Spoilers for the May 5 episode of “Louie,” “Model,” ahead.
Matt Zoller Seitz recently wrote an essay for Vulture about “the rise of the bespoke TV series,” a catchall term for shows that tinker with the traditional format. “Premillennial TV was often denigrated as ‘the box,'” he writes, “not just because the appliance was cube-shaped but because its storytelling was packed into boxes, too.
It’s important to note that a sea change is underway, and not just because it prevents embarrassments like Alexander Zaitchik’s “Kill Your Television” screed, a rancid farrago of unsupported bad-faith assumptions and sexist condescension (Grantland’s Molly Lambert is “Molly”; the New York Times‘ David Carr is “Carr”) that fails to account for how TV today is not what TV was then. But Zaitchik, though it’s painful to admit it, is right about one thing, in the way that a blind man flailing around in a china cupboard will eventually find a cup to drink from. For all the shifts in viewing habits, the move from one screen to many and from broadcast to cable to streaming, the industrial model that makes TV shows has rested largely unaltered. Actors are still signed to standard seven-season contracts, which is why “Mad Men” is attempting to pass off two seven-episode stretches broadcast a full year apart as halves of a single season. (Even though George RR Martin is two books shy of finishing his series, the showrunners behind “Game of Thrones” recently announced they could see themselves wrapping it up in seven seasons; to forecast more would signal every actor on the show to start pushing a raise.) Comedies, which are usually “half-hours,” run 22 to 30 minutes an episode; dramas between 44 and 60. There are exceptions, of course: “Game of Thrones” grabs a few extra minutes from time to time, and “Sons of Anarchy” regularly overflowed its banks in its most recent season. But the rules, for the most part, stand. Netflix neglected to sign Laura Prepon to a seven-year contract for Orange Is the New Black, and wound up nearly losing a pivotal character after the show’s first season was a breakaway hit.
One show that doesn’t show up in Seitz’s essay — probably because he’d be writing about it later the same day — is “Louie,” whose fourth season began last night with two characteristically hilarious and deeply discomfiting episodes. In the first, which coalesces around the theme of aging, Louis CK’s more-or-less autobiographical protagonist goes searching for a vibrator and ends up using it to soothe his aching back. In the second, he bombs at a Hamptons benefit, opening for a singularly unsympathetic Jerry Seinfeld, and ends sleeping with a shapely model played by Yvonne Strahovski. (She’s also an astronaut’s daughter, because why not.) They lounge in bed after sleeping with each other, she playfully tickles him, and he responds by reflexively punching her in the face, causing what we’re told may be permanent damage to her sight.
This isn’t funny, and it’s not exactly supposed to be. There’s a note of profound melancholy that sounds through “Model,” most poignantly expressed in a haunting shot of Louie watching from the beach as Strahovski unselfconsciously strips to her underwear and dives into the surf. (Seitz compares it to Godard; it puts me more in mind of Wong Kar-wai.) By almost any way of thinking, that shot doesn’t “belong” in a comedy, where the near-inviolable rule of thumb is that shots must be flooded with light, even if that means settling for the washed-out 2D of of a Judd Apatow movie. But as CK’s long-lost feature film, “Tomorrow Night,” shows, he’s as handy with existential despair as he is a microphone and a brick wall.
Even more promising than “Model” was the note CK sent to his email list shortly before it aired in which he announced his plans for the season:
There will be 2 episodes tonight, 10 and 10:30 and there will be 2 episodes every Monday for the next 7 weeks.
I took a year off between last season and this one, mostly so I could have more time to do the show, to make it better. This season is very different from past seasons. The first three episodes are pretty typical of what we’ve done in the past, Self-contained stories. But the next 6 episodes after that are all connected in one story. Then we have a three part story and a two part story. So lots of… parts stories. Yeah.
It doesn’t get much more bespoke than that. After violating a cardinal rule of showbiz by taking a year off from the show at the height of its popularity — Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer cancelled a slew of live dates rather than risk stalling their TV show’s momentum — he returns with a 14-episode season, shown over seven weeks, with story arcs lasting as long as six episodes and as short as (part of) one. What kind of show is this, anyway?
The answer, of course, is whatever kind of show CK wants it to be. By eschewing continuity, keeping his recurring cast, mostly composed of old friends from the standup circuit, to a minimum, and working with longtime associates — the credits of “Tomorrow Night,” released in 1998, overlap substantially with “Louie’s” — not to mention doing much of the work himself, he’s managed to stay free of the apparatus that chokes innovation in other shows. Whatever you thought of “True Detective,” it’s hard to dispute that the show benefitted enormously from having all eight episodes written and directed by the same two people. But HBO wanted another season and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto wanted more unchallenged control, so season 2 will be shot by a revolving stable of directors for hire — just like every other show on the air.
It may not feature Oscar-winning actors or long monologues about man’s place in the universe, but I’d argue that “Louie” is by far the more radical show, and that it’s ahead of nearly everything else on the (virtual) dial in terms of bending the medium to artistic uses. Like every other network show, it’s stuck in prefabricated time slots; so are Netflix’s original programs, which for all their much-touted creative freedom show an exceptionally low interest in tinkering with form. (There’s no reason but old habits why one OINTB episode can’t be eight minutes and another 80.) But within those boxes — which have a way of disappearing when the show is watched, as it will be by most people, via streaming or on DVD — he’s doing things no one’s done before. Given that CK has also pioneered a highly successful method of distributing content through his website, it wouldn’t be surprising if he decided in future to break free of his network altogether and simply released his show directly to his audience. Not everyone’s equipped to take advantage of that kind of freedom, but Louis CK surely is.