Louis C.K. addressed the thorny issue of police brutality in last night’s Louie. In “Cop Story,” Louie runs into Lenny (Michael Rapaport), an NYPD cop who once dated his sister and thinks he’s better buddies with Louie than he actually is. Lenny badgers Louie into joining him at a Knicks game, though in typical Louie fashion, the night quickly spirals downward into angsty melodrama. Unable to get into the Knicks game, the two have drinks at a bar, and later, Lenny discovers that he’s lost his gun sometime over the course of the evening. He has a terrifying breakdown, destroying much of Louie’s apartment in the process. Louie eventually finds the gun after retracing their steps, and the episode ends with Lenny bursting in tears, barreling him down to the ground in an awkward embrace.
Ok, so “Cop Story” doesn’t really address Ferguson, Eric Garner, the growing distrust between law enforcement and civilians, or even dirty cops. There are no whiffs of “Black Lives Matter,” no one is shot, and the only person accosted by a police officer is the pathetically wan Louie—he’s frequently subjected to Lenny’s abrasive, socially awkward manner of interactions, which include “playful” shoving and hitting. And yet it’s impossible to view this episode without hearing the echo of the past few months’ news headlines in the back of your head, something that C.K. is surely aware of. Without saying anything at all about the current public image of police, he says a lot.
It’s all in the small details: There’s the first moment when they’re reunited, for instance, and Lenny “searches” a bewildered Louie, takes his phone, and makes Louie tell him his password so that he can get his number. When they meet up the next evening, Lenny arrives at Louie’s door with his gun pulled, “joking” around as if he were raiding the apartment. “Asshole,” Louie whimpers while understandably flinching each time Lenny points his gun at him. “What asshole? You don’t insult the man with the gun,” Lenny replies giddily. And later, there’s a cut to Lenny, mid-conversation, bragging to Louie about being on the job: “And that’s it, usually a guy he’ll just give up and that’s the end of it,” he tells Louie passionately, “and most of the time you don’t even have to do that, but sometimes you get in their face HARD, you know?” (He simultaneously gets in Louie’s face, to demonstrate what exactly he means.)
Lenny exhibits a great deal of entitlement that seems to be derived from his profession as a cop—granted, as he ruefully admits to Louie in a not-uncommon moment of self-pity, he’s never risen above the rank of patrolman in 19 years, so he doesn’t have that much power. (And he definitely doesn’t have any sway with an on-duty cop when Lenny tries to get them into a special entrance for the game; they’re turned away by the cop dismissively.) But what little control over other civilians he does have as a police officer, he seems to relish. It’s the kind of unchecked liberty that has ear-wormed its way into the public consciousness as we’ve watched real-life cops forcefully oppose those who question or challenge the limits of their authority; ostensibly try to cover up murder; or utterly fail to show any empathy for those who aren’t cops.
And the casting of Rapaport as Lenny is telling, too—the native New Yorker has played obnoxious and supremely irritating characters before (see: Bamboozled), but here, he’s dialed that up to about an 11. Rapaport seems totally at ease with inhabiting such brashness, whether he’s casually—but disparagingly—calling another cop a “dickhead” or announcing that he’s “gotta take a piss.” When he becomes distraught over losing his gun, ranting and tearing Louie’s apartment apart, it seems like a natural culmination of the unstable vibes he’s given off throughout the night. If you weren’t already wondering why anyone would give this guy a badge and a gun, you definitely are now. (Recall that the Cleveland cop who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice last year had been deemed “unfit for duty” at a previous precinct, and his training officer there described him as having had an “emotional breakdown.”)
It seems a little weird that C.K., the guy who’s proffered weird and fascinating examinations on rape and race before, would do an episode centered on a cop and not transparently address the tensions that exist around cops today. But this seems like a deliberate choice, and maybe a smart one as well—he’s positioned himself in a sweet spot of covertly criticizing the system while maintaining a safe distance from the conversation at large. It’s reminiscent of C.K.’s appearance alongside New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio at a roast last month: “Our police unions are solely committed to the safety of our citizens,” said De Blasio, to which C.K. cheekily replied, “Yep.”
No, no one died or was injured in “Cop Story,” but Lenny’s actions have all the elements of foreshadowing a graver outcome. And so is the episode incredibly relevant to our times? Of course it is.