In a very fine article on the always excellent AV Club this week, Todd Van Der Werff argues that "Louie" isn't just a strong contender for the best comedy on TV right now, but also the first show since "Seinfeld" and "The Simpsons" to genuinely move the form forward. Whether it becomes a touchstone for comedy writers of the future in the same way as those two endlessly influential series remains to be seen, but the timing of the piece is certainly persuasive. Not just because it follows from Louis C.K. winning two Emmys this past Sunday, but also because it was bookended by the final two episodes of the show's third season, which saw the series at its very best.
Each season to date has had one particular crowning achievement. Last season, we had "Duckling," but this season it was "Late Show," a 3-part tale that saw Louie courted as a possible replacement for David Letterman, even as he was aware that Jerry Seinfeld was more likely to get it. Last week's concluding part of the trilogy didn't head in the direction that it seemed like it was at the end of the middle entry — Chris Rock, and his betrayal of Louie, wasn't mentioned. But it was a hugely satisfying conclusion to what felt more than ever like the first "Louie" movie.
We'd feared that David Lynch's ace, offbeat cameo as TV guru Jack Walls was a one-off, but if anything, he was even more prominent in this episode, announcing early on that he had no idea that Louie was a comedian, telling him "I thought you were a newsman." He pushes his would-be-protege to the extent that he almost walks out, and in a lovely piece of acting (this episode marks C.K's high-point as a performer to date, certainly, and would be a convincing Emmy submission next year), we see Louie's fears and hopes connected to the job. As he says at the time, in a terrific bit of writing, "This is either a door or a wall, either a beginning or end." But it also becomes clear that Louie really, really wants it, and there's a new fire in his belly, even as he sits through an embarrassing practice interview with a cleaning lady.
After a sweet scene as his daughters bring him a good luck card, and one final jog, Louie's gearing up for his pilot show, bidden farewell by Jack, and told by Jerry Seinfeld himself (who we figured would show up at some point) that he's already got the gig. But he's emboldened by what seems to be a bluff by Seinfeld, and seems to nail the gig, killing interviews with guest stars Susan Sarandon and Paul Rudd.
At first, he's confident, but a news report swiftly confirms that he was a pawn in the network scheme — Letterman has been re-upped for another ten years, although has dropped millions off his deal thanks to the competition from Louie, something which has earned our hero a lifetime ban from the show. It's a pretty bleak ending in theory, but C.K. turns it into something triumphant, shouting "I did it!" at the "Late Show" marquee, before heading out to keep training back in Isaiah Whitlock Jr.'s gym. There's a sense that it hasn't been a "wall," as Louie feared, but something of a kick in the ass, one which could have lasting effects.
That said, it doesn't seem to have stuck by the time this week's episode, "New Year's Eve," rolled around. It's Christmas (brilliantly shown in the opening scene, intercutting his daughters unwrapping their presents with the frankly saintly efforts their father went to to make things perfect — only for Santa, as ever, to get the credit), but Louie's in a real funk, in part because the kids are going away for two weeks, and in part, one suspects, because the "Late Show" didn't work out. Watching his daughters disappear in the elevator with their mom and stepdad, looking every inch the perfect family, is one of the more heartbreaking images of the show so far.
And Louie's loneliness was hammered home not just by a welcome appearance from Amy Poehler (when is an appearance from her not welcome?), as Louie's sister, who invites him to spend New Year's with her family in Mexico, but also by a (hilarious) dream of his two daughters as twentysomethings. For a second, it looks as though his love life might prove his salvation, as he encounters Liz (Parker Posey) on the bus. But suddenly, she's struck by a nosebleed, collapses and, as the new year comes in, dies — the kind of shocking, surreal moment that no other show on TV could do.
Resigned, Louie is seemingly gearing up to head to Mexico, when suddenly he gets the desire (presumably inspired by his reading of children's book "A Story About Ping" to his kids) to head to Beijing instead. And in one sudden cut, we're there, Louie searching for the Yangtze River, and eventually getting a lift (with a number of Ping-like ducks) to the middle of nowhere, where he joins a Chinese family for a raucous meal.
It was a beautiful, profound ending to a terrific episode, and a great season. We'd need to rewatch the rest before we could pick a favorite, but both these last two episodes (we'd just lean towards the end of "Late Show" as the better, if only because it was a little funnier) showcased "Louie" at its very best. C.K. hasn't just grown as a writer across the season, but as a performer and a director, and the series is so consistently hilarious, moving, strange and thought-provoking that we reckon the AV Club might be on to something. And more shows influenced by "Louie" can only be a good thing .
"Late Show Pt. 3" [A]
"New Year's Eve" [A]
Bits & Pieces
– We've always found Jerry Seinfeld kind of stiff as a performer when away from his own show, but he was pretty good here. Although it was a shame he didn't share any screen time with Lynch.
– Consistently stealing scenes across all three parts of "Late Show" was Louie's baby-faced agent (particularly in this last part), as the camera panned across to him brilliantly. We demand a spin-off.
– We really liked how there was still a hint of nervousness to Louie's Late Show persona — he was clearly impressing, but still a little rough around the edges. To suddenly see him turn into Johnny Carson would have been ill-fitting.
– We didn't talk so much about it above, but the writing for the dream sequence about Louie's daughters was simply brilliant. "I'm probably an artist or something. I hope it's working out."
– "Parks & Recreation" fans may have been a little weirded out to see Amy Poehler playing Louie's sister, given that he played her boyfriend on that show. Still, she's a great addition, and we hope that she crops up again more substantially in Season 4.
– Thanks for reading these recaps, irregular as they've been sometimes. Your thoughts in the comments section have suggested that the show attracts a particularly smart kind of viewer. All being well, we'll see you again next summer when the series returns.