'Louie' returns, on its own peculiar terms

'Louie' returns, on its own peculiar terms
Louis C.K. is back as Louie. (K.C. Bailey / FX)

Here in the Titanium Age of Television, one comedy gets the sort of ecstatic, near-universal acclaim usually reserved for dramas like "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men." Out of whatever lucky confluence of executive foresight or predilection and the artist being the right artist at the right time, we are living in a world with "Louie."

On Monday, Louis C.K.'s FX series begins its fourth season, delayed a year while its creator, star, writer, director (and, once again, its editor) did whatever he needed to do, for the show's sake or his own. He appeared in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" and David O. Russell's "American Hustle" in 2013 and in his own stand-up special, "Oh My God," first distributed digitally and then on HBO. He has not been invisible.


Still, acclaim does not always signify popularity, and if the peaks and valleys of Nielsen ratings are any indication — 434,000 viewers watched the Season 3 finale, a million fewer than watched the season premiere — "Louie" is as likely to alienate viewers as attract them.

It is not an easy show. There is nothing else like it on television, either in its combinations of tone or the auteurist circumstances of its making. It is dramatic, though not a drama; it is a comedy, yet one that can go a very long time without a laugh. It has the fundamental consistency of a sitcom — C.K. is always a professional comedian, the divorced father of two daughters, played with seamless naturalism by the spooky-good Ursula Parker and Hadley Delany — without too much concern for continuity or, at times, logic. Its stories, which may last more than a single episode or less than a single episode, are discrete and self-sufficient. Each stands on its own as a TV art film, an independent work of short fiction.

And "art" is the right word. Everything here is made with an extra degree, or several extra degrees, of care and ambition. I can't think of another television comedy, ever, as visually acute or sensitive to mood or staging. (Paul Koestner is C.K.'s longtime director of photography, and their relationship goes back long before "Louie.") Nothing here is gratuitous, even when it's beside the point; it's a detailed show but a lean one.

I have seen the season's first four episodes, and they don't disappoint. (Fourteen episodes will air two at a time over seven weeks, a schedule that perhaps has something to do with the low ratings.) We watch this show as much to keep track of the creator as the character. The question is not (just) what's going to happen to Louie — we'll let that spelling denote the character — but what's on Louis' mind, and what he has to show us.

"Louie" is aspirational in the sense that the character, like his creator, is interested in how to live a good or better life. Now and again, a little light does break in, a fault is admitted, an understanding reached, surrender achieved. But he is not on a "journey," except from cradle to grave, and we are not waiting for him to fix himself, or be fixed, to find love or be found by it. Because it's a moral show, we root for good choices, even as the bad ones bring the comedy.

Again, sex and death and fatherhood, and all they include and imply, are at the heart of the matter. As usual, comics play versions of themselves (including Sarah Silverman, Todd Barry, Jim Norton and, in the second episode Monday, "Model," a hostile Jerry Seinfeld, who cautiously invites Louie to open for him as a last-minute replacement: "Can you work clean? Can you not curse? Can you not say, 'Dirty sex poop dogs having sex with vagina dirt?"

Other interesting guests, not playing themselves, include Ellen Burstyn; Eszter Balint; Yvonne Strahovski from "Chuck" and Sarah Baker from "Go On," both doing deeper work than those credits might indicate; and Charles Grodin as a doctor whose advice to Louie, whose back is out, captures something essential about C.K.'s world view: "Accept the fact that your back is going to hurt sometimes. Be very grateful for the moments that it doesn't. Every second spent without back pain is a lucky second. String enough of those lucky seconds together, you have a lucky minute."



Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)