unlike Lili, I adored it—found it perfectly nonsensical in its flight from frantic sprint, to stolen motorcycle, and finally stolen boat; a fish out of Boston waters).  As single dad, Louie tells Jane to finish her homework (“Go to your room!”), and then picks up a pile of dirty laundry. This scene is followed by Louie arriving at an electronics store in a huff, interrupting a bro circle between four coworkers there, which leads me to my next point:

What are the resonances between infantilization and threatened masculinity? Problems of fatherhood (for father—and now for child) often mix with problems of masculinity in Louie. The show is fascinating in how it often swirls and blurs these two topics and positions. There can be no separation.

At the Russian Tea Room, Uncle Ex orders for Louie, who responds with an “Uh…O–K?” look on his face, a rather child-like response. Who was this grown man to be ordering for this other grown man? Except they are family, and such things are often difficult to change. “This is for Life Louie,” his uncle emphasizes, “for life.” In order to convince Louie to visit his father, he works on his nephew’s sentimental side, telling him how his father cries “like a woman.” Of course this line is said with mocking disparagement, for Uncle Ex likes to make clear the divide between genders. In illustrating Louie’s eternal bond to his father, he compares it against the condom-wall erected between men and women. Between the father and the son there can be no separation. In “Miami,” Ramon tells Louie: “When my uncle says all men are brothers, it’s true right?” An uncle can say that—but can a father?

But Uncle Ex isn’t Louie’s father, ultimately, and he won’t be there to clean up the vomit his words inspire. Louie throws up while playing poker with his all-but-one-male comedian cohort, though the one who responds with “Sweetie, are you okay?” is of course Sarah Silverman. (She cracks jokes during this boy’s club, making fun of another man’s childhood masturbatory habits, but she’s also the girl who’s just terrible at poker!) Like single dads and children, women and children can be conflated and then sorta equated.

Such are the jokes of sausage fests, but here–in the middle of one on porn–Louie vomits. And he just can’t seem to stop. A taste of his own medicine sends Louie to the doctor where he lists his recent diet: “Cornflakes, pizza, Cornish hen.” Sounds like he needs some taking care of. There’s also the question of moms, women, single fatherhood, masculinity, and children I’d like to explore especially in regard to “Lilly Changes.” Lili asks, “Why do all the moms at the school…only trust and confide in him?” Another question: “Why only moms at the school?”

Like an infant, Louie starts losing control of his body, and then gradually his mind. His car window suddenly bursts, but if we’re to follow Uncle Ex’s Freudian logic, there might be a broken mirror in there somewhere too.

“Be a man. You’re 44 years old. It’s your fault!” the car rental saleswoman shouts at him. Another woman’s voice comes across the car mapping device: “Why are you being such a little pussy about this? He’s your father. It’s not like he touched your dick or something.” Don’t be a pussy, Louie, and please don’t be a girl—but oh whatever you do, please leave another dude’s dick out of this. “Think about that you queer,” a muscular Boston man tells Louie after their cars bump one another. He’s had to do with a dead father, so why is Louie so nervous about visiting his own live one?

There are many vehicles in the world of Louie, and while some of them add to his masculinity (motorcyclesmotorcyclesmotorcycles), others take away (Laurie’s truck, or not wanting to strap his daughters’ seatbelts because that would mean getting his hands dirty). There’s a bus scene in the next episode that I want to linger on, since it feels off (Doesn’t Louie own a car? Did he really have it totaled then?), but I’ll leave that for the next post.

Again, SORRY,
Jane

“Dad”

Dear Phil, Jane, Evan,

I was out of the country for the last three episodes, and I’ve only just caught up with Louie. Three episodes at a gulp. It felt like a dram of intensely, specifically non-eerie surrealism. If there was ever a question as to whether Louie was moving toward the short story as a form, there isn’t one any longer. Parker Posey. Robin Williams. Sarah Silverman. Marc Maron. And now, F. Murray Abraham. The show is starting to feel like a comedian’s dreamscape—a way of living inside Louis CK’s subconscious. Comedy is becoming the claustrophobic ether in which the show swims—more so than New York, than fatherhood, than solitude, than sex.

In “IKEA / Piano Lesson,” comedians see each other’s younger avatars on TV and call each other in real time to watch the people they were and the result isn’t exactly (or only) friendship. It’s a weird meta-meditation on celebrity and career arcs and the strange fact that despite the intense ambient loneliness, they all belong to a “cohort”. It’s a small clutch of people, a tiny tight incestuous knot of folks who’ve made it, sort of, and who grok the journey they’ve all been on without being able to discuss it or just a grab a coffee. They give each other crabs and crap and call to say “fuck you, or sorry.”  Everything that’s wrong is everyone’s fault, probably, but the point is something else. It’s appearing together on the Retro Comedy Hour. Deeper than friendship, that is.

I loved that scene for its raw autobiographical frankness. Louis CK is never not generous when it comes to narrating his own experience: he’s talked openly about what it was like to watch the money come in from his Live at the Beacon Theater experiment. He’s described the high, and talked about what amount of money struck him as enough, and about how he knows this victory streak he’s on is going to end. This scene speaks to what it must be like to feel simultaneously like you’ve made it, but you’re also always already all washed up. You’ve left some important things behind. And even as you experience this epiphany, this life-changing revelation of loss and malfeasance, it turns out that you’ve already done it all. You’ve remembered that very loss, and your role in it, and apologized, but the pace of your own success has erased the entire human arc of anger and reconciliation from your memory, that’s how fucked up success has made you. And now you owe another apology that’s impossible to offer, just as Dolores “owes” you a blow job that it’s impossible to collect.

We’ve talked here about the ways in which Louie isn’t Louis CK, but I feel like one of the main pleasures Louie offers is indistinguishable from the pleasure of reading creative nonfiction. Yes, I find myself thinking, that’s exactly what it would be like.

So, let’s talk about Dad.

We start with two incidents, both equally uncanny. The first is the spectacle of tiny, headstrong, demanding, firecracker Jane playing a violin with real skill and unsuspected depths of feeling. The second is Louie’s first moment as a less-than-ideal dad, in which he shuts down this moving performance (from a character we’ve rarely seen so open, so engaged) with an anger that’s barely controlled. “This is bullshit,” he mutters after sending her to her room.

It’s bizarre. It’s as weird for us as viewers as it is for Louie when his car window spontaneously shatters in front of his father’s house. Louie as an angry, hurtful dad? We’re unmoored, we’re in the uncanny valley. There’s no standup afterwards to lighten the mood or explain (via a joke about how parents sometimes just lose it and treat their kids like crap and how that’s when you realize what a shithead you are and always have been and take steps: apologize, or buy your kid a pony, or sit in your room and picture dying alone, wondering what in the world to do to make any of it better) what that scene was all about. Like Louie’s dad-rash, this is an episode in which nothing gets narrated or processed. It’s Never in the tub: a huge flood of diarrhea while the person inside says, “Talk about what?”

So it’s an episode about bad fatherhood. It’s also an episode in which Louie is actually—but actually—going slightly insane. It’s as if, in addition to the crabs he caught from Maria Bamford, he also caught a case of the crazies from Parker Posey.

What did you guys make of the uncanny elements? Are they all registers of Louie’s loosening grip on reality when faced with the prospect of seeing his father? There’s the guy on the security tape who wasn’t Louie but who the manager and security guard insisted was, and they were right. That’s the first case of something odd happening in Louie’s own perception (which we share), and it’s no coincidence that it happens after he gets off the phone with Uncle Excalibur (!!!). I enjoyed the escalating sequence of surrealism. The airplane pilot’s voice was standard Louie fare. The fight with the GPS system was another half-step up, but it was acceptable. Louie often generates Jiminy Crickets on the show; externalized figures that voice his conscience. But the car window shattering spontaneously was a full octave higher. I loved that moment, but it felt like it committed us to a reading of Louie where he’s no longer in control of his daydreams. He’s actually starting hallucinate.

I hated the runaway scene. I don’t know what do with the amount of weirdness in the last three episodes. What I’m wondering is whether Louie’s insanity within this episode is specific to “Dad,” or whether it’s the climax of a larger arc that we might be missing. Why do all the moms at the school—who all seem to be deeply damaged—only trust and confide in him? Why do all women ask him to do completely bizarre things? Is this just his experience of the moms in Pamela’s absence? Is he perceiving them as weirder than they are because they’re so profoundly not-Pamela?

The real question, I guess, is how is it possible that everything that happens to Louie is deeply, deeply odd? At some point we have to wonder whether it’s the world or him, whether he might be a lunatic protagonist whose lunacy we’ve been missing.

That’s an unlikely reading, and I know it, but it’s one of the few I can think of that totally absolves Louie from the “and then he woke up” cliche of bad workshop fiction. There’s a fine line to walk when charting a dreamlike subjectivity that isn’t actually a dream, and up until that last sequence in “Dad”, I think Louis CK was pulling it off. But that end—the run, the motorcycle theft, stealing a boat, leaving the rental car—it all struck me as a bridge too far. It seemed too dreamlike, too broad.

Another corollary of the “Louie’s losing it” reading is that the show actually has some narrative continuity in spite of us all. It’s showing us a man’s gradual breakdown, and that’s interesting. Again: I’m not persuaded that this reading is 100% right, but I’m curious to hear what you all made of the last few episodes.

On the subject of continuity, we’ve talked a fair amount here at Dear Television about how Louie’s fatherhood is never in question, and it’s worth noting in that connection that the daughters are split in the last few episodes. (This is Jane’s episode alone with Dad, just as Lily’s was “Barney/Never.”) Recall that in the previous episode, both girls rejected piano lessons. I mention this not to point out a failure in continuity but rather to highlight a targeted discontinuity: highlighting her musicianship seems to me to specifically contradict (but in a dream-like way, swapping violin for piano) the world his daughters inhabited in the previous episode. The ungrateful child who didn’t take advantage of the opportunity afforded her becomes, in this episode, the child who does nothing but.

I don’t know what to make of that, but it’s definitely the case that we’re losing the show’s anchors: the opening sequence vanishes in “Barney/Never,” Jane and Lily are showing up apart instead of together, the explanatory standup has fallen by the wayside, and Louie’s sitting alone on a stolen boat. What’s going on?

Cover up so as not to catch my wretchedness,

Lili

Electric Ladyland: On Parker Posey

Dear Jane, Lili, and Evan,

First of all, I’d like to say that—with the exception of Jane’s outrageous suggestion that Parker Posey is somehow not hot—I’ve been thrilled, diverted, and delighted by everything that’s gone on on our blog here since I’ve been on temporary hiatus.  That said, I’ve had a bit of a hard time figuring out how to jump back into the fray.  My initial idea was that I might write a kind of early-middle review of Louie’s new season, taking note of the things I’ve noticed hurriedly watching, without writing about, the season so far.  Issues that would have come up in this post might have included: C.K.’s desire, to which he testified on The Daily Show, to “draw attention to” issues like sexual violence paired with what I see as C.K.’s own wonky thinking on such issues; the increasing incidence (particularly in the Miami episode) of C.K.’s stand-up being not-quite-as-good-as the show of which it is a part; the undercutting, in the final stand-up clip of the Miami episode, of the complex, inarticulate portrayal of male friendship by suggesting that the episode could be boiled down to gay panic; how awesome Louie’s kids are on the show, and how much weight they carry even when they are absent from an episode.  I fully intended to write all of this stuff. And then Parker Posey came on the show.

It’s a cliché to call a performance electrifying.  It’s also a cliché to call a performance devastating or earth-shattering.  What all of those clichés have in common, though, and what they have been invented to describe is a kind of performance that fundamentally alters the character of the work in which it appears.  The screen is different when this actor is in view, its basic assumptions and conventions are put into question.  The scope and composition of the work must expand, alter, accommodate in order to feature this performance. Plenty of folks have filled plenty of internet space extolling the many many many virtues of Parker Posey’s electrifying/devastating/earth-shattering performance from these past two episodes. On Vulture this week, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote one of the best short critical appreciations I’ve ever seen about anything, Sady Doyle has a great topical analysis of the second part in relation to the “manic pixie dream girl” phenomenon and the film Ruby Sparks, and Annie Clark (St. Vincent), voicing, as usual, the voice of the people, tweeted that Parker Posey should be awarded an Olympic medal for her two episode-arc. What all of these responses point to is the idea that, not only is Posey’s character Liz something new to the Louieverse, but that Liz is something almost unable to be contained by the brilliantly-drawn but familiar circles of compromised intimacy, humiliation, and self-loathing in which Louie exists.

Fittingly, then, Posey’s appearance is also the occasion for Louie’s first real experiment in serial form: the two-part episode.  Louie must adapt formally to the presence of this performance.  Louie, as we all know, is allergic to seriality.  One of the many virtues of this program is its staunch formal adherence to the self-contained episode along with its unconventional and often idiosyncratic management of traditional sitcom beats.  As is often noted, Louie is more a series of short films or vignettes featuring the same protagonist than it is a narrative program.  This constraint forces C.K., like a conceptual poet, to be constantly mindful of the conventions and constructions of the “sitcom” that might otherwise provide a creative crutch.  Viewers cannot be compelled simply by a desire to learn the outcome of a plotline a la Ross-and-Rachel.  This, paired with C.K.’s penchant for one-off guest stars and this season’s disregard for even the demands of continuity, frees Louie of the need to service characters or story-arcs. Even the elements of the series that seem to most approximate a serial narrative—Louie’s unrequited love for Pamela Adlon or even the gradual, almost imperceptible evolution of his stand-up career—feel more like looming presences than weekly dramas.  Louie’s yearning for Pamela only seemed like a plotline because that yearning had an object.  But, functionally, it would be equivalent to saying that Louie’s fear of death or sexual mortification is a story the series is telling.  Louie trafficks in meditations, not stories. This is not to say that Louie has transcended the need for serial narrative or that C.K. is some kind of visionary.  The form is unfamiliar to TV, and C.K. is extraordinarily good at his work, but he did not invent these forms.  Instead, it’s just to say that, by not really caring that much about story, C.K. is free to create a much more ambivalent, messy, and freely-associative show.

In this light, I think it’s more accurate to think of “Daddy’s Girlfriend (Parts I and II)” as a double album than an honest-to-goodness serialized narrative.  If every episode of Louie is about examining a concept rather than telling a part of a story, then this particular conceptual unit needed more than 30 minutes just as Blonde on Blonde or Bitches’ Brew required more than the length of an LP to do what they set out to do.  Usually, on Louie, the goldfish grows relative to the size of the bowl. In this situation, with this particular goldfish, Louis C.K. just needed to get a bigger bowl.

And I think there are two things that made this goldfish bigger than usual: the concept of reciprocal honesty and the actual collaboration between C.K. and Posey.  Louie, not unlike Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, often gets into scrapes because he insists on being honest about his feelings, even if he’s not terribly careful or self-aware about them.  This was certainly true of the Dane Cook episode.  More often, though, Louie gets into scrapes because he is rendered inarticulate, shocked silent, by the honesty of others.  This was most notable in this season’s early sequence in which Louie is dumped at the diner.  Spurring from a misunderstanding, Louie is literally unable to respond once the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend starts spontaneously truth-telling about their relationship.  This kind of bumbling passivity is one of the things C.K. is best at portraying, but, over three seasons, it’s become almost reflexive, a little too easy to explode a situation by having somebody with the ammunition to do so tell Louie off.  Louie is often humiliated, he’s often brought low, he’s often made to feel cheap.

So a lot of people—especially women­—are brought onto this show to call Louie on his shit.  But rarely has this been done so lovingly, so magnetically as it was done by Posey’s Liz.  To some extent, I think we can look to last season’s Joan Rivers episode as a kind of early version of this interaction. Rivers was rough with Louie, but she treated him with an almost loving concern, a seriousness, that was so foreign to Louie he responded physically.  I think the same is true here.  Liz takes Louie seriously.  She, like we do, understands him as a redeemable person, and she seeks to teach him, to request from him, an honesty that he is ordinarily unable to muster. She demands, in other words, that he participate in a relationship rather than silently watching it self-destruct.

And while Louie remains silent for much of the second part of “Daddy’s Girlfriend” and most of the lines he utters are lines of complaint, frustration, or even genuine anger, they are true, and they are expressed in a way that is uncommon.  Almost every critical appreciation of this series notes that one of its great aspects is that, through the ugliness and awkwardness of its vignettes, Louie showcases the beauty and goodness and possibility of human existence.  Louie is an anti-social mess, but when we as the viewers can detect what’s good in him, we can see what’s good about the world.  It’s the duckling in the pocket or the crippling unwillingness to presume anything about his relationship with Pamela.  Isn’t there something lovable even here?

What’s exceptional about “Daddy’s Girlfriend,” I think, and what makes Louie offer that smile at the end of the episode, is that Liz makes Louie see himself the way we see him.  She calls him on his shit, but she stays.  She recaps his adventures—You’ve tried on a dress! You’ve saved a man’s life!—the way a viewer would. She provokes and then shows him his own courage.  The moment passes at the end—in part because Liz has reached a limit point with her own honesty—but it happens. And, though it seems that she won’t be back this season, this date seems more like a beginning than a typical catastrophic denouement.  If the ordinary thesis of Louie is that Louie can’t have nice things, C.K. has taken the space here to show what it takes to earn, to reciprocate, and to acknowledge something truly, if complicatedly, good.

Which brings us to my second point. That is, the episode has taken the form it’s taken, in part, because it had to expand to fit the size of Posey’s performance. But it’s not just her.  I agree that she should win every Emmy for her turn here, but what I think is really on display in the episode is the collaboration between Posey and C.K. Seitz points out that this is Posey’s best work, but I think it also might be Louis C.K.’s.  Posey’s episode-length monologue is so engaging because of the way she turns her eyes on and off, the way she lunges through space like an Olympic fencer, even the way her voice modulates when she lies, but it’s also so engaging because it’s written so well.  Louis C.K. is one of the best writers working in television, but the occasion of Liz has forced him to do things we’ve never seen. We’ve heard hilarious takedowns and witnessed great comic set-pieces, but we haven’t heard wit this sharp and fast and easy. “All of a sudden, my body’s accepting nutrients and within a month, I’m a healthy 15-year-old girl with a cool punky haircut.”  I’m not saying we haven’t seen Louis C.K. write with wit and fluency, but we haven’t heard this voice before.

In other words, I think the insane quality and explosiveness of Posey’s performance and the almost unbelievably good writing C.K. has done are the occasion for the length of this episode.  The relationship is so strong because the creative process that is visible in this episode is so strong in its own right.  This is, in some sense, an episode about collaboration by an artist justly famous for his auteurism—though the editing that makes this episode’s sparkling rhythms so infectious is the product of C.K.’s newfound collaboration with Susan Morse.  It’s about the joys and terrors of following someone else’s lead, and it’s also about the limits of that kind of collaboration. Louie does not step to the edge, ultimately.  But he almost doesn’t need to.  Louie already has.
Love,

Phil.