Spoilers for “Late Show Part 3,” last night’s episode of “Louie,” follow below.
Louie was never going to end up the next David Letterman.
Well, I don’t want to say never, because “Louie” has rarely proceeded in the expected directions, and if Louis C.K. wanted to turn his FX series into some lo-fi variation on “The Larry Sanders Show” with him as the host next season, I have no doubt the results would be interesting as all hell. But “Late Show Part 3,” which aired last night and wrapped up a three-episode arc, showed that it was the journey, not the destination that was important to the show. While Louie got a harsh showbiz lesson at the end (and not one imparted to him by David Lynch’s Jack Dall), he took it feeling all the stronger for having pushed himself through the process.
“Late Show Part 3” was sprinkled with “Rocky” references, from the kids joining Louie on his jog through the streets to the non-Stallone style lessons he takes, which amount to him just being curled in the corner of the ring, getting beaten. What was he doing with all this prep if not training for the big fight, the underdog being pitted against the champ in a battle both of them actually lost? That bittersweet non-win and the triumph Louie experiences anyway also came across as a moment worthy of the Italian Stallion. Louie, too, is a nobody becoming a somebody to himself and finding it satisfying even without gaining the prize he was pursuing.
That wonderful scene outside the Ed Sullivan Theater (from which our hero has been permanently barred) in which Louie, rather than slinking away to lick his wounds and dwell in self-pity, yelled out to an indifferent street at night that “I did it!,” was an encapsulation of what C.K.’s show does best, the deeply human joy it can find for its protagonist in unexpected places. He’s not the guy who gets given the gig of a lifetime, he’s the guy who gets used as a pawn in Letterman’s contract negotiations to show the star that the network’s serious about replacing him even when they’re not. But he could have done that job, and one of the great relevations of this episodes is that he probably would have done it pretty well.
“Late Show Part 3” brought back the continually weird Lynch as well as Garry Marshall, and offered a brief appearance by Jerry Seinfeld trying a Machiavellian psych-out on our hero, one that galvanizes him to step up his tryout gig as host. And watching Louie’s odd, funny approach to his monologue and interviews, the way he slipped in a meta-joke about reading bits off cue cards, his confession to Susan Sarandon that her role in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” lead to his first attempt at masturbation — it was still him up there, just blown up on screen, in a new format but still recognizable.
Louie wasn’t someone already perfectly suited to the job — as his daughter puts it, with the frank insensitivity of a child, when he says he needs to lose weight, “If they want a skinny person, why don’t they just get someone skinny? Why do you have to change?” But he’s someone who was able to up his game to become suited for it, and to shape that job so that it was more right for him. “Louie” has always painted its main character as someone struggling with ambivalence, with allowing things to remain as they are even when they’re not ideal, like the relationship with Gaby Hoffmann in the first episode of the season in which she ends up breaking up with herself on his behalf because he won’t step up.
This “Late Night” arc has forced Louie to confront the fact that change can be a positive, and that it can be comfortable but also cowardly not to want anything new. As hard as pursuing that “The Late Show” gig was for Louie, he found new reserves in himself that have opened up new possibilities for the future (whether he pursues them or not). This season of “Louie” has ended up doing a quietly marvelous thing by showing how someone can grow, and how new experiences, whether they be a professional challenge or a date with an enchanting crazy chick, can pry someone open.