“I just like listening,” Louis C.K. told me of the way he approaches politics on his FX sitcom Louie, when I spoke to him at the Television Critics Association press tour in January. “I try to take people who are way far away from what I think or understand and put a representative of them on my show. I like to try to learn from them.” Those representatives have included everything from a serene anti-masturbation advocate to Louie’s racist great aunt. But he’s never had someone quite like Melissa Leo’s character Laurie, with whom Louie was set up with in last night’s episode, on the show before. Previously, the people who have challenged Louie’s worldview have been charming, if kind of risible, proposing ideas that aren’t really in the mainstream. Laurie went straight at a more risky and broadly pertinent subject, the sexual double standard for men and women. The result was a wild half hour of television, and an instant, hugely uncomfortable feminist classic.
When Laurie and Louie initially meet at the dinner table of mutual friends who have hoodwinked them into a blind date, they’re miserable and awkward with each other. But their friends starting to fight gives them an out: They sneak off to a bar, get drunk, and in Laurie’s truck, she offers him oral sex. That alone might have made the episode highly unusual. The sexuality of people toward the end of middle age, even on cable television, is generally played as if it’s a risible sign of mental breakdown, as on Raising Hope, or a somewhat grotesque overreach, as with Tony Soprano’s affairs, rather than something people, particularly divorced people like Louie, are negotiating all over again.
But when Laurie finishes, telling Louie “Okay. Let’s get some payback. Strap on the feedbag,” the show goes places almost no other television program would dear to tread. Louie demurs, and Laurie proceeds to break down Louie’s objections to doing for her what she’s done for him. When he claims shyness, she wants to know why “Me sucking your dick’s not intimate?” Then, he insinuates she’s easy, telling her “I’m saying if I had done what you did, I would feel like a whore.”
I found myself cheering for her ideas, even though Laurie is awful. She’s aggressive and violent, at one point threatening to break Louie’s finger, at another, bouncing his head off her passenger-side window. And Laurie’s emotionally nasty, too, implying that Louie is gay because he won’t reciprocate sexually. But even if she’s hard to identify with, even if her behavior is embarrassing or horrifying, even if I felt physically uncomfortable watching C.K. give in to her demands, there’s something powerful about the way this episode of Louie threw every possible objection at Laurie, made her as unsympathetic a spokeswoman as possible, and acknowledged that she was right anyway.
As his last hedge against Laurie’s demands, Louie claims that Laurie has suckered him into an unfair bargain. “If you doing that for me hinged on me doing that for you, you should have said something,” he grouses, inadvertently proving her point. Louie’s default assumption is that he can get something he wants without having to give anything up or think about the other person’s needs in return. There’s something refreshing about the blast of rage Laurie sends back to him. “You know how many dicks I sucked that I didn’t want to suck, because I’m a good kid?” she asks, her voice echoing with years of pent-up indignation. Laurie may be a scary, irritating pain. But Louie doesn’t have an answer to her question, or a defense against the accusation that he’s let a lot of women go unsatisfied even as he’s judged them for being attentive to his desires. Once they’re over the shock of Laurie, I doubt anyone in the audience has a good justification for that double standard either.