A lot of stuff happens in tonight’s two episodes of “Louie”—Louie wakes up, Louie plays poker, Louie gets thrown in jail—but as in the previous three seasons of Louis C.K.’s ballsy, brilliant show, all that plot is kind of besides the point. This isn’t “Game of Thrones,” after all; no one is getting his head cut off. So I was sort of surprised, and amused, when I received the screeners for the fourth season, along with a precisely worded embargo request from FX, asking (respectfully!) that critics not reveal any spoilers about the garbagemen in tonight’s opening scene. But that wordless, opening sequence was a perfect “Louie” gag: taking a small, mundane annoyance of urban life (in this case, impossibly loud sanitation workers as you try to sleep) and pushing it to an absurdist extreme, as the garbagemen climbed through Louie’s window to jump on his bed and clang around. Even after Louie left the room, the camera lingered there, watching the men throwing trash. There was a strange beauty to it, reflecting part of what makes Louis C.K. a great artist of the city, mining the peculiar discomfort of cramped quarters and strange encounters.
In the 19 months since “Louie” aired its last episode, Louis C.K. has transformed from our most celebrated comedian to the culture’s foremost stand-up philosopher. He’s a voice of wisdom and humanity on technology and consumerism and modern malaise. Last week, his tweets about his kids’ homework prompted a New Yorker column on education reform. One recent stand-up bit is now, oddly enough, circulating online as life-hacking advice. He took 2013 off to recharge (and to put in memorable appearances in Blue Jasmine and American Hustle.) And now he’s back, with two episodes airing each Monday night for the next seven weeks. (This rushed schedule lets the show qualify for this year’s Emmy’s, which it should sweep.) This is the same “Louie”—brilliant, humane, melancholy, gross—its missing opening credits the only significant change in the fourth season. Maybe we just don’t need to be introduced to Louis C.K. anymore; he’s a known quantity.
Tonight’s first episode, titled “Back” (a pun!), was about as low-concept as the show gets: a grab-bag of vignettes, loosely grouped around aging and mortality and paternal responsibilities. After his rude awakening, Louie chats with his building’s super, who tries to tell him a joke (set-up: Pinocchio performing oral sex on a woman) but skips the real punchline. (I’ll let you google that yourself.) Louie tries to set him straight, but the super thinks the scenario is funny enough on its own. “Why do you gotta clutter it up? I mean, aren’t you a comedian?” Cluttering it up, of course, is what Louis C.K. does best, layering jokes with detours and pauses and surreal touches. Then again, the super may have the right idea: tonight, the punchlines felt like afterthoughts in episodes where the real humor—and pathos—came from its juxtapositions and unlikely pairings.
Case in point: The first episode’s disappointingly predictable punchline—Louie uses his newly purchased vibrator to soothe his newly aching back, treading on ground Sex and the City handled a decade ago. What came before, though, was delightful, particularly Louie’s visit to a doctor played by Charles Grodin. Now, Louie doesn’t have the best record with medical professionals: One doctor told him he had “the worst penis [he’s] ever seen,” and in the first season a dentist molested him. In that light, Grodin’s doctor wasn’t that bad, merely chiding Louie for having not coming to him with a more interesting disease while attentively eating a sandwich. And his advice is the kind of morose-yet-life-affirming wisdom that Louis C.K. is known for: “Accept the fact that your back is going to hurt sometimes. Be very grateful for the moments that it doesn't. Every second spent without back pain is a lucky second. String enough of those lucky seconds together, you have a lucky minute.”
On to episode two, a shaggy dog story that starts and ends at the Comedy Cellar, taking Louie to the exotic world of rich people in between. Jerry Seinfeld, in perfect rich-jerk mode, invites Louie to open for him in a benefit in East Hampton. (“In Long Island,” he patronizingly clarifies.) The act needs to be clean, or as Seinfeld puts it: “Can you not say ‘dirty sex poop dogs having sex vagina dirt’?” When Louie, in a jeans and a t-shirt, arrives at the hotel he’s literally shoved aside by the rich guys. Taking the stage, he can barely string together a sentence. “Hey, it’s cold outside. I mean, it wasn’t, it was pretty warm … I don’t know … It’s crazy.” By the end, he’s accusing the wealthy guests of owning slaves. Eventually, he yields the stage to Seinfeld, who knows that the East Hampton trillionaires only want to hear jokes about golf. It’s painful and hilarious, and it's hard to believe it when a gorgeous, leggy blonde (Yvonne Strahovski) wants to take Louie home with her.
“Well maybe it’s not really happening.” That’s what she says to Louie later, as they lie in bed after having sex. She immediately raises her eyebrows and laughs, but it was hard to shake the feeling that she may have been right. It’s not wish fulfillment—it’s far too uncomfortable for that—but the entire sequence felt dream-like: the sun-kissed drive, the French music, the ocean skinny-dipping. He asks her name, and she runs her fingers through his patchy red locks and responds, “I like your hair.” He suggests that she put on some clothes and she jumps him. Strahovski did a fine job, but Blake, the model/astronaut’s daughter, was less a character than a fantasy come to life. Even her dialogue sounded stilted, as though it had been translated from French. “Isn’t it always beautiful here?” Louie asks as she runs through the sand. “Yes, but I never notice because I hate it here. Tonight I love it—because I’m laughing.” Does anyone talk like that?
The episode ends back at the Comedy Cellar, as Louie relates this sad, absurd tale to the hot waitress who’d avoided his advances the previous night. But now she can’t stop laughing at the story, and she’s affectionate with Louie, touching his arm and patting his head and bringing him beer. That’s the anti-climactic punchline—but the abrupt way the scene suddenly cut from Louie in a Long Island jail cell to Louie talking to the waitress made me wonder if any of this happened, or if we’d just been watching him spin a tall tale.
Then again, in “Louie,” it’s never clear—or even important—whether something is really happening. More than any other show on TV, “Louie” proudly flaunts its lack of continuity. Next week, Louie’s brother appears for the first time since season one; in the interim, he’d been erased out of existence. In one season two episode, Louie took in his abandoned niece; she was never seen again. The third season, with Parker Posey’s arc and its “Late Night” storyline, stretched the show’s aversion to serial storytelling, and it was also the most thematically unified: each episode thrusting Louie outside his comfort zone, until the transcendent Yangtze River finale. Tonight’s episodes appear to be self-sufficient tales, but next week “Elevator Part 1” will air, with Elevator Parts 2 through 6 to follow. Tonight was the familiar “Louie” we’ve known, loved, and missed, but I’m hoping the season goes in ever more ambitious, ungainly directions.