Now that we’re a little deeper into what’s going to be a six-part series with “Elevator,” we have a better view of the larger picture and where this is all going. In this week’s second and third installments of the multi-episode arc, Louie returns to two themes he draws from often: his often frustrated attempts at meaningfully connecting with the women in his life and the happiness that usually eludes him precisely due to his somewhat self-absorbed navel-gazing.
“Elevator Pt. 2” opens with a jaunty little scene of Louie at the market, buying all kinds of delicious looking gourmet treats with which to assemble a beautiful gift basket as a thank you to Amia (Eszter Balint), the Hungarian woman who baked him a pie at the end of last week’s episode. When he realizes Amia isn’t home, he feels obligated to spend a little time with her elderly aunt (a charming Ellen Burstyn), who reveals that she, too was a comedian back in the day, performing and singing with her family to entertain the Hungarian army (for a moment, I was anticipating the set-up for Louis CK’s take on the infamous Aristocrats joke).
Louie never gets to hear Aunt Ivanka’s act because their visit is interrupted by a call from Jane’s school, an agitated staff member insisting he pick her up immediately after she pulled a teacher’s skirt down in a fit of anger and frustration. Jane’s always been portrayed as quirky and imaginative (and Ursula Parker has been wonderful at bringing those qualities to life), but here we see how her particular type of intelligence leads to problems socially and at school. While her older sister is poised and intelligent, Jane’s likely more gifted, but misanthropic, a questioner rather than an overachiever (Again, very much Louie’s daughter). Her objection to the fact that “Christopher Columbus is a murderer and they want me to draw a picture of him smiling” shows how bright she is and also how such a child could be viewed as a troublemaker and have difficulties fitting in with both her teachers and her classmates.
When Louie finally gets in touch with his ex-wife, the two grab coffee to privately discuss the incident. His ex immediately declares it’s time to enroll the girls in private school, a suggestion Louie quickly and vehemently rejects out of fear that doing so would displace them from the real world and into a false reality of moneyed privilege. Their dialogue quickly becomes less about Jane’s needs and more about their own parenting ideals – the opposing views that one should give their children every possible opportunity available to help them flourish and the view that handing them those opportunities will hinder their development into well-adjusted, self-sufficient adults. It’s an excellent scene, one that draws inspiration from CK’s stand-up (his attempts not to raise spoiled monsters is frequent comic fodder) and turns it into an honest exchange about the realities of co-parenting. There are truths to both viewpoints, yet so much of their beliefs are rooted in their own egos and a stubborn desire to cling to their ideals, that they both tend to lose sight of what’s actually best for their children.
While Louie’s dialogue with his ex is fraught with frustration, he finds it much easier to communicate with Amia, even though, or maybe because, she barely speaks any English. As part two closes and part three begins, the two share a pleasant date, including a trip to the deli the ill-fated Liz introduced him to in season three and a pantomime to find a hair dryer at Duane Reade. Despite the language barrier, both seem relaxed and comfortable with one another. Louie’s someone who often stumbles over his words or says the completely wrong things and with words not serving as an obstacle, he is free to simply enjoy Amia’s company. Similarly, he can also project whatever he’s feeling on to her since she can’t use her words to shoot him down or cut him, the way his ex and long-lost crush Pamela can.
In light of Louie’s budding new relationship, the return of Pamela (the always welcome Pamela Adlon) cuts a striking comparison between the two women. Throughout the series’ run, Pamela’s been cast as the one that got away or, more accurately, the one who wouldn’t be caught. Louie had been enamored of her wit, her moxie, and her dark, good looks despite the casual cruelty she had always shown towards him. Here, as she returns from her sabbatical in Barcelona, just assuming Louie will be available, she’s shown in a harsher light than before and her treatment of Louie seems nastier. Even when she expresses willingness to pursue a “guy/girl kissing type thing,” she makes a disgusted face to send the message she’d be doing Louie a favor. Though Pamela’s still funny (I laughed out loud when she took a picture of his face with her phone just to show him how stupid he looked), her quips don’t come across as gently mocking, but narcissistic and insulting. Having seen a glimmer of a different kind of relationship with Amia, Louie leaves Pamela and, using Aunt Ivanka as an interpreter, begs Amia to abandon her plans of returning to Hungary and stay in the US. Despite an initial misreading of her signals and the unnecessary destruction of a piano, he learns she will remain in the US for another month and would like to see him again.
So much of Louie revolves around his relationships with women and while there seems to be something between him and Amia, he is still struggling to connect on a deeper level. In comparison, just look at how instantly and meaningfully Amia and Jane are able to click when they meet in the hallway. Sure, it helps that Jane can apparently speak Hungarian, but their lovely violin duet is another shared language, wordless, emotional, and almost otherworldly in its beauty. Once again, Louie finds himself on the outside looking in, as the women in his life possess an ability to communicate and deeply connect with each other in ways that consistently elude him.
“Elevator Pt. 3” closes with the return of Charles Grodin’s gruff Dr. Bigelow, this time dragging a metaphor on a leash in the form of a contented, yet three-legged dog. Louie asks the doctor’s advice on whether or not he should pursue a relationship with Amia considering she’s leaving the country in a month or if he should just forget about her. Which path will make him happier? Not one to coddle, Dr. Bigelow quickly points out all the sorrow and suffering in the world due to birth defects, diseases, and other horrors, then points to his three-legged dog, who’s happier than anything in the world except a four-legged dog. Things could always be better, sure, but they could also be a lot worse. The dog doesn’t ponder the limb it lacks, it just appreciates what it has. Again, the notion of being unhappy despite the average American’s relative privilege and comfort is one that CK frequently mines for laughs in his act and explores in more depth on the show, pointing out the often frivolous nature of our unhappiness. For most of us, Louie included, the basic tools of happiness are at our disposal, but we just can’t get out of our own way.
These are somewhat heady ideas for a sitcom to tackle, but Louie typically defies convention. Neither a straight forward comedy nor an all-out drama, the show is peppered with frequent laugh-out-loud bursts of hilarity – both surreal and situational – and has moments of genuine pathos and deep feeling. When Jane is made to apologize to the teacher she stripped, in just the brief moment she faces the camera before hurrying out of the principal’s office, we see in the teacher’s face that she is deeply hurt and humiliated by the incident. The moment’s not played for laughs – this isn’t a mean and shrewish schoolmarm given an appropriately bawdy comeuppance, but a real woman who felt shamed and traumatized by the actions of an angry child. She’s on screen for mere seconds, but Louie makes us empathize with her. This is both a testament to the fact that despite our protagonist’s often troubled relationships with women, Louie is a show that consistently treats its female characters with great respect and also illustrates just how well drawn and realized the characters are, even when they only appear briefly.
Again, while one can certainly see traces of CK’s act in Louie and bits of stand-up often find their way into the show’s story threads, Louie represents something much more than CK’s classic routines brought to sitcom life. CK’s sitcom has less in common with Seinfeld than Woody Allen and in the ambitious “Elevator” series, we get a glimpse of a filmmaker emerging. While it may not always offer the rapid-fire, “Holy shit, I can’t breathe” hilarity of CK’s stand-up (though I typically find myself laughing out loud at least once and often smiling throughout), Louie is marked by depth of feeling, nuanced storytelling, and rich characterization that makes the show unlike anything else on television.