The greatest thing a work of art can do is create a place you never want to leave. As it draws to a close, that work of art can make you wish time would slow that you might keep watching, or turn the pages just a bit more slowly, or stay in the museum right up until closing time. And then, when everything comes to an end and you’re deposited back in reality, leaving that headspace can be like wandering out of a dream, back into something that doesn’t feel as right as the place you just were. I can remember leaving a screening of The Tree Of Life on its opening weekend, stepping out into the muggy, humid air of a summer Chicago evening, and feeling like I was swimming through an atmosphere too thick to be alive in, much less breathe. The movie didn’t end. It dissipated.
I felt some of those familiar sensations at the end of Louie’s “Late Show” trilogy, which I mainlined all of today. This is definitely a case where the three episodes as a whole make up a story that’s much greater than the sum of its parts, a case where the particular story Louis C.K. is trying to tell is so inextricably bound together that I almost wish FX had found a way to air all three parts on the same night. I found the first two parts to be very funny and occasionally moving, but part three brought everything together in a way that made the whole thing rather undeniable. This was a weird comedian’s version of Rocky, a story that could be read both as snarky satire on inspirational stories of people who come from behind to score moral victories or a straight-up version of the same thing. The fact that it plays as both—that it copies the rhythms of Rocky almost beat for beat but also has a weird reverence for them—is what makes it so great. When the episode ended with Isiah Whitlock and Louie back in the boxing ring, I found myself wishing the credits could stretch out a little bit longer, that I might stay in that place a few seconds more.
One of the best things about Louie is that it’s not afraid to go for sincerity, even if it seems like it might butt up against the sentimental. Louis C.K. is such a sardonic presence that he always trusts that his audience will see through any treacly bullshit to get to the heart of the matter. He’s not afraid to play moments like Louie’s daughters giving him the card they made him to wish him luck straight, because he knows that we’ll read the off-handed wink into what’s happening. It’s the same way with the beautiful, heavy-handed music that plays throughout all three episodes. Is it meant to be a moving piece, giving a foundation to the rest of the work? Or is it meant to be intentionally mawkish, a way to wink at us that we shouldn’t take this entirely seriously? Does it matter? It all reminds me of Jack Dahl’s first rule of show business: “Look ‘em in the eye, and speak from the heart.” That might make some uncomfortable, but do it well enough, and you’ll be able to accomplish what you want. Or so Dahl would have us believe.
The final episode in the three-parter reveals that it doesn’t matter precisely because even if you’re intending to mock this sort of storytelling, the beats still work. When Louie realizes that Jerry Seinfeld just lied to him, thanks to those three rules of show business, it’s simultaneously a wink at the underdog gaining the motivation to beat his opponent and a triumphant moment for our hero. When he goes out there and has the best damn test talk show of his (or anyone’s) life, it’s surprisingly thrilling, given how hard it would be to inject drama into the late-night talk show format. And when he learns that he didn’t get the job because CBS was using him as a bargaining chip against David Letterman, it’s legitimately crushing.
The episode makes solid use of the show’s lack of formula, as well as the fact that on television, nothing ever changes. We know that Louie can’t get David Letterman’s job, because we know that even if this show has no real concern for continuity, making Louie the host of the Late Show is the sort of thing that it couldn’t completely ignore in episodes or seasons to come. Also, this is Louie. We know he’s not going to get what he wants. We’ve watched this series before, and we’ve seen this guy go through enough crushing disappointments to fuel dozens of seasons of other single-camera comedies. Louie getting something this big wouldn’t end the show, since the show seems to be infinitely elastic. But it would decidedly change the tenor of the show. It’d be like that time Charlie Brown hit the home run in the mid-90s, and you could never really look at the kid the same way again.
The episode’s greatest success comes from how it gives Louie a moral victory, even if the universe saw fit to yet again kick him in the face. The best thing about these episodes is that they got Louie to care. In a way, this whole third season has been about the series trying to shock Louie out of his complacency, to see if there’s any way to get him to make the changes that might bring him happiness. Is there a way he could escape from the rut his life seems to be stuck in? He’s tried dating, and he’s tried a vacation, and now he’s tried throwing himself into a new project. But at every turn, he seems to be the same self-conscious, frustrated guy, living out his life and painting by the numbers.
Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that if Louie ended up as the host of the Late Show, he would be miserable at the job within a few months. But by getting him to care about maybe getting that job and by getting him to consider just how much he was putting on the line for it, the show put him in a position where he really wanted his big shot, even if it was coming in his 40s and would require him changing so much about himself. The previous two episodes hadn’t done a terrific job of making viewers really want Louie to get the job, but that reflected the ambivalence the comic felt about the opportunity himself. Somewhere in the episode’s first bit—probably in that great scene where Dahl says he never knew Louie was supposed to be a comedian—the switch flipped, and once Seinfeld lied, the Late Show was all he wanted.
That’s the thing about having a dream, though, even if it’s one that lands on your head from out of nowhere. In all likelihood, that dream is going to be taken away from you. Not everybody can grow up to win the Super Bowl or host a late-night talk show. The world has room for only a few of those who truly get what they want. If it didn’t, then dreaming would be pointless. The value, on Louie and in life, is in the attempt, and when Louie stops outside of the Ed Sullivan Theater and flips it off while yelling at David Letterman, it’s all the victory we need. The universe got him to care, and David Letterman fucked him over. But at the same time, Louie got some weird gift out of the whole experience. He steps back into the ring, but now, he’s not the one getting pummeled. Slowly but surely, he’s learning to stand up and take his own licks.
- David Lynch comes back this week, and his work is once again just strange enough to work. Lynch isn’t much of an actor, but he’s got real presence, and both he and C.K. use that to its fullest effect.
- Our other big guests include Seinfeld (who turns up to be the heel for one scene), Susan Sarandon, Paul Rudd, and the returning Garry Marshall. My favorite bit with these guests came from Sarandon, who seemed relatively unfazed by Louie confessing to her that he had first masturbated to thoughts of her in Rocky Horror Picture Show. Somehow, I imagine Susan Sarandon is unfazed by just about anything.
- I’ve really come to enjoy the character of Louie’s ex-wife, and I hope the show will include her more in seasons to come.
- Jane wants Louie to know that he’s a “fat daddy.”
- If you call someone a champ, just remember that that’s short for champion.
- The shot of Louie sitting at his desk, getting ready to do his first interview with the cleaning woman, is perfectly framed, with Dahl off in the distance, constantly present in our minds and Louie’s. I feel like including it in a long-building blog post I’d like to write about mise en scene on TV.
- Nathan will be back next week to bring you to the end of season three. Thanks for having me around so much this season, and thanks for not caring when I messed up all of Nathan’s stuff.