"Louie" continues to grow in strange and wonderful ways its third season (starting tonight, June 28th, on FX at 10:30pm) -- both the title character and the show itself. When it began in 2010, the series felt like a collection of strikingly realized scenes lifted right out of Louis C.K.'s consciousness. They weren't always connected, but took place in the same subjective, touched-with-the-surreal world -- Louie's date boards a helicopter and flies away in order to escape him; he follows an obnoxious teenager home to Staten Island to lecture the kid's parents, only to end up bonding with his dad. And between those moments of fancy were excerpts of stand-up and raw, funny and honest exchanges of dialogue -- rather than flounder through trying to explain the show to people, I used to make them watch the first half of "Poker/Divorce," in which Louie and other gathered comedians go from riffing around a card game to warm, profane sincerity, the use of a certain gay epithet in comedy.
In its second season, the show grew secure enough in its universe to spin out longer stories, including the hour-long "Duckling" episode set during Louie's USO tour in Afghanistan and dedicated to Tim Hetherington, and his painful but often hilarious failed attempts at wooing fellow single parent Pamela (Pamela Adlon). Entering its third year, "Louie" and its creator are now both wildly acclaimed and Louie as a character is now three years past his divorce, which may be why Louie seems finally to be taking charge of his own happiness.
It may also be why we're at last getting to meet his ex, who's been a notable off-screen presence before. Janet, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, appears in the season premiere "Something is Wrong," a practical but caring presence who, judging from the glimpse of another man getting dressed in the background, has been able to move on to something new (C.K. shares some thoughts on Watson's casting here).
Louie hasn't quite moved on yet himself, but he's ready to try. The first five episodes that were sent out to critics find the character attempting to date a series of women (and, in a way, one man) and gamely fumbling through the humiliations and awkwardness that come with this process. Tonight's episode, while not the strongest of the batch (numbers three and five are the real gems), does show us that Louie's ventured into a relationship, albeit one with a woman (played by Gaby Hoffmann) he's not that attached to, a fact she's aware of and calls him on. Melissa Leo, Parker Posey and Maria Bamford also turn up in the first few installments to provide different romantic possibilities in Louie's life, and while he may take the occasional emotional (and physical!) pounding, he soldiers on, gaining experience if not always understanding.
Tonight's premiere also takes a roundabout path that has Louie considering the kind of purchase that tends to signal a midlife crisis -- but he's been kept company by his own mortality for the course of the show, so it's not any sudden grasp that death will eventually come and rush for youth that leads him where it does. Rather, it's a sense that he's always wanted to try this, so why not now?
That openness, that willingness to see where life's going to take you, no matter how scary that is, has proven to be the show's most generous and prevailing sentiment, even when its tone has been more morose. "Louie" isn't always funny and it doesn't always aim to be, but it has in its best instances an unforced and unparalleled sweetness that nothing else on air can equal. And moments in the third episode of this season, which takes place in Miami, offer an aching ebuillience that's both new and earned, coming with an understanding that joy, when it's found, has to be pursued.
C.K. is no longer editing episodes himself -- he brought on board longtime Woody Allen collaborator Susan E. Morse to do that while he's focused on merely writing, directing and starring in the show. That he's willing to relinquish an aspect of production also seems a sign of growth, of finding a creative team he trusts to help him maintain the show's distinct, unforgettable voice. "Louie" still has, in charming way, the slightly rough around the edges feel of a '90s indie film, and it inhabits New York with an appreciation for its periodic, tiring junkiness and its potential for unexpected magic. It's something you experience when the city's new to you, and something you can arrive back at again after falling out of love with it for a while -- and as "Louie" seems to know well, it's even better than second time around.