The second season of Louie had a number of moments that didn’t just amuse me; they made my heart swell with joy and, sometimes, sadness. As if to acknowledge these reactions in his viewers, Louis C.K. crafted a season finale on Thursday night that found his character hitting new highs… and lows.
The strategy C.K. has devised to render Louie unique is to make it as assiduously low-tech and straightforward as possible. He might say this is a simple result of having a small budget (part of his agreement with FX to be able to maintain creative control). I say it’s also essential to C.K.’s aesthetic, which favors the rough-hewn and carefully spontaneous over the polished and the precise.
Thus this second-season swan song was titled “New Jersey/Airport.” Why? Because the first half took place in New Jersey, the second half at an airport. An opening comedy-club segment found Louie describing how deep a sleep his children wake him from each morning. Like a lot of his stand-up, it cannot be paraphrased without losing its humor or its necessary profanity, so I’ll just say it was, like so much of C.K.’s stand-up, both easy to identify with and utterly alien to my own experience. (That’s one definition of art.) After his set, he was picked up and propositioned by an attractive woman, she drove him to her house in Jersey, and surprised him when he realized she was proposing a ménage à trois with her husband (F. Murray Abraham, using his big Salieri voice to express erotic outrage.) Who did Louie call to get him out of this jam? Chris Rock, who was wonderfully grumpy and blunt. (“Next time find a vagina in New York.”)
In the second half, the object of Louie’s affection, Pamela (Pamela Adlon), is leaving the country to go to France, to be with her child and the kid’s father. Louie suffers from unrequited love — Pamela claims not to have any feelings for him, even as Louie insists he can’t possibly have so much love for her without some of that affection being mutual. (He: “I think we’re supposed to be together.” She: “Ya gotta move on.”) The final scene was perfectly modulated between comedy and heartbreak: Pamela calling across the airport, “Wave to me!” and Louie misunderstanding her words as, “Wait for me!” and ending the episode (and thus the season) on a note of false hope.
What tied these two segments together — and indeed what has tied together this entire season of Louie — is the set-up of Louie’s hopeful expectations, which are then either gloriously affirmed or smashed to bits. My favorite episode of the season may have been the July 21 “Country Drive.” It was the one in which Louie drives his daughters out of New York City to visit Louie’s elderly great-aunt Ellen. The half-hour was three distinct segments jammed together brilliantly — like a first-rate Thelonious Monk composition, to use a simile that suits Louie‘s use of jazz on its soundtrack.
In the first chunk, Louie does some extended air-drumming to the car radio playing The Who’s “Who Are You?” His kids are at first bored, then a little fascinated that their father can be so into music. (Conveying a passion for life is one of Louie’s major goals he sets himself as a father.) In the second, the visit to Aunt Ellen proves something of a disaster, since the scattered woman turns out to be a dreadful bigot. Then, in what I think is one of the TV season’s most brilliant editing decisions (C.K. edits the show as well as writing and directing it), there was an extended closing-credits sequence that was simply footage of the actress who played Ellen, Eunice Anderson, talking about how much she enjoyed doing the show and kidding around with Louie. Rather than being throwaway material, this last segment did a couple of things: It separated the actress from her character, and made you realize what a performance she’d just given; it also defused the tension that had preceded it — without that release valve, Aunt Ellen’s racism would have left us in one of those “Are we really supposed to find that funny?” moods that too many other “edgy” sitcoms force onto their audiences.
One of the great things about Louie C.K. is that he never strains to be edgy; his effort goes into presenting an artful rendition of his life, offered in a jagged form that is the visual version of the thoughts he works out in his stand-up routines.
Like Louie waiting for Pamela, I will wait for Louie to return next season, my hopes absurdly, happily high.