“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

4 responses to ““Dad”

  1. I appreciate your very thoughtful review, even though my take is very different from yours. From that initial helicopter getaway in the very first episode of Louie, he’s used flights of fancy to describe emotional states. I adored the absurdist getaway in “Dad” precisely because, for me, it described his emotional state with much more reality than a conventional scene would. But that’s just me…

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  4. Matthew, sorry for this super-late reply; we just found a bunch of comments stuck in moderation. I agree that he’s used absurdist flights of fancy before, and (in my opinion, and I’m in the distinct minority) to better effect. FWIW, I explain my breakdown of which surrealist moments work better than others in the most recent post; I’d be curious to know what you think.

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