Even more than religion, television is the great opiate of the masses. Television gently coaxes viewers frazzled from the stress and anxiety of everyday life into the realm of the soothingly safe and familar. The average television comedy is filled with characters and dynamic we’ve seen countless times before as well as jokes that have ricocheted through the medium since the days of Leave It To Beaver. Via the canned magic of laugh tracks, television sitcoms are even considerate enough to tell us exactly when to laugh and with what intensity.
Louie offers none of that. Rather than gently take us by the hand and explain everything, it tosses us into the deep end, then hopes we know how to swim. Where the conventional sitcom encourages passive viewing Louie requires active engagement. That’s especially true of “Dad”, an alternately exhilarating and maddening exercise in obfuscation and ambiguity. The episode raises countless intriguing questions. Why is Louie’s creepily continental uncle played by the same actor (an Academy Award winner no less) who played an unrelated voyeur in Louie’s second season? Why does the prospect of seeing his father make Louie physically ill? What has Louie's father done to him? And what the hell happened to Parker Posey’s character?
“Dad” has no real interest in answering any of these questions. The episode begins with Louie already in a state of high agitation. He’s irritated by his daughter’s violin practicing and when he goes to an electronics store the employees treat him like an unwanted distraction to their socializing, then one maliciously places a box on the floor for Louie to trip over when he tunes him out to take a phone call. When Louie alerts the offending employee's superiors about his actions (which he somewhat hyperbolically describes as an assault) they look at surveillance camera footage of the prank during which footage of the real Louie alternates with footage where Louie is replaced by a man who looks an awful lot like him but is definitely not him. Louie delights in disorienting audiences, in manipulating our perception of reality for its own ends. Part of the genius of Louie is that it never allows us to get too comfortable, in part by regularly switching up between the objective and the subjective, between experiences Louie is actually having and moments and exchanges that clearly are only happening in his mind.
Louie gets no satisfaction at the electronics store, where the management limply pretends to be outraged by the abuse Louie received yet literally cannot keep from laughing at the image of him tripping over the strategically placed box. Louie’s troubles continue when he agrees to meet his Uncle Excelsior (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, who played a completely different character on the show last year) at the Russian Tea Room and his uncle demands that Louie visit his father in Boston.
Louie’s uncle clearly views his brother/Louie’s father as an unfortunate obligation they share: he describes him as womanly and weak, and complains that he once left a horse in Louie’s father’s care only to have the horse die. Yet he insists that Louie must visit his father all the same. In a viscerally disturbing turn of phrase, the uncle explains that when a man fucks a whore he must use a condom to protect his family from her “wretchedness” yet argues that when a man deals with his father no condom can be employed, metaphorically speaking (Christ, I hope he’s waxing metaphoric) for there cannot be that kind of self-protection where family is concerned. It’s not an encouraging sign that even his own brother essentially describes the obligation Louie owes to his father as a matter of getting fucked without a condom.
Louie’s anxiety over the prospect of seeing his father quickly takes on a physical dimension. In a wonderful digression, Louie plays poker with his comedian pals (whose ranks now include Sarah Silverman, who manages to be adorable even while talking about cutting off her tits) and discovers that, due to his unique upbringing, Jim Norton regularly masturbates to crudely drawn images of penises and vaginas and breasts that he composes himself.
Louie ends up vomiting at the table and discovers that his anxiety over seeing his father has led to an unfortunate rash and a predilection for vomiting in unfortunate situations. Following Louie’s trip to the doctor the episode abandons objectivity and begins to exist largely, if not exclusively in Louie’s mind, as everything people say and do to him directly references Louie's soul-shaking, all-consuming fear of seeing his dad again. On a plane, Boston is announced as the city where Louie’s dad lives. When Louie throws up on a car at a car rental place an employee tells him he’s 44 years old and really should man up. Even the GPS in Louie’s car talks to him extensively about his fear of spending time with his father.
Things get even more outlandish and surreal from there. Louie comes very close to actually visiting his father but panics at the last moment and somehow manages to hop onto a very cool-looking motorcycle-type vehicle before hopping onboard an equally sleek boat he logically would have no way of operating without a key. This sequence is shot like a chase scene only there’s nothing physical actually pursuing Louie; instead he’s simply running from his past and the terrifying specter of having to be a son to a father who has apparently failed him in ways we can’t imagine.
“Dad” is consequently something of a mindfuck, an episode that deliberately eschews both edification and an emotionally satisfying resolution. It doesn’t just leave us with more questions than answers: it leaves us with nothing but questions. Yet it’s utterly compelling and eminently watchable all the same. It’s an unsolved emotional mystery, an epic one-sided chase. To borrow the parlance of A Serious Man, it’s all about embracing the mystery, not finding answers.
- Good to see the poker group again; C.K and Silverman’s banter was both cute and fairly disgusting.
- “Boilerplate misery, alone in the world, might as well be a maggot sucking a dead cat’s face, what’s the point, nothing new”—Louie’s normal
- I liked how Louie lapsed back into an angry working-class Boston accent when he has the altercation with the angry townie.
- Thanks to Todd for filling in for me last week. I was at the Gathering of the Juggalos, where Marc Maron's appearance on the episode I missed was strangely all anyone could talk about. Juggalos love them some C.K