Louie defies easy formal analysis because it doesn’t quite have an easily definable form. The most basic fact that everyone who cares about Louie knows about Louie is that the show is entirely Louis C.K.: Directed by, written by, edited by, starring. Back in 2010, it was still possible to understand the show as a sitcom, albeit an extremely precise kind of sitcom. Classically, situation comedies were collaborations: Ensemble casts, writing staffs, studio audience. Louie gave the form an auteurist twist, but you could watch the first season and see echoes of Curb Your Enthusiasm (handheld camera, inside-baseball showbiz comedy, playing-themself cameos).
The show got more adventurous in its second season. C.K. is restlessly ambitious, writing all-new stand-up material every year, and you could almost feel the show reboot itself again and again. The show began transitioning out of its bag-o’-vignettes format into genuine standalone episodes. Season 3 added genuine continuity, with recurring characters and a three-part “Late Night” story arc. Then it disappeared for two years.
It’s possible to argue that television changed completely during the Louie dark period. Or at least, you can see a clear epoch-switch from The Old Way and the New Way. A quick laundry list of notable moments: Netflix made TV shows that people really like; “binge” practically replaced “watch” as the verb-of-choice for describing TV consumption; American Horror Story and True Detective killer app’d the concept of a “serialized anthology” series; frequent crashings of HBO’s subscription service offered clear proof that nobody under the age of 22 watches TV on television anymore.
None of this necessarily informs what C.K. is doing with this season of Louie. Compared to most other great TV dramas and comedies of the moment, the comedian’s influences are decidedly non-contemporary — French New Wave, silent cinema, Putney Swope. Maybe that’s why — even in a year with three Sherlock minimovies and the True Detective eight-hour saga and the ongoing exercise in narrative expansion that is Game of Thrones — Louie still feels at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of the whole TV format.
Look at “Elevator,” a six-part tale that aired on four consecutive Mondays. “Elevator” tells a long-form story about Louie’s relationship with Amia, the Hungarian niece of his downstairs neighbor. Except it’s also the story of Louie struggling with his ex-wife to define a future for their children, and to rescue their post-marital relationship from a purgatory of petty squabbling. Except it also finds time to pick up a dangling plot thread from three years ago: The return of Pamela, Louie’s original will-they-or-won’t-they love interest and essentially the only real running “storyline” of the first two seasons. Except there’s also time for a few tangents: A flashback to Louie’s marriage, a narrated Day in the Life of (unmarried, childless) comedian Todd Barry, the longest stand-up monologue the show’s done in years. And there are also frequent references to the impending arrival of Hurricane Jasmine Forsythe, a bizarro-world Sandy which (per surreal news reports) offscreen-kills LeBron James and the hip parts of Brooklyn.
What was “Elevator”? Is it possible to understand it from previous narrative framework? You could argue that it’s an extension of the burgeoning serialization from season 3’s “Late Night,” but that doesn’t take into account all the tangents. You could argue that it’s essentially a feature, running around two hours and fifteen minutes or so.
Then again, you could also point out that “Elevator” is an example of C.K. embracing a more classical sitcom form. For these six episodes, there was a Wacky Cast of Recurring Characters: Charles Grodin in the helpful-wise-man role, like Wilson from Home Improvement mashed with Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace; and Ellen Burstyn, coming down on the right side of Hamming It Up as a sassy Gabor-ish grandma who almost dies in the same elevator twice. It’s possible, too, to read “Elevator” in the tradition of New York City apartment-building stories, where the “story” is basically “A bunch of people live in the same building, experience things. The End.” (See: Breakfast at Tiffany‘s, Rent, half of John Cheever.)
Really, what made “Elevator” fascinating viewing was that it was all these things, and more. I liked True Detective, but that HBO drama defined itself with a style of rigid formality, with double-loops of narrative, with motifs narrative and aesthetic. (Like, circles, man.) “Elevator” could shift on a dime from grit-reality (Louie and ex-wife Janet in a therapy session) to dreamlike surreality (Louie standing up mid-session, walking to the window, and screaming — the camera following him out the window, a reverse shot from street level showing him screaming thirty stories high.) “Elevator Part 6” featured one of the show’s most openly fantastical segments ever, a flood that destroys everything except for the local Hertz rental agency. But it concluded with a static unbroken take of characters having a long conversation — “static unbroken take” usually visual shorthand for unadorned realism.
Right in the middle of the run of “Elevator,” Mad Men ended its half-season with an openly fantastical moment: A song-and-dance number featuring a dead character who had never once sung nor danced. This sequence was greeted with a variety of critical appraisals, ranging from “That was a nice and completely incongruous moment” to “Does this mean Don has a brain tumor?” to “THAT WAS AWESOME I DON’T GET IT.” Television in general has gotten much better, but sometimes I feel a little bit like TV viewing culture has gotten a bit less daring, a bit less willing to indulge creators flights of fancy. (Can you imagine Breaking Bad or House of Cards or Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead doing a half-episode dream sequence? The Sopranos did it ten years ago.)
“Elevator” is a striking counterargument, a demonstration of what happens when a very creative creator goes on a very fanciful flight of fancy. The shape of the rest of Louie‘s season could get even more daring: Last night also featured an episode called “Pamela Part 1” that was kind of an epilogue to “Elevator” and kind of an in-universe retcon-ification of “Elevator”; there are two more parts of “Pamela,” but those will only air after another multi-part episode called “In the Woods,” which will run next week for 90 minutes with commercials. In a weird way, Louie is sort of swimming both with and against the current of the Binge Era, releasing longer stories and shorter stories, building up its internal continuity and then tearing it down again. Which is why it’s not easy to define Louie, although you could start with “brilliant.”