Brow Beat

Why Louie Gets Credit for Being Original Even When It Isn’t

Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon.

KC Bailey/FX

Louis C.K. occupies a unique position in the cultural firmament. He’s the secular saint of regular Joes—smarter, funnier, blunter, and more vulnerable than most middle-aged dads in T-shirts, and yet, still, a middle-aged dad in a T-shirt. He’s the ultimate explorer of male feeling, going further, going deeper, going weirder. C.K.’s personal gravitas is such that for some members of his audience he has developed a Madonna-like variation on the Midas touch: Everything he caresses seems to have been touched for the very first time. But he is not quite so trailblazing as some of the show’s biggest fans seem to think—and with the season finale, C.K. tried to tell them so.

C.K. and Louie are both genuinely original and idiosyncratic, but this has overshadowed the ways in which they are not, in fact, all that original. Yes, many Louie episodes exhibit a flagrant disregard for TV conventions, for standard episodic structure, for punch lines, for logic; its best installments are unbuttoned, touching on so many ideas and possibilities that they make old subjects feel observed anew. This effect is so powerful that when C.K. delivers a sophisticated variation on a Full House–style lesson—the word faggot is hurtful, bullying is crappy, other people are mysterious, fat women are human beings—it feels like a Zen koan rather than a fortune cookie.

But with this finale, C.K tried to upend the myth of his special acuity. In the episode, C.K. teed up his mission statement, using Marc Maron as a Louis C.K. stand-in. Maron appeared as a very successful comedian with a new TV show who castigates Louie for his bad-friendship and jealousy, inspiring Pamela (Pamela Adlon) to deliver a rant about the relative worth of successful comedians with TV shows. “None of you guys are special or magical,” Pamela tells Louie. “Some of you are luckier and some of you work harder than others. You’re just guys.” Louis C.K. is just a guy. He even went so far as to explain what has long been cited as a hallmark of Louie’s unique surreality, that his lily-white kids have a black mom: Turns out, it’s just that Janet is biracial. We only thought it was a mystery.

The entire season, like the finale, played around with originality, or rather, a lack of it. “Elevator” was a much-heralded six-episode arc, but it unfolded like any other television show would: continuously, with the story playing out in order, supplemented by occasional B-plots. In the last episode of that arc, Louie rescued his family from a hurricane, like a superhero. In the second two parts of “Pamela,” Louie and Pamela embark on a real romance, a romance that is simultaneously unique to them—Pamela moving out all of Louie’s stuff is a new sign of affection—and also grounded in dopey romantic tropes (a first kiss underneath the shooting stars).

Last week’s “In The Woods,” in which Louie flashed back to his own misspent youth on the occasion of catching his 12-year-old daughter smoking weed was moving, evocative, and also completely unoriginal. Freaks & Geeks, My So Called Life, and nearly every show currently on ABC Family has covered this territory: the tortured fight between adolescents and parents where the contested boundary resides in the teenager’s actual body. Some of these shows have even arrived at more complex conclusions than C.K., who has Louie go the forgiving-dad route, trusting his daughter to make it through instead of adding to her angst—even though, from a certain perspective, Louie’s own screaming mother seems essential to his youthful self’s eventual righting.

Louie’s infamous “So Did The Fat Lady,” in which an overweight woman named Vanessa (Sarah Baker) berates Louie for his double standards felt to many people—myself included—like a kind of standout event, an episode giving voice to an under-voiced character. It was framed this way by C.K, who gave Vanessa a dramatic, heartfelt sermon with swooping one-take camera work, visually and tonally underlining the moment’s importance. But as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum pointed out, Louie is not the only show to take on the subject of fat women’s subjectivities: Roseanne, Girls, The Mindy Project, Drop Dead Diva, Glee, and Mike and Molly are just some of the series she accurately name-checks. (And these shows do not content themselves with delivering the totally remedial lesson that overweight women are people, too.)

Even C.K’s boldest decision this season, to remake Louie as a kind of creep, was in conversation with TV’s most omnipresent trend: the raging, suppressed, frequently-on-the-verge-of-violence anti-hero. C.K seemed to have something specific—if, again, not particularly insightful—to say about the irreducible, occasionally creepy nature of male power: namely, that it really does exist. Lurking inside of nice-guy, sad-sack, good-dad Louie there is an unthinking creep, one with an impregnable, imposing male body. Louie gets hit on by a beautiful woman, plays shy, sweet, and swept off his feet—until he accidentally hits her in the face and puts her in the hospital. Louie walks into an apartment trying to do good and is taken for a rapist. Louie rejects two smart, funny, searing women to take up with a woman he literally cannot communicate with and is free to project all over. Louie once told Pamela he would wait for her forever; in “Pamela, Part 1” he physically attacks her, clawing at her clothes, corralling her in a doorway, as she screams, “You can’t even rape well!” 

Given the audience’s attachment to Louie, this was a bold choice, but a bold choice that plopped Louie down next to Breaking Bad and True Detective and myriad lesser shows focused on furious men—and then mimicked them right up to the not damning ending, when Louis let Louie off the hook. After a season long investigation into the way that Louie and his body might be dangerous, it ends with a lovely, heartfelt two-parter in which Louie, the almost-rapist, finally has the wherewithal to begin a real relationship. That dangerous body, the one that hits and corners and beats up pianos, is revealed to also be “a mailbox with two tree stumps and a melon on top,” standing naked and abashed in front of a bathtub, looking for reassurance.

That final bathtub moment encapsulated both what is so right about Louie and what has jarred all season long. It’s a cliché we’ve seen a million times, the candlelit tub, put to new purposes, treating the male body with the harsh eye usually reserved for women. But it also burnishes Louis C.K., by side-stepping all the gnarly issues the show itself had raised and by allowing C.K. to get credit for exposing himself to his audience. Every time Louis C.K. takes Louie down a peg, he burnishes himself. When Louie is behaving horribly, C.K. knows it. When Louie is being embarrassed, C.K. is being gutsy. Moments that puncture Louie make C.K. look good. When Louis C.K. writes a speech about how a man with a TV show is “just a guy,” he contributes to the myth of himself, so upstanding he keeps humbly insisting he’s regular, which is proof positive of his irregularity. But Louie this season was not as fresh as it has been in the past—and not just because Louis C.K. said so.