“You didn’t really hear or understand what she said to you.”—Evanka (Ellen Burstyn), “Elevator (Part 3)”
Louie makes his living by talking. He gets up on a stage, opens his mouth, and lets the contents of his brain flow directly into a microphone until he’s told to stop. His ability to render the mundane profound and to speak the unspeakable has given the character a relatively comfortable existence. His protestations in “Elevator (Part 2)”—and his sudden lapse into incoherence in the same episode—to the contrary, that mouth of Louie’s puts its owner in a privileged position. Now he just needs to learn how to use his ears.
The middle acts of the “Elevator” arc hinge on what happens when people don’t listen to one another. Much of season four to date focuses on communication issues: Too hung up on working clean, Louie doesn’t register any of the other info about the benefit in “Model”; later in the same episode, the title character doesn’t heed Louie’s warnings with regard to tickling. The stirring coda of “So Did The Fat Lady” gives society an earful from a figure many viewers might’ve ignored in real life. These are miscommunications by choice, however—there are genuine barriers between Louie and Amia that keep them from explaining their true feelings to one another. He’s fluent in English, she’s fluent in Hungarian, and the words they each know in the other’s language are small in number. It’s a uniquely perplexing challenge to the protagonist, a guy who traffics in one of the so-called international languages: laughter.
Food, however, is a common tongue between the characters, and Louis C.K. combines this with his skills as a visual communicator to address, illustrate, and circumvent the obstacles separating Louie and Amia. I love the opening sequence of “Elevator (Part 2),” a temporary detour from narrative that takes an amorous spin through the aisles of Louie’s local market. It plays like the sort of “What do grown-ups do all day?” short film that Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood used to specialize in, a gentle, almost hypnotic presentation—so many bright, natural patterns and colors on display!—restoring wonder to an everyday activity. It’s a great callback to the lovingly photographed Indian feast from “So Did The Fat Lady,” only this time the food serves a more altruistic purpose: It’s being assembled into a gift-basket thank-you for Amia’s pie. The gesture could be the bridge across Louie and Amia’s language divide, but just because they share an appreciation for food doesn’t mean they’re going to like the same foods. The fish they sample at the end of tonight’s first episode proves as much.
I’m really curious about the decision to air two Louies a week for season two, because it’s proving to be a creative consideration as much as a programming one. On the latter front, a second Louie occupies the half-hour vacuum FX created by not shipping its most prestigious live-action comedy over to FXX. (Which is where the network’s most profitable live-action comedy, the low-budget, merchandising-and-syndication behemoth It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, now lives.) With two new comedies, Married and You’re The Worst, on deck for mid-July, and Louie’s old summertime companion Wilfred staging its final season on FXX, an hour of Louie solves a practical dilemma for the people who make the FX schedule.
But it also gives a boost to a creative decision. Louie has never been a show bound by the 22-minute half-hour; in its earliest episodes, it told shorter stories that could’ve occupied 11 minutes on Adult Swim. Season three then demonstrated a desire to expand beyond half-hour parameters, telling longer stories in the “Daddy’s Girlfriend” and “Late Show” episodes. One of the most thrilling aspects of Louie involves seeing Louis C.K.’s experimental verve marching in step with his filmmaking and storytelling abilities, and the compressed timetable of season four gives us more occasion to appreciate those aspects of the show. The continuity of “Elevator” is shored up by having episodes two and three air back to back; because they’re airing in such close proximity to “So Did The Fat Lady,” viewers can appreciate the way Louie’s conversation with Janet in “Elevator (Part 2)” mirrors the lessons in hearing vs. listening in the first of last week’s episodes. It’s far too easy to overpraise Louie—as seen in some of the discussion around “So Did The Fat Lady”—but the impulse to do so exists because it sets the bar for itself so high, then clears that bar with so frequently.
In line with that ambition, there’s a larger conversation falling into place about Louie and the women in his life. Has there been a male sitcom protagonist in recent memory whose been surrounded by so much estrogen? One that doesn’t make such a big deal about pushing back with an equally large dose of testosterone, a la Mike Baxter on Last Man Standing? Louie takes place in a fantastical world, but not one that’s so fantastical that it believes in the great bogeyman of recent TV development seasons: the “mancession.”
Like any other topic the show has tackled in the past, episodes like “Elevator” parts two and three find Louie simply trying to make sense of an often perplexing world. Surrounded by a feminine energy he’ll never fully comprehend, participate in, or produce himself, Louis C.K. takes the things that baffle him about male-female relations and filters them through Louie’s sophisticated absurdity. Of tonight’s many scenes in which Louie just can’t speak the language, the one that lingers longest is the violin duet between Jane and Amia, a beautiful vignette in which C.K. frames his character between the two musicians. He’s the force that put these two people in contact with one another, but they have so much more in common that he’ll ever truly grasp. With no dialogue beyond the musical conversation between the two violinists, “Elevator (Part 3)” offers a philosophical exchange on par with Dr. Bigelow’s “dog with three legs” koan. And at the end of each, all Louie can do is offer barely articulate approval. His “Yaaay!” at the end of the violin duet is more childlike than anything Jane says all night.
What’s missing currently, and can’t be too far behind, is the pit-of-the-stomach realization that Louie’s chasing a woman he doesn’t have to listen to. He likes spending time with Amia and he’s clearly attracted to her, but there’s an unfortunate subtext to that attraction—one underlined by Louie’s conversations with Janet and Pamela. These are women who know how to call Louie on his shit, whose words dig into the professional talker as deeply as any he deploys in his self-deprecating stage act. At some point in time, he has to realize this and start beating himself up over it, and that’s as much of a cliffhanger for the next two parts of “Elevator” as the question what will happen between Louie and Amia in their one month together. Of course, as Dr. Bigelow would point out about Louie’s remaining time with this woman, the only thing happier than a guy who has one month to spend with a woman that he likes is the guy who has two months to spend with that woman. It seems like neither of the characters in that scene is listening to the other—shades of Louie and Janet whipping their phones out as soon as the principal leaves her office—but Bigelow really is trying to communicate something important to Louie. He’s the three-legged dog in this situation—and in addition to appreciating what he still has, he ought to start using that canine sense of hearing, too.
- Dr. Bigelow, who keeps on citing case studies and other aspects of his medical-school education, seems to represent the type of the person Louie is afraid of raising. When he tells Janet he doesn’t want the girls growing up in a bubble, you can practically hear Bigelow bemoaning the fact that he doesn’t get to treat the type of maladies they told him about in med school.
- Is it just me, or does the Hungarian word for “stay” sound an awful lot like the English word “marriage”? Louie must agree, because he’s saying it while he’s done on one knee.
- Louie’s three favorite things, other than being with Jane: riding elephants, collecting hydrogen, and remembering being with Jane.