It’s been about two years since the last season of FX’s Louie, comedian Louis CK’s acclaimed sitcom, premiered – a fact slyly alluded to by both the title of this season’s lead-off episode, “Back” and the joke about suddenly aging two years that CK opens with – but as we open up on season four, it feels as if he never left. “Back” has all the hallmarks of a classic Louie episode, a story built on several loosely connected vignettes, a jazzy, Woody Allen–inspired portrayal of Manhattan, and a focus on the daily disappointments of our hero.
We open with a little surrealist slice-of-NYC-life, as Louie’s attempt to sleep in is disrupted and then utterly destroyed by a trio of increasingly noisy garbage men, first loudly tossing garbage cans around and then eventually bursting through Louie’s windows, banging lids together like cymbals and continuing to jump on his bed and destroy his bedroom long after he resignedly gets out of bed. We also check in with Louie’s daughters and through his misguided refusal to carry Jane’s (Ursula Parker remains as delightful as ever) backpack in hopes of teaching her a lesson on personal strength, we see that Louie remains a good intentioned, yet ultimately clueless father. We return to his poker nights with friends and see Louie chilling and shooting the shit with fellow comedians, including Nick DiPaolo, Jim Norton, and Sarah Silverman. These scenes of free-style, casual riffing between fellow comedians are often the most outright funny in an episode, as was the case here with everyone making fun of and simultaneously satisfying their own curiosity by probing Norton’s masturbatory proclivities.
Inspired by Norton’s recommendation, Louie visits a sex shop in hopes of procuring a dildo of his own. Feeling a little awkward around the blasé staff and fancy, metallic phalluses, Louie asks for something more simple and just plain “penis-colored,” and in gesturing towards one in particular, somehow throws his back out and has to hobble out of the sex shop, crippled and sans battery-operated penis. Forced to rely on the assistance of a little old lady to even hail a cab (thankfully, she wasn’t as Draconian in her views on lessons in personal strength as he had been with Jane), Louie lurches into his building and enters the doctor’s office in the lobby, hoping the doctor will see him and give him something to alleviate his pain.
Instead, the uninterested doctor (a hilariously curt Charles Grodin), who hardly cares enough to pause from his noisily-consumed lunch, dismisses Louie with the succinct summary, “My professional diagnosis is your back hurts.” He explains that humans are meant to walk on our hands and knees, not upright and are thus using our backbones incorrectly. So unless Louie plans to start travelling on all fours, he advises he get use to his back hurting and learn to appreciate every moment that it doesn’t as a lucky second, a view which sounds suspiciously like Louie’s general world-view, as well. As Louie leaves the office defeated, he sees the receptionist using a suspiciously phallic looking back massager to alleviate her back pain and promptly purchases one to shut himself into his room with, effectively killing both the back pain and masturbation toy birds with one, seductively vibrating stone.
Aging and change are the themes that run through “Back,” not only in the punctuating bits of CK standup and sitcom Louie’s hilariously untimely decrepitude, but also by the fact this his daughters are also growing older, as evidenced by older daughter Lilly’s increasing annoyance with the bickering of her father and younger sister and her tendency to behave as the most mature member of their family. While “Back” has its funny moments (particularly the gem-filled poker table discussion on masturbation and Grodin’s insensitive doctor), the episode is largely an inconsequential, though mostly amusing installment, one that serves to plunge us back into the world of Louie without reaching the heights of inventive hilarity that mark the series’ best installments.
“Model,” the stronger of the two episodes, opens with Louie (wearing the famous Awesome Possum shirt instantly recognizable to fans of 2007’s “Shameless”) making a disastrous attempt at asking out a waitress, who’s so uninterested and offended by the proposal that she manages to resoundingly reject him before he can even muster more than two words, a near instantaneous turndown which may be a record for Louie. Still sputtering in embarrassment, Louie turns to see Jerry Seinfeld across the bar, who asks if Louie is available to open for him at a benefit he’s hosting in the Hamptons the following night. Seinfeld brusquely and condescendingly tries to convey a sense of what’s appropriate for the event to Louie, asking him to work clean (i.e. not saying “dirty sex boob dogs having sex with vagina dirt”) and emphasizes that the benefit is in EAST HAMPTON new fewer than seven hundred times in their brief conversation. Just as the Louis CK of Louie is a bit of a parody, his schlubbiness and awkwardness magnified to extreme levels, Jerry’s persona on the show is similarly over the top, an arrogant, smug, elitist dick who oozes disdain in his every scene with CK. While Seinfeld always seems to be having so much fun playing the Lex Luther to Louie’s Superman and is probably my favorite recurring guest star, the set up was a bit predictable as it led into the inevitable snobs vs. slobs narrative at the Hamptons benefit, an event you just knew Louie was going to be all wrong for as soon as he headed for that Long Island paradise via bus.
Just how far Louie is out of his element in this playground of the uber-wealthy (Louie: “There are trillionaires now?”) is revealed when he steps out of his taxi clad in his traditional black jeans and tee and into a sea of Maseratis and tuxedos. Louie is nearly shooed away by event staff, like a rat in the kitchen of a 5-star restaurant, until Jerry greets him at the door in typically disgusted fashion. Stopping only to borrow the badge and patch- bedecked jacket of a staff security guard in a futile attempt to make Louie appear more respectable, Jerry practically shoves him onto the stage and throws the completely unprepared Louie to the wolves.
What follows is a great bit of cringe-comedy, as Louie completely and utterly bombs (is there anything more painful than watching a comedian die on stage, every joke crashing to the earth in flames?). While his abject failure is uncomfortably hilarious, the real reason he bombs isn’t because his jokes are so terrible (although, to be sure, “chickens are dumb” is obviously god-awful), but mostly because of how tone-deaf and out of step he is with his upper crust audience. Louie manages to slip in a few good lines (“I know you people don’t do your own shopping because you all have slaves still.” “This is your soul-laundering service.”), but he’s met with open hostility by the crowd of the rich and powerful, who came out to lavishly celebrate their own charitable, magnanimous natures, not hear themselves skewered by a slob in a borrowed employee’s jacket. While this is a group Jerry certainly knows how to work – with jokes about golf and a few shots at the expense of Louie and the lower class in general, remarking that Louie looks ready for his new low-paying security job – Louie connects with no one, except one woman who laughs uproariously at the awkward train wreck unfolding on stage.
As Louie flees the venue, tail between his legs, the woman (Yvonne Strahovski) follows him out and we see that she is young, wealthy, and gorgeous (“A model,” she blithely informs him.) She tells him he was funny, precisely because he was so awful. “If you only knew what assholes these people are. The fact that they all hated you makes you my hero,” she shouts across the courtyard before pulling up in her Maserati and ordering him to hop in. Louie then sets off on a surreal, almost blissful idyll with this beautiful woman, dreamily watching her run off into the ocean in her underwear before she brings him into her massive beachfront mansion and has sex with him. Louie almost resists her advances at first because they don’t feel right, this shouldn’t be something that’s happening to him. “A very beautiful astronaut’s daughter doesn’t usually take me home and have sex with me,” he points out. She responds, “Maybe it’s not happening.”
And just when Louie seems to be relaxing a bit, we’re ripped out of his postcoital high and thrust right back into the cringe-inducing, as Louie reacts to Blake’s tickling by accidentally punching her in the face and knocking her unconscious. In quick succession, Louie finds himself in the hospital waiting room, where Seinfeld once again gets to demean him via phone call and where the girl’s astronaut father breaks his nose, and then in a prison holding cell, where his lawyer is hopeful he can get the girls’ family to settle for $5 million in damages. After Louie and his bandaged nose take the long ride back to Manhattan via bus, he relates his tale of woe to the waitress from the beginning of the episode, who’s now suddenly more attentive, laughing at his story and offering to get him a drink. As Louie sat smiling, I couldn’t help but think back to Blake’s remark that “maybe it’s not happening.”
Perhaps the story of his rendezvous with a model and subsequent indentured servitude to her family was just something he made up, a sad-sack sob story designed to explain away a broken nose (perhaps injured during a dildo-buying incident) and win over some chick through his self-deprecation and awkwardness, the very traits Blake found hilarious and appealing in him, as well. Louie’s certainly not afraid to indulge in flights of fancy and the reality of the show is often fluid. At times, it’s unclear as to whether something is taking place solely in Louie’s imagination, but getting bogged down in the reality of a particular moment or episode is unimportant. The entire world of the show takes place within CK’s imagination and it often feels as if we’re peeking inside his mind, catching glimpses of his foibles and insecurities as well as the things that make him laugh and those that inspire his comedy. It is thanks to CK’s seemingly unending creativity that even at the onset of season four, Louie remains unlike anything else on TV – bold, experimental, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny.