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This is the longer version of the post up at The New Republic:
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?
Cross-posted at Los Angeles Review of Books
The title of Girls Season 2 Episode 1 was “It’s About Time” — referring, exactly, to what? What is it we’ve been waiting for? Hannah’s (kind of, sort of) split from Adam? Marnie’s (kind of, sort of) return to Charlie? The return of the show itself? Probably mostly the latter: “It’s About Time” was a pretty conventional season premiere in that it mostly just eased us back into the milieu the last season had already established, concerning itself more with tone than with plot, character development, or theme.
Still, time was a theme, of sorts. Dunham has opted for the now-commonplace narrative gambit of skipping over an unspecified period of time (seemingly a couple of months) between seasons, so that a number of important events have occurred in the interim. (How is there not a TV Tropes entry for this practice?) Hannah is now having sex with Sandy (Donald Glover), unbeknownst (presumably) to Adam, who she is (reluctantly) nursing back to health after his accident; her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah has moved into her apartment, and is (platonically) sharing her bed; Shoshanna and Ray made some attempt at a relationship which fizzled out, due in part to her profligacy with emoji; Jessa and Thomas-John have been on a long honeymoon in Mexico (frankly, it would have been fine with me if they’d stayed there). Time marches on!
What I noticed most in this episode, though, were not the principals but the disaffected older characters, like Marnie’s embittered, narcissistic mom (Rita Wilson, playing against cutesy-pie type), or Elijah’s older boyfriend George, who has a karaoke-induced meltdown and then chastises the kids at Hannah and Elijah’s housewarming party for not having the right kind of fun (“When I was your age, I was snorting cocaine on twinks and dancing with my tits out!”). It’s interesting that the older people in Girls are frequently either attempting to re-enter the magic circle of twentysomething culture (like Jessa’s boss Jeff from last season) or passing angry judgment on it — or, in George’s case, both.
This intensifies a device Girls was already using intermittently last season: introducing older people at the story’s margins (most often parents, teachers, and bosses) in order to admit a corrective self-consciousness — or the possibility of self-consciousness — into the show’s mostly hermetic post-collegiate universe. Sometimes these older characters have some wisdom to dispense, but what we mostly see in them is a longing to return to youth, coupled with a scorn for how the young people of today are wasting it or doing it wrong. (“You look — can I be honest? — 30 years old,” Marnie’s mother tells her; translation: you don’t appreciate what you have, and you’re about to lose it.) It’s to Dunham’s credit that she can write convincingly for people over 30, but it must be said that she also takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in humiliating these characters, or emphasizing their most pathetic aspects: the scene where Hannah locks George out of the party (while still insisting, over his protests, that she’s “a sweet girl”) is both a case in point and a good allegory for the show’s general strategy vis-à-vis grown ups.
I wonder if, to some extent, the marginal presence of these voyeuristic, disapproving adults is Dunham’s way of working through the staggering amount of attention she’s received since the first season’s premiere. Much has been made of how popular Girls is with the generation it depicts, but it’s also, clearly, a source of continual fascination for older people as well, many of whom are vaguely (or not so vaguely) perplexed and disapproving. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the season. If the last season (or the episodes Dunham directed, anyway) had a preternatural confidence, this one came closer to swagger: the final shot of Dunham stripping felt like a real manifesto moment, since nudity — and particularly Dunham’s nudity — has been the catalyst for so much of the aforementioned perplexity and disapproval. It emphasized something that’s too easily missed: that Dunham shooting herself naked isn’t just an exhibitionistic compulsion, or a sign of millennial shamelessness, or (pace Howard Stern) a “little fat chick trying to get something going,” but a directorial signature.
On a shamelessly exhibitionistic note, glad to be back in the fold here at Dear Television! Looking forward to hearing what the rest of you have to say.
I talk to my friends way worse than this,
The first thing Dear TV ever covered was the first season of Girls, to which we shall return this coming week over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. To receive updates on posts, like our Facebook page! In the meantime, enjoy a stroll down memory lane with this index of our own first season. At the beginning, we only roughly tied our posts to episodes, so, be forewarned:
“Testing, Testing” / Evan
“American Nervousness, 2012″ / Phil
“How are things in Ohio?” / Evan
“Call Me, Maybe” / Jane
“A Theory of Crackuracy” / Phil
“Bushwick Bildungsroman” / Evan
“Turn On, Drop In, Drop Out” / Jane
“The Economy of Friendship” / Jane
“Risky Business” / Evan
“The Eyes of Kathryn Hahn” / Phil
“Killing Carrie Bradshaw” / Lili
“The Marriage Plot” / Jane
“Bottoms Up” / Phil
This week, your friends at Dear Television covered episodes of New Girl and The Mindy Project, both of which were helpfully titled, “Halloween.” We also began a new tradition for our syndication at The Los Angeles Review of Books: death matches! From now on, we will not only be writing about issues of gender, class, and adorkability, we’ll also be judging these shows as a Battle of the Thirtysomething Lady Sitcoms. Check us out at the LARB to see who took the crown this week…
NEW GIRL, THE MINDY PROJECT, and the HALLOWEEN SPECIAL
Jane Hu: Shiny Red Lame Special On how The Mindy Project‘s in-costume episode was a gamble that ended up revealing the new show’s strength and depth:
While New Girl waited an entire season before taking on the Halloween special, Mindy Project aired their first last night, with only three episodes preceding it. The fact that it worked — that it was, at least for me, the best episode yet — speaks to Mindy Project’s success in setting out (and setting up) its characters so that they still speak to us even when dressed up as other characters.
And, furthermore, how Halloween Specials show us the profound joys of being recognized:
Given television’s theatrical and metavisual qualities, Halloween seems more suited to the medium than Christmas. Halloween specials remind us that characters are always already remodeled after prior characters — that they are always already in costume. Last week, Leslie Knope dressed up Rosie the Riveter in Parks and Recreation.
If one missed the reference, the costume and its attendant allusions would fall flat. Given that Parks & Rec jokes frequently rely on cultural references, however, one would suspect that its dedicated viewers would have easily recognized Rosie… New Girl and Mindy Project did the same. Jokes about Woody Allen! Jokes about Woody Allen’s tribute to the Marx Brothers! Diane from Cheers! Josh dresses up as Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, since it’s Mindy’s favorite film. But when Mindy quotes from the film, Josh doesn’t recognize it — and Josh is, like, really white.
Lili Loofbourow: Peanuts and the Perils of the Perfect Costume On how The Mindy Project locked it down this week:
Romantic comedies are like ice-skating (or, you know, any other sport): you know what you’re going to get, but the pleasure lives in the virtuosic disruptions of the format. QUADRUPLE-LUTZ! NO-HITTER! Kaling’s pulling this off, delivering solid formula along with some genuinely impressive moves. The show’s pleasure is as much in its grace notes as in the overfamiliar melody (“the brown Bridget Jones,” as Subashini Navaratnam put it). Scenes that should be throwaways do a little extra work.
And on how one of those throwaway exchanges helped crystallize Mindy Lahiri as a character:
When Mindy puts a jabbering kid on the phone, we all know what the next move is and what this scene is meant to tell us. Mindy will be good or bad with kids and that will show us A) how selfish she is and B) how much she wants kids (and therefore a man). That’s the point of kids in sitcoms about thirty-something women. That is the only way we’ve ever seen these chess pieces move with respect to each other. But no — Mindy actually sees this kid…Mindy’s childishness, her selfishness, her self-centeredness, all have the interesting side effect of letting her be a better friend because she’s not performing goodness. She’s refusing the Goodness Scoreboard. That’s an interesting brand of unlikeability.
Phil Maciak: Good Grief On how New Girl is strong on character/weak on plot, and Mindy Project is the opposite:
How on earth is it possible that a 30-year-old woman, growing up in America with an encyclopedic knowledge of romantic comedies and a television addiction — Mindy Kaling, in other words, who just executive produced an episode of television based around the message of It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — has never heard of Peanuts? Who is Mindy Lahiri? Who are any of these people?
And on how hard it is for these two shows to create original characters from the set of archetypes and stale formats given to them by television and rom-com history:
The hot doctor. The spinster with no prospects. The man who goes where he wants, when he wants. The cool witty girl who kind of kills it in bed. The douche. The psycho. The dork. In their least interesting moments, the characters on these shows exist as either embodiments or comical inverses of these types. At their best, these characters mama-bird their types — ingesting them and regurgitating them in new forms. (Sorry.)
Get up in the comments section at LARB as we track more quadruple-lutzes, possible no-hitters, and missed Peanuts references this week!
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,
Dear Lili, Jane, and Phil,
“I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years. I know every joke,” Louis C.K. proclaims at the start of Episode 2 of the third season of Louie. “Even if I haven’t heard it, you start telling me a joke, I know how it’s going to work.” If you’ve ever spent any time with professional comedians, you’ll have noted how infrequently they laugh or smile: prolonged exposure to the mechanics and the business of joke-telling, and the experience of hundreds if not thousands of easy, lazy, or overfamiliar jokes have taken their toll. This joyless, jaded, seen-it-all affect is something that Louie has captured perfectly from its very first episode: not just Louie, but pretty much all his comedian friends (all of them, naturally, played by real-life comedians) display it.
This episode gives us an idea of what it takes to make Louie laugh. In “Telling Jokes/Set-Up” — a title that both follows the utilitarian naming formula previous episodes of Louie have established and performs a telling (ahem) play on words — we first see Louie eating dinner with his daughters, telling knock-knock jokes. The jokes start out relatively simple (“Who’s there?” “Moo.” “Moo who?” “I didn’t know you were crying, cow”) and quickly, as often with small kids, get very convoluted and silly (“The painter who painted both of you as mermaids, but instead of being underwater, it’s pee pee”). The pleasure of the scene is less in the girls’ performances than in Louis’ utterly convincing delight in their innocent amateur attempts at something he does for a living. (In case we didn’t get it, the stand-up segment immediately following this scene underlines the point.)
In the second, much longer story, which stretches across three segments, we follow Louie as he is set up by his comedian friend Allan Havey with a woman named Laurie (played by the Oscar-winning Melissa Leo). At first Louie and Laurie display little interest in one another, but they bond over their mutual distaste for their married friends. (“Married people. They just love spreading their shit on everyone.”) The two go off to a bar together, get drunk, and end up in the front of Laurie’s truck negotiating an awkward sexual encounter. (Is there any other kind, in Louie-world?) Laurie gladly fellates Louie, but when she requests reciprocation, he refuses, claiming that the act is too intimate for him. (There may be some truth to this assertion, but I think we’re supposed to think, as Laurie does, that he’s just lazy.) Finally, through a combination of humiliation and physical violence (she punches him in the face, knocking his head into the passenger-side window and cracking the glass), Laurie
persuades forces Louie to go down on her. She also wins $1,000, having bet him a few minutes ago that he would end the night by “licking her pussy and asshole.” He doesn’t have the money on him, but they both agree that he can pay her next time they see each other; it’s obvious to both of them that they’re going to be going out again. This final twist has the feeling of a punchline to a long, sick shaggy-dog story like “The Aristocrats”: what impresses isn’t where we finally arrive but the unlikely, explicit, disturbing elements touched on along the way.
Plenty of previous episodes have contrasted scenes of Louie and his children — scenes which, as Lili points out, function as a guarantee of his essential decency — with something darker and more sordid. (Very occasionally, the two worlds overlap, as in last season’s “Halloween/Ellie.”) Here, though, the two worlds are linked by something more than ironic juxtaposition. They offer two opposed ways of crafting a surprising comic situation, one that can arouse the attention of even the ultra-jaded Louie. The juvenile surprise offered by the total innocence of Jane’s joke — which surprises via its combination of absurdity and prosaic, logical development — and the grown-up depravity of the Louie/Laurie story have something in common: it’s a story to jolt awake the sensibilities of professional comics deadened by decades of predictable set-ups and punchlines. (Note, again, that the Leo segment is titled “Set-Up.”)
This brings us back to the extended comparisons between Louie and Girls that both Lili and Jane have been pursuing: for me, it’s less that Hannah Horvath is (secretly) horrible and Louie is (secretly) good than that Hannah is too young to realize that her mistakes will count against her, while Louie is too old to believe that even his good deeds will amount to enough to redeem him. The difference between them lies not in their ethical behavior — both have their good and bad moments — or their degrees of privilege — which are comparably high (Hannah might get some points by virtue of being female, but Louie seems to come from a working-class background; I’d call it a stalemate). It’s in their degrees of experience and knowledge, including self-knowledge. One of the reasons Louie has to be so extreme — and, at the same time, so subtle — is that it’s meant to register on the cognitive radar screens of people who have burned themselves out on the usual forms of humor, who don’t just roll their eyes at a corny, overused joke (a “clam,” in comedy writer parlance) but almost physically can’t experience it anymore. The apparently off-handed, casual nature of the show, with no two episodes following exactly the same formal structure, is in fact very highly calculated to stimulate the brains of people who are inured to certain kinds of formal structure. (If you want to see what real off-handed casualness looks like, leave the TV on after Louie and watch Russell Brand’s new, bizarrely under-produced BrandX.)
Hannah may seem self-conscious — and she is — but she’s still innocent enough to expect that her life will take the form of a story, whereas Louie seems to be as disgusted with narrative continuity as he is with traditional humor. Just as Louie (the character) knows that even his moments of grace or good luck are flashes in the pan — after all, life is “shitty 90% of the time,” as he and Laurie agree — so Louie the show knows that surprise is the only formal structure it can trust. And this means that, paradoxically. Louie is a harder character for the audience to know than Hannah, precisely because he knows himself better than she does, and can steer any given situation away from what Louie would usually do. (Another, shorter way to put all this, of course, would just be to say he’s going through a mid-life crisis.)
I think it’s about time to bring this post to a close, but, before I sign off, one final question:
Who didn’t let the gorilla into the ballet?