Louis C.K. was widely celebrated for a recent episode of his terrific FX comedy where he bravely pulled the pants down on the hypocrisy of the potbellied American heterosexual male.
In it, our mostly lovable, flabby antihero spurns the advances of an equally lovable waitress. The rejection comes not because he doesn't want to belong to a club that would have someone like him for a member but because he isn't attracted to a woman with a body shape similar to his.
Bold as that may have been to rattle a central pillar of American television — heavy girls generally don't exist or have feelings, especially romantic ones — C.K. is actually far more daring in another fraught area. As the father of two young girls, he delivers some of the most honest, unhoneyed depictions of the day-to-day joys and frustrations of child-rearing on mainstream television.
There are a number of smart and enlightening programs about parenting, ABC's "Modern Family" and NBC's "Parenthood" among them. But those shows abide by the standard rules of sitcoms and dramas, as they should. Phil Dunphy isn't going to slap around the kids, and we all know that by episode's end the A, B and C plot are going to line up in some heartwarming way.
But "Louie" is something different. It is an adult show built largely on vignette, not formula, where issues often are left unresolved (kind of like in your life and mine, I imagine). It's a structure that allows for more freedom and experimentation than most other shows. Indeed, the decision to integrate children into the show's adult world of existential angst represents its own significant break with television convention.
Which is why, in the episode immediately after the recent acclaimed one about men, dating and body image, we see Louie shaking his youngest child. Big, husky Louie physically shaking and yelling at her on a crowded New York City subway platform.
"It's a dangerous world," Louie shouts at Jane, played by Ursula Parker — who by the way deserves an Emmy nomination. "Kids get stolen and they disappear forever, Jane.... This is real. Bad things happen."
Louie continues despite protests from his oldest daughter, Lilly, that that's enough from her dad. She is played by Hadley Delany, who by the way also deserves an Emmy nomination.
No, insists Louie, who in the series as in life is a divorced father of two girls, that is not enough.
"Go ahead and cry," he says as the little girl obliges. "That's right. That's what you should be doing. You should be scared and crying. You know what could have happened? No. It's not OK. Never do something like that again. Never."
If you introduced a zombie into this scene and kept the dialogue the same, it would work on either of the first two seasons of the "The Walking Dead."
But what prompted Louie's tirade was not an apocalypse of the undead but something far worse because it's real and fairly simple for any parent to imagine — namely, a missing young child. And in this case it's one who deliberately stepped out of a subway train at the last second to test her father's recent "What to Do if We're Separated on the Subway" lecture.
Louie's reaction is a risky moment for the show. He's a comedian, after all, not Walter White or Tony Soprano. If he's too harsh, he's an abusive father, and it would almost be impossible to win back an audience if that were the perception. But given the extraordinary everyday realism of the scene, he can't just laugh it off or ignore it either.
His response is even more notable because we live in the age of the helicopter parent. In a noble effort to heal the neglect and shame of their past, the HP constantly hovers over the child and its needs. Boundaries are essential though, and when a rebuke comes for crossing one, the parent must always own his feelings, the HP theory goes.
So in Louie's case that would have meant saying something like "I was scared when you jumped out of the subway car and left me and your older sister alone. I love you and I was frightened that I wouldn't be able to protect you."
Instead, Louie owned none of his feelings, shamed and shook the little girl, and then dumped her off at his ex-wife's apartment — for further scolding. And that is why his niche audience of about 1 million weekly viewers loves him. It was a flawed response, but, for most parents of younger children, an entirely familiar and understandable one.
C.K. may dress like he's about to tar a roof, but he thinks like a cultural anthropologist who minored in philosophy. He knows his audience, and he likes to challenge its cozy, self-satisfied assumptions about race, sex, gender, parenting and even himself. The same MSNBC crowd that cheered him as the overweight waitress shamed him for his double standard of beauty may have recoiled in horror at his way of handling his runaway child (something that might have cheered the Fox News crowd).
This is hardly the first time Louie has tried to untangle the thorny issues in the strange universe of raising children. Over his four seasons, he's also taken on the use of racial epithets in front of children by an aging relative, an inability to keep his trick-or-treaters safe at Halloween, and childhood boredom.
Those episodes pale next to a classic from last season that centered on the odd schoolmates our children encounter. One day has Louie taking home Lilly's classmate, a boy named "Never" whose mother unloaded the child because she was having her vagina removed. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The mother warns Louie not to feed her precious Never anything with carbon. (Yes, you read that correctly too.)
What follows is a hilarious but uncomfortable clash of parenting worlds. How far should Louie go to accommodate this unusual, rather unlikable boy? Answer: He'll go a good distance but a long way from where the kid wants to go.
Never is hungry and asks for a hamburger. Louie says all right. But then Never just wants to eat the raw meat, served in a bowl. Louie says all right.
Next thing you know, the boy is in the bathroom for a long time where he indeed goes to the bathroom but in the wrong place. Louie seems to take it in stride. (You wonder how Betty Draper might have handled this one.)
Later the boy asks Louie why his daughter Lilly doesn't seem to like him.
"Because you eat raw meat," answers Louie, noting his accident in the tub. "You wreck everything. And as long as you act like that, no one's going to like you."
"My mom says that any choice I make is OK as long as I love myself," Never replies.
"Your mom is wrong," says Louie.
You don't hear dialogue like that on "The Walking Dead." Or anywhere else on TV.
None of this would work comically or otherwise if we didn't believe that Louie loves his children. He would walk through fire for them. And upon request from his girls, he'll even reluctantly but sweetly imitate each of the Beatles before saying good night.
A central question Louie is asking himself, and by extension his audience, is what makes a good person and a good parent in this day of so many conflicting nostrums? He's figuring out the answer as he goes, stumbling along as all parents do, loving his children the best he can. And his chronicling of that search may be his bravest act of all.
Miller is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Times. (@latimesmmiller)
When: 10 and 10:30 p.m. Monday