Why Louie is the next stage in the evolution of the TV sitcom

Why Louie is the next stage in the evolution of the TV sitcom

In the early 2000s, it sometimes felt like there was only one show on television that dominated the discussion for critics and fans: The Sopranos, the most influential TV drama of the last 20 years. Sure, there were other good dramas on the air: Both Six Feet Under and The Shield benefited from lessons TV creators had learned from The Sopranos, and several very good, more traditional network dramas, like The West Wing, were still around. But The Sopranos seemed to tower over everything else. It was pulled apart and dissected and discussed like no other show at the time, and its innovations spurred a decade’s worth of dramas we’re still watching and enjoying to this day.

Television innovation takes time. A series can break all the rules and invent new ones, but it usually takes at least a few years for the larger television landscape to reflect its influence. (The last show to really change TV drama before The SopranosHill Street Blues—wouldn’t see its style of mildly serialized storytelling and character arcs grow dominant for 10 to 15 years after it went off the air.) This usually means that a series that truly breaks the rules has a few years to itself while everybody else scrambles to catch up. At the time of its first few seasons, The Sopranos was so wild and audacious, so willing to do just about anything, that it was hard to overlook, even if you didn’t much care for it. It indulged in wild story twists and strange dream sequences. It vacillated wildly between drama and comedy, often within the same scene. It was so obviously the vision of one man, creator David Chase, that he became synonymous with the show, and the term “showrunner” entered the popular lexicon. It doesn’t seem nearly as bold today as it was then, but in those years, there really wasn’t anything else like it.

It took Hollywood a while to catch up. The Emmys nominated the show plenty of times, but seemed cool on it outside of the performances (which were terrific). Networks other than HBO tried to copy the show but mostly copied its sex and violence, rather than its skewed worldview and audacious sense of what would be entertaining to its audience, not to mention its constant love of anticlimax. A few other networks (notably FX) managed to find “their own Sopranos,” but HBO seemed to have mostly cornered the market on innovative drama. 

Perhaps this is starting to sound like a show that’s airing right now, in a different genre: FX’s Louie, which ends its third season tonight.

Television shows that blow apart the rules only come along in a genre every 20 years or so. The last TV sitcom to rip up the playbook and start over was Seinfeld, which was vaguely recognizable as the same sort of show as, say, The Cosby Show, but also seemed so unlike anything that had come before that it took TV (and viewers) a while to catch up to its innovations. Combined with The Simpsons, which debuted around the same time, Seinfeld invented a form of comedy that went faster and faster, that tossed more and more scenes into an episode and crammed them with as many jokes as it could. That evolutionary impulse led to other shows that realized eliminating the multiple cameras and studio audience Seinfeld still had to use would speed up the pace and allow for even more jokes. Something like Arrested Development or Community might seem wildly different, but tracing those shows’ evolutionary roots backward inevitably stops at Seinfeld or The Simpsons. (If there’s a show post-Seinfeld that had an influence nearly as large, it’s probably the original British The Office. While that’s one of the best comedies ever made, however, its influence stems more from presentation—which was a significant break from TV’s past—than it does from content, which was fairly typical workplace sitcom stuff turned up just a touch.)

This isn’t really the case with Louie. There’s really been nothing else like it in the history of television, and it seems likely that as the decades roll on, more and more shows will be influenced by its blend of cynical comedy and genuine pathos, as well as its deeply personal worldview. Because the show is so cheap to produce, other networks are already looking into replicating it in a way that will hopefully garner larger ratings. (HBO already has a somewhat successful comedy highly influenced by Louie in Girls.) Nobody would argue that there aren’t other good comedies on television, but when series creator, writer, director, and star Louis C.K. lost the Emmy for Outstanding Actor In A Comedy Series to Jon Cryer Sunday night, it was somewhat similar to James Gandolfini losing to Dennis Franz or James Spader back in the day: The two shows felt like they occupied entirely different television universes.

Like The Sopranos, Louie’s influence stretches beyond its actual success. (It took several seasons for The Sopranos to become the highly rated hit it was by the end of its run, though it seems unlikely this will happen to Louie, given shifting network models and ecologies.) Those who work in the TV industry frequently cite it as an influence, and in a keynote address at this year’s Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, Patton Oswalt insisted that networks that refused to look at Louie were behind the curve in terms of what made for good, innovative TV. Similarly, Louie regularly lands on critics’ best-of lists and is one of the best-reviewed shows on TV, and it’s had Emmy success (though the awards mostly seem flummoxed by what to do with it at the moment). And like The Sopranos, it’s never immediately clear which version of Louie viewers are going to get when they tune in from week to week. What started out as a collection of short films about a comedian’s life has expanded and expanded and expanded, until it’s started to feel like the series encompasses the entirety of the city in which it’s set. Louie is at the center of every episode, but the world of the show has gotten surprisingly consistent and much larger.

The biggest difference between the two shows in terms of their place in history is essentially one of scale. It took a while, but The Sopranos eventually grew into a massive hit, right alongside the TV-on-DVD industry from which it benefited. That made it harder to ignore more likely that networks would start looking for their own version of the show, broadening the TV landscape in ways that continue to this day. Louie is both inexpensive enough and popular enough (with certain sectors of the audience) to continue to be renewed, which FX will probably to do until C.K. wants to stop doing the show. But it’s nowhere near a big hit show, and it seems unlikely it ever will be.

This is probably just a function of changing TV economics. Where The Sopranos was part of a world where watching things live was still the primary way to enjoy television, Louie exists in a world where if viewers miss an episode, there are dozens of ways to catch up. (There’s still an episode from last season I haven’t seen; I’m saving it for a rainy day.) The Sopranos also had the underlying story structure of Tony Soprano’s mob life, which created an undeniable need to see what happened next—even if it frequently ended in anticlimax. Outside of the occasional story that stretches across several episodes, Louie doesn’t have this advantage by design. 

Then there’s the simple fact that television has moved inexorably toward targeting specific niches, creating smaller and smaller audience slices. Fortunately, comedy is less expensive than drama, which allows the Louies of the world to get by with smaller audiences. Where The Sopranos needed to find a major audience to realize its ambitions, Louie seems as happy doing a big, three-part episode in which Louie competes for the host position at a late-night talk show as it is doing a more ruminative half-hour about a really long date that goes weird, or a 10-minute short about an unlikely meeting at a funeral.

None of this is to say that Louie is unquestionably TV’s best comedy (though I would argue it is). It’s simply to say that it’s so different and self-evidently good that it has to be in the conversation, just like The Sopranos 10 years ago. Other comedies don’t have to live in its shadow, not exactly, but they do have to live in a world where their aims are wildly different from its aims. Those alternate aims might seem more attractive to ambitious writers and producers tired of the same stories about comic misunderstandings, no matter how many layers of meta-commentary are poured on top of them. 

At the end of its third season, The Sopranos still had a substantial lead over other TV dramas, but creators were starting to catch up. The only question now is if the world of TV comedy will follow Louie’s lead as thoroughly as TV drama followed The Sopranos. It could be an evolutionary line that gets snuffed out, but it’s looking increasingly likely that when Louie ends there will be plenty of shows that can directly trace their lineage to it.