The third-season premiere of Louie served as an excellent refresher course in what makes Louis C.K.’s vision so distinctive. The comedian — who writes, directs, and stars in the series — has an uncanny knack for capturing a host of different tones. Most TV shows have maybe one tone, two tops. CBS procedurals coast along on dour moralizing. Slightly friskier procedurals like NCIS and Bones use procedural plots to occasionally break up witty banter. Even the best sitcoms use one comedic tone as the prism for all action: Every episode of South Park bubbles over with outrage, every episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm builds tiny annoyance into catastrophe, every episode of Archer plays off the character’s passive disregard for everything outside of his own narcissism.
The genius of Louie is that it can leapfrog between any and all of these tones — sometimes in the same scene, sometimes in the same line of dialogue. Naturalism can blend into cartoonish farce, and then veer off into different territory. After starting the episode with a stand-up sequence and a vain attempt to understand Manhattan parking signs, Louie met his ladyfriend for lunch. The woman was played by Gaby Hoffman; we’ve never met the character before, but it soon became clear that they’d been seeing each other for six months. April noticed that Louie was feeling frustrated about something. With just a little prodding, she figured out that Louie wanted to break up with her.
Louie vaguely disagreed with her, but didn’t really correct her — he seemed more interested in eating his ice cream. What ensued was an entire break-up conversation conducted by one person. At one point, April complained: “You’re gonna make me break up with myself!” She finally gave him an ultimatum: Say anything at all, and she would stay. Louie said nothing, and she walked away. It was a perfectly paced mini-masterpiece of a scene — at once hyperreal and farcical — capped off with Louie moaning a sigh of relief, finally eating his ice cream.
From there, the episode took off in madcap directions. Louie’s car was demolished by a construction crew. (The head construction worker provided the biggest laugh of the night. Louie asked him “What the hell are you guys doing, anyway?” and the guy responded: “I dunno.”) Louie purchased a motorcycle and set off on a joyful montage around Manhattan: The West Side Highway, the MetLife building, FDR Drive. Then some other cyclists spooked him and he took a spill near the High Line. (The real-life comedian suffered a bad motorcycle accident in his younger days.)
At the hospital, Louie called his ex-wife. This was the first time we’d met the character. (In an intriguing bit of color-blind casting, the actress playing Louie’s ex-wife is African American, which doesn’t seem to gibe with his blond-haired and fair-skinned daughters, unless you are willing to accept that every scene of Louie may take place in a different parallel universe.)
Louie returned to his apartment, limping but not really injured. April showed up to pick up her laptop and took care of Louie, making him some food and wrapping him up in a blanket. Louie, feeling some odd confluence of emotions — guilt, pain, a need to connect, and probably also just typical masculine arousal at the prospect of a woman in his apartment — asked her to stay. Actually, what he said was: “Hey, maybe…sh…stay.” (If I’m avoiding writing down too many funny lines, it’s only because most of the biggest laughs last night came from C.K. barely being able to actually say anything.) April begged Louie not to torture her: “You might be wasting four years of our lives. You could save yourself another divorce!” All he had to do was tell her goodbye. He couldn’t do it. She walked out, angry, and he moaned another sigh of relief.
All in all, I thought the premiere was a pretty great return to Louieland. Fellow viewers, what did you think? Anyone else feel like the show may have gotten a slightly bigger small budget this year? They destroyed a car! They crashed a motorcycle!
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich
Read more on EW.com:
This Week’s Cover: Inside the Mind of Louis C.K.
Louis C.K. selling tour tickets directly to fans
The ‘Louie’ TCA panel, featuring Louis C.K.: 10 things we learned
Best of 2011 (Behind the Scenes): Louis C.K. on “Duckling”