Author Archives: Lili Loofbourow

On Season 6 of Mad Men

This is the longer version of the post up at The New Republic:

Dear TV,

My favorite thing about this season of Mad Men has been watching Don Draper go slack. Many fans of the show have—understandably—lamented that Don’s inability to change is boring. One senses a hunger for Don’s redemption, and simmering under the restive essays on Don’s issues and how poorly they’ve aged is the question of what fiction is supposed to do. It’s true that people don’t change in real life, these critics write, but. The implication is that Don’s patterns are identical to the show’s and that Don’s progress is identical to the show’s progress: he hasn’t changed, therefore the show hasn’t changed.

We haven’t been among these critics. For me, it’s only at this point when, startled, we start to really experience what it’s like to be a Betty living with a Don—when we start occupying the subject position of wife (fan) instead of would-be mistress (potential viewer)—that the show becomes truly interesting. This is one of the few thought-provoking experiments American television, with its sprawling multi-year seasons that more often than not end in accidental burnout, can intentionally conduct, and it’s not an experiment in entertainment: rather, it’s a study of boredom and the perils of long-term arrangements that began with choice and ossified. Like addiction, like work, like marriage. The answer to creating a damaged, chronically depressed character whose tragic relation to his past consigns him to sameness isn’t to fix him or guide him to a happy ending (if Mad Men has taught us anything it’s that nothing ends); the answer is to chronicle the awful boredom of the compulsive.

In that sense it’s a show about our own time, no more about the past than Star Trek was about the future. We (the “we” whose peculiarly white American history Mad Men presumes to tell, anyway) Gatsby-ed our way to an expensive, sexy, monstrous prosperity and we’re more depressed than we’ve ever been. Our current crop of self-help is less about happiness than it is about “lifehacks,” the willpower to curb our compulsions, and the Mad Men Phenomenon unifies a cluster of especially ornate tics we anxiously pretend to control: sex, work, television, and the internet. The complaint that Don has become repetitive after SIX YEARS of cheating and self-delusion (in some televisual variant on the seven-year itch) both overlooks that the tyranny of habit constitutes a legitimate and indeed urgent subject and mistakes the source of our creeping disinvestment in the show. Especially since the show has changed precisely by highlighting that Don hasn’t; it has changed dramatically this season by decoupling itself from Don and peeling its progress away from his stasis.

Not that the charge was believable anyway; the apparently bottomless market for superhero movies proves that we tolerate repetition well enough. But that appetite was what made much of this season good: Don’s affliction, his stumble into anesthetic self-destructive sameness is ours. Our stupid yearning for happy endings, even for characters who don’t want them, even when we can see for ourselves how any such ending would compromise the integrity of the story we’ve been following so slavishly for so long, is just another kind of death-wish. All season I’ve been chuckling at the idea of Don having a come-to-Jesus moment. More compelling than a documentary portrait of 1960s white America is Mad Men’s true protagonist, the awful boredom that turns people into monsters.

For too long (and for too many) Mad Men’s appeal has been linked to Don’s. It’s nobody’s fault; this peculiar age of Serious TV Dramas Featuring White Male Antiheroes caught us unprepared. Blindsided by feelings before we can parse them, we’ve come to a wrongheaded consensus that a show’s interest and complexity is identical to (or interchangeable with) its protagonist. Somehow—and predictably, since we have a thousand years of tragedy as precedent—we’ve taken the (super)hero story’s sly cousin, this genre whose subversive project is forcing us to identify with a subjectivity we know to be evil, or wrong, or mistaken, and responded to this complicated narrative experiment by being, for the most part, stunningly sincere. Our reactions and loyalties are more or less the same as it would be if the antihero were a hero. Yes, there’s a veneer of knowingness; everyone understands intellectually that Don’s an asshole. But he’s awesome at his job, and look at the women he gets! There is (or was) a plague of men who want to be Donald Draper and women who want to sleep with him. This shiny-haired salesman from the late fifties is the cool kid everyone wants to be, not Back Then but now, still.

That’s weird, and it’s a symptom of just how oddly our sympathies have skewed. It’s been happening for awhile—I’m struck every time someone describes an insufferable and pushy woman as a Tracy Flick because it so clearly illustrates this affective loophole. Matthew Broderick’s character in Election was a psychopath intent on stopping a girl from a “broken home” (to use Betty Draper’s phrase) and a victim of statutory rape to boot—at the hands of a teacher, no less, and for this McAllister blames her—from being class president. Everyone knew it was satire when they watched the film but Tracy Flick remains the monster in our memory, not McAllister. We’re in an age when “it’s satire!” has become a facile defense of narrative strategies that so sincerely engage our sentiments that they (or we) forget their satirical goals.

Though not a satire, Mad Men suffers from this affliction. When watching any particular scene the experience splits pretty neatly into two basic categories. The first category is so context-rich and unpredictable that we forget we’re obsessed decoders and relish the odd dialogue. These are the Bob Benson conversations, the Roger Sterling-and-Jane-Divorcing sequences. The second category boils down to a naked quasi-schematic shorthand that informs us so loudly of the Scene’s Function that we never sink into the scene at all. Back in Mad Men’s early days, if Betty and the kids were onscreen, the point was to show us that Betty was an unfeeling and selfish mother. If Don and the kids were onscreen, in contrast, that scene’s work was to portray a complex person who, despite his faults, saw his children as feeling creatures and tried in his limited way to tend to their small frightened subjectivities. This was a tiresome double-standard and it became progressively more constricting and narratively unkind. Now that the narrator has reconciled Don and Bets, the scenes between Betty and Sally are newly rich; they breathe.

The Don and Sylvia scenes were of the second type, as were the scenes between Don and Ted which registered Competition! Not so the telephone conversations between Peggy and Stan or any storyline involving Pete’s mother. Those had the virtuosic quality of seeming like weird things that happened—they lacked the thudding expository quality that sometimes flattens Mad Men into a series of symbolic flash cards. Scene with Ginsberg were almost always the former whereas the conversation between Dawn and her friend in the diner was definitely the latter. But even those flash cards served the show well so long as they registered its growing narrative distance from Don.

The finale was sensational and absorbing but I was stunned to see Don actually get the come-to-Jesus moment I’d chuckled at because the possibility seemed absurd. I never would have guessed that the season-long corrective to our five-year habit of accidentally falling for Don would devolve into the clichés of hitting bottom and redemption. Don’s not the only recidivist; Matthew Weiner has reverted to Don-centrism. How good it was to see the show acknowledge that Don couldn’t anchor the show anymore—much better than seeing Don Confess to His Past or Punished For His Excesses was seeing him deglamorized and sometimes shuffled aside. To the extent that one can hope for the demise of a charming character, I had hoped Roger’s death would justify the references to death sprinkled throughout the season—Roger’s many allusions, the Inferno-reading, Vietnam, the assassinations, near-shootings, etc. He seemed like the logical candidate for reasons I explained there, and for Don’s midlife crisis not to culminate in any death related to Don would have so beautifully cemented the show’s defection and its new commitment to other characters and plots.

But the season concluded with the symbolic “death” of Don the liar and a full throated return to Dick-centric catharsis. It seems we have a resurrection to look forward to. Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice to see him come clean to Sally, but Don isn’t a tragic hero nor should he be saved—those traditions belongs to another time. Ours is smaller, sharper, and full of clicks. Don’s office isn’t where everything is. Where’s Ginsberg’s dad? What happened to Peggy’s secretary? Oh Joan and your bid for Avon, where did you go?

Dear TV is now at the Los Angeles Review of Books

Hi all,

Dear Television is over at the Los Angeles Review of Books discussing New Girl and The Mindy Project. BATTLE OF THE LADY SHOWS. Join us!

Here’s an index of what we’ve covered so far:

Week 1 of New Girl and The Mindy Project

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Phil Maciak: Groove is in the Heart. Of women in comedy, and why we chose New Girl and The Mindy Project. Despite its early twee-ness,

New Girl began to feel less precious and more lived-in… and even managed to offer a super-convincing meta-argument for its ethnography of Dork-Americans.” The Mindy Project pilot, in contrast, “felt a lot like a good college admissions essay: super-tight, clear voice, well-defined thesis and themes, plenty of poignant self-analysis, copy-edited and structured to within an inch of its life.”

***

Jane Hu: A Serial Takeover. Of television as a medium:

If one premise of Mindy Project is what happens to the rom-com movie when transferred to the medium of television — with all its attendant sit-com formulas — then I am more than game.

On what generational comedy means now.

A generational comedy of 30-somethings in 2012 rarely fails to poke fun at the extended adolescence of 30-somethings in 2012. Mindy can no longer “have what she’s having,” since she’s arrived at that particular meal too late. Instead, she possesses only the blueprints of a marriage plot that no longer fits her life and times.”

***

Lili Loofbourow: Party Girl vs. Rom-Com Girl.  Both shows are trying to fight their respective stereotypes by exposing difference where you expect sameness–in New Girl, by putting Parker Posey next to  Zooey Deschanel, the other indie queen, and showing the mismatch.  In The Mindy Project, a different rescue is attempted:

If you’re a girl, the romantic comedy has been one of the few places where female protagonists a) exist and b) are allowed some kind of interiority… Kaling is building on this starved generation’s super-detailed knowledge of the romantic comedy corpus, and on its hunger for some kind of legitimacy.

Week 2 of New Girl and The Mindy Project

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Jane Hu, When Worlds Collide. On space and the sit-com:

 I started to see all sitcoms — all stories really — in terms of worlds that undergo continual threats of invasion. The basic axiom of narrative is, after all, how a constant (premise, group, space) must recalibrate itself to a sequence of incoming events, persons, or data.

New Girl is more conventional in pretty completely excluding the world of work from the show and focusing on home, unlike The Mindy Project, which has yet to explore Mindy’s apartment. Then there’s the question of social space: Jess and Mindy approach those spaces, and whether they mix, differently:

Jess struggles in keeping her relationship with Nick (friend and roommate) separate from her relationship with Sam; Mindy, however, has no qualms with worlds colliding. Well aware that all good stories rely on just-believable chance encounters, she encourages them.

***

Lili Loofbourow, Romney-Dad: Conservatives Back in Comedy. On the lack of true eccentricity in New Girl:

New Girl is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where the dwarfs have been attenuated: Nick is Slightly Grumpy, Schmidt is Slightly Dopey, and Winston is Kinda Doc.

New Girl’s peculiarity is that its B story is almost always more interesting than its A story.

Here, in the middle of an ugly electoral season, the show pauses to dwell on Romney’s possibilities as the ideal father, and it’s brilliant. Romney would be a perfect sitcom dad — if sitcoms still had dads.

The Mindy Project has its token conservative too, and it’s the male lead.

***

Phil Maciak, Moby-Nick, Or The Whale Belt. New Girl seems to be saying,Buy in to this vague, implausible stalling tactic for a season, and we’ll get them in the sack eventually.”

“Fluffer,” as a kind of summit meeting about the state of this relationship, was a canny piece of writing, but I’m not sure it plugged the holes it sought out to plug.

More importantly, though, class! the  major players on The Mindy Project are RICH. Is Schmidt’s whale belt a Class Transcender?

So what kind of magic belt is this? Is it a kind of hipster-post-racial utility belt? Not quite. The simple answer is that the belt fits at the center of the Kanye West/Mitt Romney Venn diagram, and the thing these two men have in common is the thing they also have in common with Mindy Lahiri and Danny Castellano: they are rich. Rockefeller and Roc-a-fella.

WEEK 3 OF NEW GIRL AND THE MINDY PROJECT

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Lili Loofbourow, Of In-Groups and Out-Groups. What happens when characters try to work outside their social systems?

In both cases, the protagonists end up choosing their original in-group over the more desirable out-group, but both episodes stage the seduction of wanting badly to belong, even as you understand that your winning has nothing to do with your own merit.

But, as usual, the show continues to forget about Winston.

I hope the show finds its sweet spot with Winston, because I feel like he’s fading into a joke accessory — he’s the guy whose weirdness only lasts one episode: he likes fruity drinks! He doesn’t get pranks! He wears a peacock earring!

***

Phil Maciak, How to Crush ItCan a douchebag outrun his douchebaggery? Or can it only be that

he’s not any better than you thought he was, there’s just more in there.

Should Mindy pay up at the Douchebag Jar?

The Mindy Project […] sometimes doesn’t seem to have any distance from what it depicts. The camera on The Mindy Project is very subjective, and I think it might have d-bag goggles on.

***

Jane Hu, A Toast to the Douchebags. What do we really mean when we say douchebag?

From the New Girl pilot, Schmidt was dubbed “feminine” as much as “douchebag,” and that women don’t find Schmidt sexually attractive might have something to do with how he reminds them of what society expects a woman to be.

For Mindy, the club becomes a ballroom:

The modern girl’s fairy tale still involves ballrooms, red carpets, a gate at the stairs, and a carriage ready to take one home.

WEEK 4 OF NEW GIRL

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Phil Maciak, Dance, Monkey, Dance. Is New Girl using its fat suit for cheap laughs?

They lean so hard into it that you are tempted to think they are making fun of the trope. But, of course, that’s what critics like us say when shows we perceive to be smarter than the conventions they employ go ahead and employ those conventions. And there’s no way out. No matter how much self-consciousness we ascribe to New Girl or Mindy or Girls, Fat Schmidt is still getting laughs for being Fat.

Sometimes, love just hurts so bad:

To know someone well enough to tease them the way Nick teases Schmidt is to have a kind of intimacy.

***

Jane Hu, Soul Cakes. Guys — are we giving New Girl too much credit?

Sometimes, a fat suit is just a fat suit. It seems that for New Girl — a show that certainly doesn’t lack attractive bodies — fatness has become a throw-away gimmick.

How stereotypically gendered are the New Girl characters’ relations to food?

Schmidt gets Nick a cookie, which he eats, and then regrets, because of what giving a cookie means. Jess bakes Cece a birthday cake, which she, as a model, can’t eat, because of what a cake does.

***

Lili Loofbourow, Go Back to Start, Do Not Pass Go. New Girl seems to be trying to wean itself off serial storytelling, since

A story about twenty-somethings (or thirty-somethings) is a story about precariousness, fluctuation, change. People marry, they move, they go out of town for jobs. The point of the roommate story is that it’s always already nostalgic. You go into a roommate situation knowing that it will end.

Finally, we might have missed the view from The Mindy Project a bit this week:

The other really interesting difference that’s already emerging (and will only intensify, I expect) is that The Mindy Project is aggressively structured through one perspective.

Louie’s Choice: Lynch, Dads, and the Weird Chain of Causality

Dear Dear TV,

God, I loved these two episodes. Loved ‘em for the thrills, the gossipy content (Late Night wars!), but also, and mainly, because of their weird chains of causality. Tom Cruise doesn’t like surprises, so Louie goes on The Tonight Show. The maid refuses to Not Disturb, and it’s thanks to her that he gets up, checks his phone, and makes it to his meeting with the head of CBS. These are chains of causality we know: a crazy person explains to you that a remote control is counterintuitive, then murder suicides his whole family. This, in some deep, deep way, is the world we live in.

It’s not like surrealism is new to Season 3 of Louie, but sometimes (for me, anyway) Louie’s been hitting his uncanny baseballs out of the park. It’s a home run, sure, but I’d rather see the ball, catch it, take it home. If I had to group the show’s balls (So To Speak) into two camps, then Uncle X and Bizarro-Louie are In, and so is everything up to and including the window breaking in Dad, but the runaway scene is Out. Never-the-kid shitting in the tub is in—so’s throwing the rug out the window. Never causing traffic accidents and eating raw meat is out. Parker Posey’s in, Chloe Sevigny’s out. Ramón and all of Miami is in, along with Maria Bamford, Mark Maron, crabs, and even the crazy pharmacist grilling the lady on her bowel movements. When the surrealism gets too broad, it starts to get too dream-sequencey. If you’ve ever taught creative writing, then you know how legendary the And Then I Woke Up ending is, and by legendary I mean universal and lame.

Louis CK’s at his best when he’s showing us the inside of Louie’s head while showing us the outside world too in a way that shows the angle of distortion. The distinction I’m asking for is exactly the one he makes in Late Night: Part 2, when the show cuts between Louie watching Jackie Doll on the monitor with the music-glory vs. Jackie in “real life”.

Speaking of surrealism going outside the stadium, I watched all of Twin Peaks this last spring. When it ended I understood how everyone who watched Lost and complained about it endlessly truly felt. It’s a THERE IS NO GOD feeling. It stinks, because you’ve invested so much energy and thought in a show, trying to work out its premises, how it’s coding its mysteries, and then it turns out it was all just sort of slapped together with no real plan. Crazy lady with an eye patch! Ha, she’s strong! Um, cousin who looks exactly like Laura! Evil owls! A fake diary and a real diary! Dwarf! Giant! Billy Zane!

Not that I don’t like Twin Peaks—I have real affection for it in retrospect and I think parts of it are amazing mood pieces, but that doesn’t change the Disappointment With Dave. He’s SO the Wizard of Oz after Dorothy’s gone behind the curtain.

And that’s what Louis CK keeps offering us—here! He keeps saying. I’m drawing the curtain back! Here’s comedian world. Here’s single fatherhood. Here’s what late-show negotiations are like. And that’s what differentiates Louis CK from Lynch: where Lynch withholds information and turns plot points into shallow riddles, Louis just keeps giving you all the answers.

“Five years ago you probably peaked,” says the CBS guy, one of many Men Behind the Curtain in the Late Night series.  “You do standup. You make 80,000 a year on your club dates. You don’t think you can do it. You think it’s over and you’re afraid to try. … I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen it turn around.”

CBS knows EVERYTHING. But it won’t lie about the future. The CBS guy is part Wizard and part Sphinx, just as powerful, just as vast in its perspective, and just as honest about how the world works:

“If the test is good, I’ll put you on the air. And then, if you’re a hit, everyone will think I’m a genius, and I’ll have saved the network about 12 million. If America hates you, no one’s gonna blame me. … But you’ll take the heat on all that. You’re gonna crack your head on the ceiling and you’re gonna go down, probably for good. “

Do you have chills? Because that’s a novel right there. Who puts that idea—that crazy enormous modern-day Rise of Silas Lapham of an idea—into the mouth of a CBS executive? HOLY COW. This is Satanic temptation meets genie meets, I don’t know, Indecent Proposal.

And there’s more!

“Look Louie, we’re talking about the big game here, so forgive me if I use big terms. Here’s the reality. In ten years you’re gonna be teaching comedy at a community college to support your kids, and falling asleep to the Late Show with Jerry Seinfeld. You’re circling failure in a rapidly decaying orbit. … But it’s in your power to change that.”

And this is where Part 1 ends—beautifully, because it could so easily have made the point of the episode Louie’s Yes or Louie’s No. Instead, it leaves the viewer with the agonizing question in the air. WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

Let’s just pause for a minute and think about how much less interesting this scene would have been if we were seeing it only through Louie’s anxious eyes. Say the CBS exec started getting bigger and bigger in the room while Louie got younger and younger. It would have been SO stupid, right, because that’s what’s happening anyway. The next episode is all about Louie being surrounded by Dads.

Louis CK downplays his smarts, which makes him better than Lynch in the sense that he’s (supposedly) keeping our expectations low. See his explanation of how he hired the actress who plays Janet for an example of this Oh, I Just Decided And Fuck It Everyone Will Be Fine With It sort of attitude. But let’s face it: dude’s a genius, and it would su-u-u-ck if he wasn’t putting serious thought into this stuff, which he obviously is. It’s no coincidence that the index cards in the background of wherever Jay Leno’s calling from say “Adam Smith,” “Products For A Better You,” and “Halloween Products.” There it all is: cutthroat competition, Louie’s self-improvement program, and Jay’s scare tactics.

But anyway, back to the chain of causality. Things in Late Show: Parts I and II are good and bad in pretty stupid ways in the moment (damn the maid! She woke me up!), but those outcomes are actually just steps toward some bigger, blustery whole. (Shot at the Late Show! Thank the maid!) Nothing in the world really connects to anything else the way it’s supposed to: that you were flown into LA for The Tonight Show in no way guarantees that you are going to perform on The Tonight Show. But there’s slant continuity, to use Jane’s coinage: you’ll always get either much more or much less than you want. Having planned 4.5 minutes for late-night television, you’re either going to get bumped or else you’ll just stay, pointing finger-guns at the audience, forever.

The trouble is that there’s no right vantage-point from which to look at the future. The end of Late Night: Part 1 is a true cliff-hanger, and the head of CBS is every inch the Satanic tempter as the music plays mournfully behind him.

What surrealism there is (how many different phones were ringing in Louie’s hotel room by the time he picked up?), it all feels extremely real. The baseball is within the stadium. Take these old men asking you to do truly odd things, then blaming you a little for not getting it right. They blow past your faults too, that’s how little you matter. “You don’t need to tell ‘em your name, son.” And yet, if you’re Louie, you have all these new dads who keep throwing you in the water, giving you black eyes.

And oh, what a precious kind of surrealism that is, because it’s damn close to how different generations see each other anyway. The Old Men in the business of show communicate telegraphically, so accustomed are they to being read correctly and to having their frame of reference be the only frame. “Carnegie Deli,” says the head of CBS after calling the lawyer in, and we waffle off-balance, like Louie, trying to figure out what to do with those words. Is Carnegie Deli the lawyer’s name? Is it a part of speech? There’s no context for what those two words mean, but they’re hovering in the air, awaiting a response.  By the time we’ve recognized the phrase, it’s too late—the conversation has moved on. “Timing is everything,” says David Lynch, after Louie fails to perform an activity that Jackie Doll seems to think is Telling A Joke.

Do Not Turn This Off, says the index card in Jackie Doll’s booth, Just Turn The Intensity Down.

I do want to register a minor complaint re: Janet’s conversation with Louie, and it’s that their talk felt too rational. These people are divorced. They coparent, certainly, but there’s a painful past locked up there. Aaron Bady, with whom I was watching this episode, observed that when Louie tells Janet his news and she immediately says, “Cuz you’re cheap,” there should have been a moment of annoyance. I felt that when she says, “You’d have a job” and he says “I have a job,” his annoyance, his sip of water, the  bad silence that follows–it all suggests something bigger than what comes next. Their body language is great. It’s uncomfortable, and bitter.  That sounds like an old fight, and no such fight gets sipped away. If you’re Janet in that fight, if you spent years being mad because Louie’s job wasn’t reliable (and it sounds like it was an issue, even though she says she appreciated him supporting them), you push that harder, you don’t just zoom out into a reflection on his career arc and say, in a moment of generosity: this is what it’s all been building up to. “If you don’t do this, what was it all for. … What did I put my nine [years] in for?”

But that’s beside the point. The real object of that conversation (besides reestablishing Louie’s passivity and need to have every woman with whom he comes in contact explain him to himself) is to redefine the Right Thing To Do. We’ve talked a lot here at Dear TV about how central Louie’s fatherhood is to the show, so for Janet to redefine what being a good father means for Louie is a big deal. “You’ve been a fine father, but nobody needs a father that much,” she says. YOWCH. His job isn’t to be there for the kids, she says, reestablishing a definition of masculinity and fatherhood that’s as old as the Reagan and Nixon jokes. His job is to make it.

And that achieves something remarkably interesting: it means that Louie, in order to be a good father, has to submit to this old crop of show-business fathers at the very moment he’s losing his brother Chris Rock, who shaved and ditched the collar and donned the infamous late-night suit. I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes.

No today jokes yet. You’re not ready.

Lili

“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

Episode 3 of Louie: Bellies and Balloons

Dear Evan, Phil, and Jane,

Louie’s Miami is a sort of virtual reality desert that perpetually “unmans” him. A man’s voice (gay—Louis CK likes to make a point of not-flagging-but-flagging gay flight attendants) announces they’ll be landing soon. In Miami, the very first people we see aren’t so much people as they are two bellies, women’s, invisible under fashionably ruched fabric. At check-in, a shirtless lanky man’s belly dominates the scene, and the camera lingers on it and refuses to follow Louie to the check-in counter. The next day, as he applies sunscreen (always a depressing reminder of one’s mortality), he gets knocked down by a mixed group of young bellies. “Sorry, man, I didn’t see you there,” they say. There’s no malice; he’s just not visible to them. They almost literally walk through him. Somewhat recovered, about to take off his shirt, the camera zooms in on the concave stomachs of the women around him. Louie pulls his shirt down and goes back to his hotel room, where he orders and eats a series of sandwiches and falls disgustingly asleep.

There’s no joy, no surprise, no adrenaline, just a never-ending dirge-like meditation on his grotesque existence. But what’s interesting about it is that it’s basically silent: it’s the visual representation of his usual stand-up, and the stand-up has gone missing. This episode has Louie at his most blindingly inarticulate—perhaps even more so than in Episode 1, where he forces April to break up with herself. That’s not quite right: it’s not the Louie himself is more inarticulate, it’s that the audience’s experience of the show is non-narrated. Usually we have Louis CK, stand-up comic, to tell us a little about what Louie is doing. In Episode 1 we had April to interpret Louie for us. But in Episode 3 we’re as close to Louie as we’re ever likely to get: we’re seeing the experiences he always jokes about from the inside.

Except for one, of course, and it’s a big one: we don’t see Louie jacking off. Louis CK has dedicated an entire episode to Louie’s defense of masturbation. This is not coincidence.

So what happens to Louie in this oasis of disciplined bellies? Well, for one thing, the gorgeous people are effectively making it impossible for him to be there. He spoils the thing by being part of it—you see that in his face. He’s the thing his stand-up is always in some sense about being: an apparently white dude who isn’t especially attractive. So he starts looking for alternative Things To Be.

At first he tries out the routine of an old man, and gets up early to swim before the Speedorati descend en masse. Other old men wave. It’s a whole outsider’s world he’s discovering—a pool of other lonely men with saggy bellies.

In being unsexed, he’s also being feminized, of course—he’s paralyzingly body-conscious despite his social invisibility. Even his things are invisible—the chair guy stacks the other chairs on top of his other things without so much as a pause.

Then someone sees him and pulls him out the water. “Don’t be embarrassed, man, anyone can lose control in the water,” Ramón says, kindly.

“I wasn’t drowning, but thanks for saving me,” says Louie when they’re saying their first goodbyes. The show loves that line because Ramón is obviously Louie’s prince charming. He’s young. His belly is enviable. He belongs in the beach universe, but he prefers Louie’s company to the bellies. He pulls Louie out of the water against his will, rescues him from the Island of Old Geezers and turns him into the little kid he was when he last spoke Spanish. They chase chickens (the camera, incidentally, beheads them in this scene more often than not—they’re two bellies chasing chickens). They eat. Then the camera cuts to a bunch of American-themed murals in Spanish. Murals of George Washington, “Padre de la Independencia” and a Mt. Rushmore mural with “God bless and protect America” are interlaced with murals of Pedro Knight and Libertad Lamarque. The question of which is and isn’t the “real” America is everywhere in this episode, and it’s typical of Louie that Louie’s contact with Ramón’s world is based on a series of misunderstandings: he wasn’t drowning and he isn’t gay, but to insist too hard upon either of those things might close the wormhole to this happy dimension.

There are two noteworthy moments: one is Ramón’s insistence that laughter is a gift. He thanks Louie for making him laugh even as Louie tries not to thank him for being saved (and objects to the girl taking the strawberry he didn’t give). I don’t know what to do with that moment. Maybe it’s underscoring that Louie is becoming more ungenerous as a function of his isolation, in which case his inability to clarify to Ramón that he isn’t gay is both a symptom of his inarticulacy and a marker of his growth. It’s an act of generosity to go ahead and let Ramón read him the wrong way.

The second noteworthy moment is when Ramón introduces him to his uncle who beckons Louie closer and says, “Louie, un amigo es un hermano, y un hermano es uno mismo.” A friend is a brother, and a brother is oneself. This obviously speaks to Louie’s self-loathing: he can only make a friend when he stops despising himself long enough to do something else, but it’s probably doing something else too, which I hope isn’t the Latin equivalent of the Magical Negro.

I don’t know what to make of the bellies, guys, but they’re everywhere—bellies are both appetitive and disciplined; they seem to contain the principles of deprivation and satisfaction both. Take the girl who takes Louie’s strawberry. Her concave belly nevertheless takes from Louie’s overstuffed one, and he’s pissed. He forces the belly to recognize its moral bankruptcy.

This doesn’t satisfy, though. Louie isn’t full yet. He’s as bitter and bloated as he is existentially hungry. It’s when Ramón comes up and slaps him on the back, making Louie spill coffee, that a different model comes into focus. For what it’s worth, Ramón’s habits of ingestion are accordingly specific and spare: “I’ll have a Sprite,” he says when Louie offers to buy him a drink to thank him for saving his life. Louie, in the meantime asks for some “brown liquid in a glass.” Ramón doesn’t ask for an intoxicant, whereas Louie wants a glass of brown oblivion.

Maybe Ramón is just giving Louie a way to see himself as contributing something good to the word. “Are you funny?” he asks. “Then I did a good thing by saving you.” And the self-loathing goes down a notch, and Louie spends a night being silly, and hates balloons a little less.

The last scene is worth recapping:

“First of all, I have zero anything, okay?”

“I guess what, the thing is that, I feel like…”

“See? I’m gonna stop you right there.”

“When my uncle says all men are brothers, it’s true right?”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever—I’m not trying anything that—and I don’t mean that—I mean, you know.”

There’s no standup until the very end of this episode. Before that there’s a clip that starts with Louie saying “I hate balloons.” It gets cut off, because it’s as much a part of Louie’s sterile life cycle as anything else. Louie hates balloons. He’s the jaded comedian who knows all the jokes, the guy whose funny muscles are exhausted, the guy you can’t get to  laugh. The standup only shows up at the end, with a speech about heterosexual men being anxious. “You can’t really throw wonderful around so much,” he says, of an encounter that clearly was, at every level, wonderful.

Is this episode actually about letting go of some parts of Louie’s heteronormative “American white guy” masculinity and letting the parts that don’t fit into his comedy breathe? Is this the real Miami? Or is Ramon’s Miami just a Never Never Land, a day Louie got to spend as an overgrown kid in an inclusive America that doesn’t revolve around eating too much and jacking off? Is it about finding that your roots are so painfully particular that you can’t feel like you fit in even when people call you “my brother” and claim you? Maybe it’s about understanding that friends are brothers and brothers are us, but that’s not as comfortable or comforting a slippage as it seems.

Muchos pantalones, man,

Lili

RapeJoke and The Politeness Police: Louie, Tosh, and Episode 2

Dear Jane, Phil, and Evan,

I’m a bit behindhand as I’m writing this from Chile, but tell me if you’ve heard this one before:

*

Girl: “You’re making jokes about rape, and that’s offensive.”

Boy: “You don’t like rape? You don’t? That’s really weird, cuz you wouldn’t exist if your mom hadn’t been raped by that homeless Chinese guy. No, listen, I’m sorry. It’s hard to really come back from that, but I’m sorry. Can you do me a favor?”

Girl: “What?”

Boy: “Can you please die of AIDS? Does anybody here have AIDS? Can they put their dick in her face and get her started on that?”

*

I thought about making this one of those “who said it?” Facebook infographics where you prove that Rush Limbaugh and Mira Sorvino or whoever say the same stuff. It’s pointless, of course. We all know it’s from Louie’s first season, the “Heckler/Cop Movie” episode, and we all know that it almost perfectly mirrors the woman’s account of her encounter with Daniel Tosh wherein he wondered how funny it would be if five guys gang-banged her right there (here is a good meditation on how funny). The internet has its laws, and I hereby dub this the Tosh Theorem: if there’s an article about Daniel Tosh and the girl who spoke up at his show, then there’s a commenter saying that Louis CK already did an episode on this. And the two instances—the real-life one and the fictional one—will blend, and the comments will curve asymptotically toward a single self-evident truth:

Was she a heckler? Is saying you don’t think rape jokes are funny heckling? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (here’s a worthwhile defense of the latter), but we don’t ask those questions. Instead, we use the word heckler to simplify a complicated moment wherein two different scales of right and wrong come into conflict.

If we had any doubts about Louie’s influence on comedy culture, we need look no further than the extent to which that “Heckler/Cop Movie” episode has crystallized comedy-goers’ sense of how people are supposed to behave at a show. It’s what everyone quotes. That episode shortcircuits to this: if you’re a bad audience member, you’re a bad person.

“You have a good life and it’s just the way you want it to be,” Louie says in his Reasonable Guy voice. “These guys don’t have a life. This is all they have. Their lives are shit. They don’t have families, they don’t have friends, all they have is this. They have these fifteen minutes … and you took it away from them.”

Comedians are a special case. That’s the argument. It’s slipped in there so quickly you barely notice it as the guilt goes swishing by. Not that the special pleading should surprise us. Remember Joan Rivers’ line to Louie? “What we do, my darling, is a calling.” Louis CK believes that, and he believes that comedians in their capacity as comedians are exempt from our scorn and our bad behavior—or should be. He doesn’t feel this way about other jobs; Louie, remember, has no trouble hassling people doing other kinds of menial work. Like rental car agencies. “I always switch my car,” he says. “I ask for another car, and they ask me, ‘why?’ And I’m like, because I’m an asshole. That’s why. Just—this is your job.”

The girl offers a version of precisely this argument. “People are going to talk,” the girl says, “and it’s your job to deal with it, or learn to handle it at least. Why are you being such a baby?”

“Most people are polite,” Louie says, “and would rather cut off their hand than hurt a show by talking. A good person wouldn’t do that, so you must be a bad person.”

Linger, if you will, on the ambiguity of that phrase, “hurt a show.” At first I thought it referred to the audience’s right to a show they paid for. But that’s not it—Louie’s defense has less to do with the audience and their rights than with the comedian whose performance it is. It’s the comedian’s show that’s being hurt.

Louie doesn’t really think he’s an asshole for demanding a different car, or for dropping a rental car off in front of the airport without returning it and making someone else go get it. Not really. These things might make him a bad customer, but they don’t make him Fundamentally Impolite, i.e., a Bad Person. Politeness is beside the point in an ordinary transaction like renting a car. Who cares about whether a rental agency customer service representative has family and friends? Not us! But comedians and their audiences transcend the transactional, Louie implies. Therefore, being a bad audience member is morally wrong.

That’s the crux of the Louie Defense that got lobbed at Anonymous Woman by the #toshdefenders: being a bad audience member makes you a bad person.

It’s worth reviewing that logic, because it’s otherwise hard to understand the phenomenon that followed l’affaire Tosh, in which hordes of shock jocks suddenly transformed into scorched-earth Emily Posts. These people were adamant about manners, and their thought process was clear: a violation of etiquette absolutely and uncomplicatedly warrants a thought experiment in which someone is gang-raped in front of the audience by five men. (Or, in the manager’s account of things, a thought experiment in which the comedian wonders aloud whether the woman objecting to a rape joke is upset because of her own history of sexual abuse. He seems, oddly, to think that this version of things is better.)

It is wildly weird to see a crowd that revels in stories about jerking off and sisters getting raped morph into prim neo-Victorians when someone interrupted Tosh’s show. Ever the notetaker, I summarized some iterations of the phenomenon as best I could:

A slight variation on the theme held that she was preachy, shrill, and an instance of the damage feminism has done to society. The following argument was made without a shred of irony:

Being sanctimonious about someone else’s sanctimony is the new shock humor. Politeness is in the air, y’all.

Jane got us all thinking about comfort and courtesy last week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about comfort and courtesy since.

“I’m not comfortable with that,” Louie says to Laurie in Episode 2. “You wouldn’t want me to do something I’m not comfortable with, would you?” “Fuck that,” Laurie says.

Everyone should read Jane’s history of what it means to be “comfortable,” but at the heart of its usage in Episode 2, and Laurie’s rejection of it as relevant, are two competing paradigms of politeness. Laurie says it’s impolite not to give sexual satisfaction if you’ve willingly accepted it. Louie says it’s impolite to demand a sexual experience that the other person does not wish to deliver. The first case is built around a gift whose social function goes unrecognized and is not reciprocated. The second is built around an understanding of a gift as a donation detached from a social context and which requires no reciprocation. But both parties agree on one thing: the terrain on which their arguments will live or die is the field of Good Manners. Which—this is the fight they’re having—is the more discourteous action?

Evan observed that the end of Episode 2 was a sort of extended nod to The Aristocrats. He is immensely, profoundly, oh-so-right. I didn’t know about The Aristocrats, I’m embarrassed to say, so  when Evan mentioned it/them I watched Bob Saget’s epic take and most of the 2005 documentary where all the greats doing their best versions of the all-time best comedian joke. I ended up … puzzled. It’s admittedly not the sort of joke one is supposed to hear forty times in a row, but even taking that into account, the joke just wasn’t very funny.

When I say the joke isn’t funny, I’m really talking about the punchline. The way the joke is supposed to work is by upsetting your expectations of what aristocrats do and are. It works beautifully if you’re a nineteenth-century person who subliminally associates the aristocracy with courtesy and correctness and purity. No twenty-first-century person has any such associations—the word “aristocrat” is a quaint anachronism. We have the Kardashians and before that we had Paris Hilton. We don’t resent the rich the way we used to, and they don’t try to model morality for us. They’ve become The Aristocrats. That’s just how it is, and so the joke just doesn’t really speak to us anymore. It doesn’t enliven our sense of society or the language; it doesn’t act on our deeply-held expectations. It’s the kind of joke an uncle tells but with some shit, incest and vomit thrown in. It feels old.

But there’s another way the two poles The Aristocrats juxtaposes have collapsed. It’s not just that the “aristocracy” has gone and got itself some diarrheic morals, which it has. It’s also that the comedians have started codifying morals of their own. We used to have the filthy decadence on one side and the patrician masters of etiquette on the other, so it was funny when they became connected. Now, though, there’s a sector of the population that is simultaneously the raunchiest, loudest, filthiest and the group most stringently obsessed with enforcing social proprieties. That sector is the comedy crowd. That may be inevitable, but the point is that #toshdefenders aren’t thinkable in a universe where The Aristocrats is funny.

I want to get back to Evan’s important point, though, about how Louie is using The Aristocrats. The Aristocrats is shock-based; but it’s a slow-cooking shock.  It’s takes the funnybone burnout that plagues comedians and rubbing it viciously until it becomes erect. In this sense, it’s intensely coercive. But it’s also an insider’s game, a game of comedic one-upmanship. It’s a contest at its core. And it’s a blank check to indulge in what seems to have become the Holy Grail for comedians: the rape joke. And that Holy Grail is what everyone is circling the wagons to correct. If the rape joke is the Holy Grail, the funny rape joke is the Philosopher’s Stone.

Louis CK’s support of Daniel Tosh might sadden but it shouldn’t surprise us. Let’s be real; Tosh wasn’t even taking a risk when he flamed that woman. It wasn’t a misstep. He cribbed his heckler shutdown technique straight from CK in “Heckler/Cop Movie.” Sure, it’s possible that the resemblances are coincidental. It’s much more likely that in the heat of the moment he reached  out and found, ready to hand, a comedically critically acclaimed script on that very subject! That he wondered aloud about the funniness of rape the very week Louie aired Episode 2 was just a stroke of good luck. As I waded through the soup of sanctimony, anger, freedom of speech claims and theories of comedic liberty—nestled in with the comfortable consensus view that a bad audience member deserves all The Aristocrats can give and more—I may have missed something important: the end of Episode 2 was (unless I’m much mistaken) supposed to be CK’s crowning achievement: a funny rape joke.

Rudely,

L

PS–No sooner had this post gone up than Gerry Canavan and Rafi Kam informed me that Louis CK walked back the Tosh support this very eve,  claiming (among other things) that the tweet to Tosh was a coincidence. That seemed wildly unlikely, but I just reviewed his Twitter usage habits and they’re random and spare enough that it does seem plausible. (Just.) I can’t see the clip because Chile is a barren wasteland without same-day access to breaking American television, so I can’t comment in any more detail, but I hope what he said was good and makes us feel better about him. It doesn’t change any of the above: “Heckler/Cop Movie” is clearly a source text for comedians and comedy-goers—that’s how it’s functioning, regardless of Louis CK’s intent—“Setup” is still setting up a rape joke, and politeness is (literally) all the rage.

Over and out,

L

Louie vs. Louis CK: Something Is Wrong (Season 3, Episode 1)

Dear Dear TV,

We left Hannah Horvath eating cake out of tinfoil on a beach in the season finale of Girls just in time to catch Louis CK eating, then gobbling pizza off  a paper plate in the opening title sequence of Louie. Season 3: you’re here.

I’m glad we’re talking about these shows back to back because they share so much despite their obvious differences. Both characters are writers, both writers are characters, and both Louis CK and Lena Dunham are interested in exposing their fictional personae at their ugliest and most appetitive.

I want to flag two important differences, however. The first is structural: Louis CK tends to stitch two different and apparently unrelated stories together through bits of stand-up. It’s not quite right to call them A and B stories (although I’m going to anyway); they’re more like separate vignettes. In the pilot, for example, A is Louie’s field trip with his daughters. The field trip, which is set almost entirely on a school bus, goes wrong and culminates in Louie sending each child home in his or her own limousine. The B story is a disastrous date that begins with Louie knocking too frequently on his date’s door while her neighbor angrily flashes him. It ends with his date literally jumping onto a passing helicopter in order to get away.

The pilot opens with expository stand-up: “I’m 41 and I’m single, uh, not really single, just alone? But I have two children, and that’s the only thing I’m comfortable with in life anymore. I know how to take care of a couple of kids.”

In the A story, Louie talks too much. Whether he takes the initiative or it’s thrust upon him is debatable, but the fact is that he gives the bus driver directions, reproaches him for being irresponsible when they get a flat tire, overrides the teacher when she decides they’re going to walk the kids through Harlem to a subway stop, and sends each kid home in a limousine. In the A story, Louie never stops talking. “Do you realize what you’re teaching them?” the teacher says as he greets the long line of limos.

He does. And we know he does thanks to the stand-up that follows this set piece: “I’m white, my kids are white, which means they can’t screw up too badly, because they get a million chances. My life is really evil. There are people starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti.”

This is Louis CK’s method: showing his character in action, then obliquely commenting on it, like a sort of Greek chorus to and on himself. The A story is a monstrous version of the stand-up: Louis CK drives an Infiniti and is white like his daughters, but “Louie” rebukes a black man, then hires two dozen limousines to individually escort his daughter’s classmates home rather than have them walk together through a poor black neighborhood to the subway.

The B story knocks the stuffing out of poor Louie. All the initiative he showed in A in his capacity as a parent vanishes when it comes to B, his romantic life. Here, in a theme that gets picked up again in the first episode of Season 3, he can’t communicate. Unspeakable misunderstandings pile up—her crazy neighbor, his desperate lie that he’s wearing a suit because it’s the anniversary of his father’s funeral—all of which contribute to his date’s incredulity when he claims it wasn’t him knocking on the bathroom door shouting that he has to take a dump. In the dead intervals, he smiles at her in a sickening kind of way, and admits, when she asks him to, that he can’t stop.

These, roughly speaking, are Louie’s three dimensions on the show: overreaching Louie, defined by spurts of arrogance and self-righteousness,  mute and self-loathing Louie, most often seen in scenes with women (the season premiere shines a withering spotlight on mute Louie, in case we missed him earlier), and charismatic Louie, usually in stand-up mode, whose habit of commenting on his own flaws has the effect of attenuating them.

We’ve talked a lot here about the extent to which people’s reactions to Girls  seemed to depend on their perception of the show’s self-awareness. It became clear by the end of the season that the show is extremely self-aware, and that self-awareness goes a long way towards mitigating the characters’ apparent monstrosity, their blind spots and their privilege. We can accept those things provisionally if we know they’re being judged by the universe’s God.

Seen from this point of view, Dunham takes bigger risks than Louis CK. She’s young enough that she can (and is) mistaken for her callow character, and she doesn’t have a stand-up version of herself to comment on the action from the sidelines. I was telling Aaron Bady about the sexual harassment encounter in  Girls (by which he was horrified), and he made the point, which hadn’t occurred to me, that unlike Hannah, who is frequently a terrible person on Girls, Louie, in Louie, is essentially good. Sure, there’s a sort of sad-sack pathos to the character, sure, he makes some mistakes, but he’s wracked with guilt over everything. He’s also by definition obsessed with being a good father which, in this day and age, is  the fast-track to sainthood. There’s never a trace of irony when it comes to Louie as dad: the show starts by announcing fatherhood as Louie’s defining character trait in terms I’m going to repeat here again, because it’s amazing how absolutely they drip with emotional appeal: “I’m 41 and I’m single, uh, not really single, just alone? But I have two children, and that’s the only thing I’m comfortable with in life anymore.” Hannah Horvath admits that being a good friend to Marnie isn’t high on her list of priorities. Louie will never, ever, ever, be anything but a dedicated dad. Parenting will partially redeem him from the charges of human selfishness.

I would add, parenthetically, that Louis CK as stand-up also redeems the sad-sack Louie we see in the show. It’s easy to buy into Louie’s account of himself as pathetic, cringing, weak, passive, repulsive, and awkward. It’s astonishing, when you stop think about it, that he pulls this off while telling us about it onstage as a stand-up whose onstage presence is unfailingly assertive, self-assured, charismatic and appealing. We’ve asked whether Hannah Horvath is any good as a writer and talked about the pitfalls of showing artistic characters doing their art; Louie sidesteps this by making Louie a successful comedian whose personality onstage differs substantially from his personality off it. The one exception to this I can think of offhand is Episode 6 of Season 1, “Heckler/Cop Movie,” when Louie tells off an attractive heckler.

The other important structural difference between Louie and Girls are Louis CK’s experiments with sporadic continuity. He often has the same apartment, for example, but in some episodes he has a brother, in another two sisters. His mother, a lesbian in one storyline, is played by the same actress who played his date in another. Young Louie is played by a wide range of redheads. Even his daughters are sometimes played by different actresses. It’s a fascinating choice, and it produces a surreal quality that nevertheless feels anchored by the opening credits, which unfailingly show Louie eating pizza and descending into the underworld of the comedy club.  The comedy club is exempt from this constant shuffling of characters: Louie’s stand-up is consistent, his daughters are the only family members ever mentioned in it, and he never stops being exactly what he says he is: the white father of two white girls.

Which brings us to Season 3, which for the first time violates Louie-the-stand-up’s version of things. We see Louie’s ex-wife for the first time, and she gets a name and a race. Janet is black. That means Louie’s children are mixed race. That’s not a trivial change that contributes to the overall surrealism of the show. It’s a big deal, even if his ex-wife is white or Asian in the next episode. It’s the first time I can think of in which the show explicitly contradicts “stand-up Louie,” whose anchoring function as narrator and truth-teller is important. It means the terms he set in the pilot I’ve quoted above, terms to which he frequently returns—the problem of being a white father raising two white daughters in a way that won’t make them assholes, the problem of privilege, in fact—are suddenly inapplicable.

This matters because Louie’s fatherhood, its loneliness and its obstacles, constitutes the show’s backbone. In Season 2 there’s an episode in which Louie  takes his daughters to visit an elderly relative who turns out to be incredibly racist. That scene would scan very differently if his daughters are mixed race. This is less a matter of doing race badly than it is a matter of violating the rules of the show’s universe.  In general, Louis CK is pretty adept at taking on sensitive topics and doing them raunchy justice. Still, I don’t think the show, as it’s existed up to this point, can get away with this. (Nor, strictly speaking, did it try—that his ex-wife is black is a detail, not mentioned in the episode. There is, however, a longish bit of stand-up on replacing or adding on to a used-up dick by getting a transplant, preferably from a brown athlete.)

It’s possible that Louis CK as writer might be trying to create some distance between himself and Louie the stand-up, who has been drifting closer and closer to Louis CK since the show began.  What better way to break up with his narrator than by smashing his stupid car with a bulldozer? (Was it the Infiniti? I hope so, but I couldn’t tell.) Louis CK is big on this kind of spectacle. He’s said in interviews that his biggest expenses, when shooting the pilot, were the limousine scene and the helicopter scene. He talked about the difficulty of even finding that many limousines in New York, and bartering with the helicopter pilot for a rate he could actually afford. Transportation as spectacle—transportation as punchline, transportation as a means of annihilating sympathy—these all date back to the pilot, and it’s interesting to see that theme revived in Episode 1.

I haven’t said anything about the break-up scene and its follow-up scene in Louie’s apartment. Both were astoundingly good. April could have deciphered those cryptic parking signs in a second, that’s how good she is at reading conflicting messages that add up to No. It was so good that I, like Louie, find myself assenting, and with nothing to say.

Before and after midnight,

Lili