Why ‘Louie’ Is So Excellent—And Why It’s Getting Better Faster Than Other Shows

I’ve been holding off on writing about this season of Louie, in part because the first five episodes of the season, which I was fortunate enough to watch in advance, are so good that I’ve had a hard time thinking critically about them. But over at Slate, David Haglund wrote something terrifically perceptive about the show that I think is worth sitting with a little bit. He explained that where Curb Your Enthusiasm “keeps David in the kind of fictional (or semifictional) universe we’re accustomed to on TV, with a cast of regular characters and plotlines that extend through multiple episodes in the manner of a more typical sitcom. Louie has none of those things. While the show’s premise, if it can be called that—single dad with two daughters bumbling through life in New York City—might feel familiar, almost nothing else does.” That’s key to the show’s shambling, improvisational feel. But it also means that Louie can grow and improve faster than almost any other show on television, unmoored by a consistent continuity, timeline, or ensemble cast.

In previous seasons, Louie fell back frequently on a somewhat problematic crutch: he’d encounter a young, very pretty, blonde woman who challenged his worldview, hear her out, and sometimes, win her over. He did this with the anti-masturbation activist he debated on television, who he ended up spending a physically chaste but mentally filthy evening with, and with the cheerleader who was disgusted by his stand-up material but charmed by his tender care for his daughter’s duckling during their USO tour in Afghanistan. I don’t think that at any point Louie was condescending to these characters—he’s spoken about how his desire to have his character try to learn something from these kinds of people is genuine, and how he sincerely believes that his worldview is kind of broken and doesn’t serve him well. But they were never quite people so much as they were stand-in for ideas.

Now, if this was a conventional television show, Louie would have to go through a clear process of character evolution. He’d have to realize that his fascination with winning these women’s approval, much like his crush on Pamela, were a symptom of something, whether chasing unobtainable people after his divorce to avoid risk, or a reversion to his single years. There would be error, reckoning, hurting someone he loved (maybe his daughters), and a recalibration, moving Louie towards the kind of women we see him dating this season. And then, somewhere along the way, there would be will-they-or-won’t-they, and the promise of true love. Louie has precisely none of these things. Instead, it’s just recalibrated. The show suddenly has Louie dealing with his wife in a relatively mature way—even if their interactions are occasioned by relatively immature circumstances, like a midlife crisis motorcycle accident. He’s dating women his own age—even if he can’t handle a breakup appropriately or navigate a blind date (tonight, with Melissa Leo) with grace. Louie is just there, doing these things, jettisoning a schtick that was in danger of getting old without feeling angsty about it.

I’m not sure this kind of freedom is something that would be good for, or workable in, most television shows. Continuity and clear character arcs are a helpful tool for shows with multiple writers, a solution to a too many cooks problem that Louie doesn’t have to grapple with since C.K.’s vision is so clear throughout it. Even Girls, a show which is similar to Louie in its approach to sex and bodiliness, has been well-served by the imposition on Lena Dunham’s of both a sitcom structure and the need for clear in-episode and season-long arcs. But in the very rare case like Louie where the audience is on board for the project and the vision, it’s pretty breathtaking to watch a show both fix its weaknesses and move its main character forward in big leaps and bounds. Louie’s life may be a mess. But Louie is assured and precise in a way that’s truly wonderful.