‘Louie’: Louis C.K.'s junk drawer

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After last week’s borderline classic, “Louie” was back tonight with an episode that felt rather formless. I get that the series doesn’t tell traditional, three-act stories, but it usually has vignettes that take the form of clever little tales that function more like the sorts of long, funny stories you hear at a dinner party, stories that don’t have clear structures but are too long and involved to be mere jokes. Tonight’s episode felt a little too much like a catch-all, as though series writer, director and star Louis C.K., had a bunch of ideas for scenes he wanted to do but didn’t have the best idea for how to link them all together. Plenty of the jokes were funny, and the episode pulled off some impressively cringe-worthy moments, but the episode lacked a clear central idea in both of its segments.

After two episodes where the show focused intently on one story that sprawled all over the place but, nonetheless, looked at one particular moment in the life of Louie, the series was back to telling two short stories within the same episode. The first focused on Louie’s visit to an insane dentist and was filled with all sorts of bizarre ideas and storytelling. It was nice to see all-around comedy superstar Stephen Root turn up as said dentist. Root’s work as Jimmy James on “Newsradio” is one of my three or four favorite sitcom performances of all time, so I had predictably high hopes for just how things might turn out when he was there as a dentist who didn’t trust dentists before he became one.

To be fair, the character of the dentist plays to Root’s loopy strengths, and the scene where he’s trying to make Louie more comfortable is perfect in its awkwardness and physical comedy. Root’s a little too ... close to Louie throughout the process of putting him under, using a pill, the gas and music composed by a Saudi Arabian as a kind of “spiritual analgesic.” Watching Root kiss Louie tenderly on the head as Louie was slowly slipping under was terrifically squirm-inducing, and the way he let out a long, happy moan of induced unconsciousness perfectly in time and tune with Louie was also great. Plus, Louie’s fear of the dentist was so overstated that it took a pretty common joke and made it that much goofier. Louie cringing at the dentist doing a cursory examination by just slightly poking at his teeth struck me as just the right shade of ridiculous.

From there, though, Louie slips into a weird hallucination where a handful of things happen: 1.) He goes to a strange desert space (with a terribly loose matte painting for the background); 2.) He meets Osama bin Laden and all his pals and; 3.) He almost certainly discovers that out in the conscious realm, the dentist is using Louie’s gaping mouth for unsavory things. He discovers this by having the dentist appear in his hallucination and ask him to place a banana in his mouth, skin and all, but not bite down on it. Now, obviously, this is TV, so the series never directly says this is what’s happening, but it’s pretty clearly suggested with the banana and the immediate cut back to the dentist’s office, where the dentist seems to be zipping up his pants and is quite obviously trying to get Louie out of the office as quickly as possible.


I actually find most of this funny. The suggestion of sexual depravity is usually more amusing than actually seeing such a thing (because our brains can fill in anything we want), and that principle works to the series’ favor here. Similarly, I think the long conversation with Bin Laden about how Bin Laden thinks Sept. 11 was a gift to the people who died, since they get to be closer to God, but Louie is obviously offended by this idea, was very funny throughout. But the whole storyline was lacking much of anything beyond the idea of, “What if Louie went to the dentist, and things went very, very wrong?” I don’t ask the show to tell heart-warming stories of how Louie learns his little girls are growing up so fast or anything like that, but I don’t really have an idea of how all of these ideas were supposed to hang together at the same time.

The other storyline had a similarly promising start. Everybody’s been standing in line at some sort of retail store and seen the person behind the counter and been instantly smitten, wondering if it would be possible to act that person out. And yet very few of us ever even attempt this gambit because, well, the social contract we have with the person at the front of the line is that our relationship never leaves the strictly professional realm. But Louie’s been seeing a very attractive black woman at the store every day, and he’s determined to do something about it. So he buys her flowers -- flowers he gives her money for, then attempts to give to her -- and she rejects him. But he keeps pushing, following her home and trying to get her to admit that it might be fun for the both of them to try something out of the usual. Instead, she leaves him outside her apartment building, and he ends up hooking up with another woman in the building.

At least this story had a fairly solid throughline and touched on some interesting issues (like ideas of interracial dating and white liberal guilt), but it never had the time it might have needed to develop. I realize that one of Louie’s strengths is the way that it can tell a story and then completely leave it behind, but I might have felt more attached to the checkout girl had we seen her develop as a character over the course of the season. I’m not suggesting that she needs to be a new regular or anything, but the checkout girl (whose name is Tarese, by the by) feels too much like a conduit for C.K. to say some things about his character and the world he lives in, rather than an actual person. Everything feels too slight to have the heft it needs, and the similar following storyline suffers in comparison to last week’s nearly identical one, which did offer more nuance.

There are a lot of good laughs in “Dentist/Tarese,” particularly in the stand-up sections, which show Louie delving into some potentially offputting territory and emerging mostly unscathed (he does a whole routine about how child molestors are underappreciated, for God sakes!), but the episode itself felt a little too much like a junk drawer of a script, a place where C.K. tossed a bunch of ideas he had and hoped that since they were funny enough, he wouldn’t have to come up for a reason for all of them to share the same episode. They were funny, but the episode itself didn’t hang together.

Some other thoughts (all quotes edition):

  • * “Unfortunately, I can’t visit myself, so I’m just waiting for my teeth to rot out.”
  • * “I get the whole desert higher plane thing, but you totally shouldn’t have done 9/11. I mean, people aren’t fruit. That wasn’t ... nice.”
  • * “How would you like to have sex with me and then wish you didn’t later?”

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Here’s “Louie” creator Louis C.K. directing an episode of the series. Doesn’t he look like a director who would command anyone’s respect? That is a mighty gesture of directorial authority. (Credit: FX)

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