In a stroke of conceptual programming fit for the lead paragraph of a review like this, FX has scheduled two series in which comedians play versions of themselves one after the other on Thursday nights.
One you know, or should: “Louie,” starring the nearly eponymous Louis C.K., is certainly one of the best things on television, now or ever. The other, the new and plainly titled “The Comedians,” with Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, is certainly not — but it has its points.
The latter is based on a Swedish series, “Ulveson & Herngren,” about a younger and older comic working together on a new sketch series. Here, it’s “The Billy and Josh Show,” which is also being made for FX. (“The Comedians” is presented as a reality show tracking its creation.) You may experience the briefest moment between thinking, “Isn’t Billy Crystal too big a star to have a show on FX?” and realizing that Billy Crystal has a show on FX.
Oddly conservative but for its basic-cable language, “The Comedians” is a strangely mixed bag, which works or doesn’t work from moment to moment and from mode to mode. Some of it is strikingly obvious — when Crystal picks up a wooden box from the desk of a woman talking about the recent death of her dog, it is clear for miles around that they contain the animal’s remains and that they will wind up on his person. But Crystal’s following line, addressed to the ashes on his shirt (“Come on, boy — I’m going to take him around the studio”), is surprising and effective.
The plots can run to the silly; many jokes live on the indistinct border between edginess and cluelessness, and it’s not always clear whether they were intended to sound a little stupid. An episode about the stars’ clumsiness dealing with race “in and around” the show is itself clumsy at times.
And yet there is something solid and satisfying in the relationship between the two leads that becomes clearer as the show goes on. You don’t sense that they’re a great comedy team, either within the context of the show within the show — in a world with “Portlandia,” “Key & Peele” and “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Billy and Josh” is weak competition — or the show about that show. But as men of different ages coming to know each other, Crystal and Gad make an interesting, increasingly watchable couple. And the less overtly comic the scene, the better they are.
“Louie” is back for a fifth season, and age is an issue there too. (It always has been, but it doesn’t get any less the case.) C.K.'s look-alike character is slipping reading glasses on and off often; his girls are growing up.
“You’re about two years away from a sharp decline in your looks,” friend-with-benefits Pamela (Pamela Adlon) tells him, while the proprietor of a cookery store diagnoses his discomfort with younger people — “because we’re the future and you don’t belong in it” — but also points out that given a desire for his daughters’ generation to improve on his own, “If you feel stupid around young people, things are going good.”
The conventions of modern television lead us to expect that even sitcoms have seasonal arcs and relationships that change over years. But while there is some continuity in “Louie” — the newly sexual relationship with Pamela, established at the end of last season, is still alive in this one — it’s a show that repeatedly wipes the slate (kind of) clean. (Which is not at all the same thing as letting its main character off the hook.)
C.K. is a short story writer by temperament, and though his body and brain remain at the center of the action, whatever one episode establishes about the character’s life and history is liable to be rewritten in another. What’s important is the working out of an idea, to see where it goes without worrying unduly about how it relates to the mass of the show; the creator is not building a mythology here.
The Pamela story was controversial for a scene that some characterized as “date rape,” and what the character characterized to Louie as what “would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.” (It echoed a preceding story line, with Eszter Balint, and followed other much-discussed stories about men and women.)
There was no rape, but there was a kind of blundering sexual intimidation, not meant to be taken lightly or approvingly. More often than not, the shame is Louie’s to bear; the lesson is his to learn. There are scenes in the new season (I’ve seen four episodes) that seem written not exactly in response to that scene, as if a defense were being mounted, but which are meant to reflect back on our memory of it. There will be discussion.
It’s a funny show, fundamentally, but not always, by intention. Not everything works, or works equally well; like Louie, Louis is only human. But it’s a matter of the reach that exceeds the grasp — the series’ faults are overwhelmingly sins of ambition. C.K. puts complicated humans on screen and makes it hard for you to judge them.
“The Comedians” is a vehicle — literally a device to deliver its stars to your eyes. But “Louie” is a thought process made flesh.