The opening credit sequence of Louie is great for a number of reasons. As a stand-alone piece of filmmaking, it’s amazing. It establishes a gloriously grubby 1970s Taxi Driver vibe right off the bat but it’s also great in that it grounds C.K in a very specific, distinct universe: the world of the Comedy Cellar and the more neurotic avenues of Manhattan.
In this hermetic realm, he is comfortable or at least comfortably uncomfortable. Whenever he leaves it, he tends to be lost. Much of Louie consequently entails its protagonist trying to make sense of an insane world. The subway is a big part of the opening credits and the universe C.K. inhabits but it’s also part of the insane outside world C.K. struggles to understand anew every episode.
Another show might channel some of the everyday frustrations, anxieties and surreal interludes of riding the subway in New York into a linear plot. “Subway”, the first short film in tonight’s show, doesn’t feel the need to do that, just as Louie often eschews the need for conventional narratives.
Instead of the surreal incongruities of the subway flavoring the narrative, the surreal incongruities of the subway become a sort of waking dream. In “Subway”, C.K. leaves a set at the Comedy Cellar and perambulates down into the subway to the melodramatic strains of a violin. It isn’t until CK is down in the subway that we realize that the music is coming from an incongruously well-dressed street violinist rather than the score.
It’s not unusual for a musician to play the violin in a subway but there’s something ineffably off about the violin player in the episode all the same. He’s too good looking and too well-dressed. He seems like an emissary from a much classier, more civilized world, a universe where people dress immaculately and no one would even think about urinating in public.
The violin player similarly seems to be playing for art’s sake rather than money, which similarly renders him an abnormality. The melting pot is never hotter than in a subway where the elite glares contemptuously at the wretched of the earth so it’s not particularly surprising when a bum thunders down the stairs to the subway.
There’s a wonderful shot of just the back of CK’s head, the violin player and the bum in deep focus as the bum begins to disrobe and bathe as part of some strange ritual. The bum's movements seem choreographed to the music; it’s at once a surreal street symphony and just another night on the subway.
All of this serves as mere prelude; we haven’t even gotten into the subway car yet, literally and metaphorically. The subway train is another universe onto itself entirely, a weird world full of strange people, smells and inexplicable liquids, a harsh realm where a man can become a hero just by using his shirt to mop up a disgusting-looking liquid, as CK does in a fantasy sequence here.
This is one of the only fantasy sequences in the show clearly demarcated as such. It even uses a different film stock to delineate between CK’s daydream of becoming an everyday subway hero and the much more mundane reality, which has CK buying into the unwritten social contract that no one on the train must ever do anything nice for anyone else or society will crumble.
I like the casual surrealism of Louie. It represents a secret union between CK’s early stand-up, which was more absurd and abstract, and his current autobiographical style. The same is true of “Subway/Pamela.” The first half, or third, borders on avant-garde while the second is rooted in the perils and pleasures of being a single father, or at least of being 43 and single, in New York.
The first part of “Subway/Pamela” is about as unconventional as Louie gets. The second half is about as conventional as it gets. As the title suggests, this part of the episode is devoted to Louie and special guest star Pamela Adlon’s long-semi-simmering “Will they or won’t they” dynamic.
We begin with C.K. unexpectedly making Adlon's character laugh. This takes both parties by surprise; C.K. is delighted he’s succeeded where he’s failed so often previously and Adlon because she shares Todd Barry’s contention that C.K. sucks at comedy. This leads to a conversation about the hopelessly lopsided nature of their relationship and friendship; CK thinks Adlon is awesome; she thinks he’s O.K for the time being, but only as a friend.
It’s painful but nowhere near as agonizing as a long, beautifully and sincerely delivered monologue where CK unburdens himself of his true feelings about Adlon. Holding nothing back, he places his heart out on the table where it can be smashed most easily and tells Adlon that he doesn’t just have a crush on her: he loves her, is crazy about her and desperately longs to be with her.
It’d be an enormously risky thing to do under any circumstances. For someone who has just been rejected in no uncertain terms, it’s borderline masochistic, especially when Adlon reiterates her contention that she feels nothing towards Louie, just that sadistic unwillingness to risk ruining a swell friendship.
I suspect we all knew Adlon and CK’s friendship was headed in this direction. Louie doesn’t pride itself on defying television conventions; it just does. But this is one television convention that feels organic and, to use a phrase CK employed when I last interviewed him, earned. Louie has earned its heartbreak, just as Louie might just have earned that episode-closing invitation to a shared bath via his eloquence and willingness to put himself out there, consequences be damned.
So where do Louie and Pamela go from here? I don’t even know if Louie knows but I very much look forward to finding out. If it plays out like everything else in the series, prepare to be surprised and impressed.