TV Picks: ‘Louie,’ ‘Maron,’ ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!,’ Jayson Blair
“Louie” (FX, Mondays). That Louis C.K. took a year off from his highly and rightly lauded series in order to keep fresh is consistent with what we have come to know and respect about him. (America’s Most Respected Comic is a funny-strange title to bestow, but it is a shoe that fits.) The choice shows regard for the work and for the audience — which is, after all, the same thing. Similarly, he throws out his stand-up act every 12 months. “Louie” is literally incomparable; there is nothing else like it on television, either in its combinations of tone or the auteurist circumstances of its making, written and directed (and edited again) as it is by its star. It is dramatic, though not a drama; it is a comedy, and not just for purposes of Emmy nominations, yet one that can go a very long time without a laugh. It is naturalistic, with a side of uncanniness.
Functionally, it has the consistency of a sitcom — he is always the divorced father of two daughters and works as a comedian — but 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 short story, a little art film, without the need of an overarching premise. (“Art” is the proper term. And I can’t think of another television comedy, ever, as visually acute or sensitive to mood.) Louis C.K. is a character in that, though he is not exactly playing himself, he is consistently Who He Is, which is complicated enough, in a normal human way, to produce volumes. 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, or even be understood in some more than transitory fashion. The show is aspirational in the sense that the creator and the character are interested in how to live a good or better life, and there are moments in which he does, but the show is not sentimental about the accomplishment.
His condition is the human condition; Louis C.K. is sincerely philosophical, and while this is true of many comics, we sense something especially serious inside him that makes his show compelling in a way that “Last Man Standing,” only for the instance that popped into my head, is not. His subjects are, to be reductive, sex and death, and to be expansive, everything they include and imply. The fourth-season premiere, titled “Back” (there’s a double meaning, if you want it), goes on for a while about masturbation but pays it off. Nothing here is gratuitous, even when it’s beside the point; it’s a detailed show, and a lean one.
“Maron,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!” (IFC, Thursdays). Two IFC comedies return this week. Marc Maron’s surly sitcom, “Maron,” begins a second season, while Scott Aukerman’s semi-faux talk show, “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” returns for a third, 20-episode season (having already been renewed for a 40-episode fourth). Both series originate in podcasts — Maron’s “WTF” and Aukerman’s (inconsistently unpunctuated) “Comedy Bang Bang” — that find the comedians talking not strictly to other comedians.
In “Maron,” Maron plays himself (or the more difficult aspects of himself, though he will sometimes let the sunshine in): a comedian who does a podcast from his garage, is a sober-living alcoholic, plays a little guitar and has cats, or cares for them. As an actor, he is, one would say, playing the role he was born to, and he is most convincing — by which I mean relaxed — when alone, speaking into a microphone or re-creating the podcast (many famous faces face his). He is convincing enough, in any case, to play a black cloud, and he is supported by excellent professionals in big roles and small. Judd Hirsch continues as Marc’s father, and Sally Kellerman happily gets a lot more to do this year as his mother. Also back in the Official Regular Cast are Josh Brener (“Silicon Valley”) as a doe-eyed assistant, and Andy Kindler and Dave Anthony as Felix- and Oscar-flavored comedian-friends. As in most series in which comics play comics (see “Louie,” above), he is professionally and personally less successful in fiction than in life, because it’s funnier and also more dramatic that way. The new season finds him at a higer level of success, however, with an eager new manager, interest from FX, a live-in love interest and enough money that he doesn’t think long about spending $4,000 on a tube amplifier. How much of this will survive an appearance, alongside Chris Hardwick and Michael Ian Black — there is tension — on Hardwick’s “The Talking Dead,” a show about a show about which Maron knows nothing and cares less, is the subject of the opening episode.
Like its podcast progenitor, “Comedy Bang! Bang!” (I’ll have a feature on the show timed to the premiere), is a thing of truth and lies. Arrayed as a typical talk show, with the less usual inclusion of taxidermy animals on the walls, it features Aukerman as host — gangly, sweater-wearing, creepily cheerful — and hairy genius Reggie Watts as his one-man bandleader, partner and foil/ One guest on each episode appears as him or herself; another as a Aukerman. (In this year’s opener, the first chair is held down by Patton Oswalt, whose face is in the dictionary next to “ubiquitous” — though as Sarah Silverman appears in both the “Maron” and “Louis” season premieres, that position may be in play — and Vanessa Bayer, from “Saturday Night Live,” as a turtle-averse turtle expert. Improvisation is involved, but there are also elaborate, if economical, set pieces; the new year begins as a kind of action film, with doppelgangers battling doppelgangers for possession of Scott and Reggie’s stuff. Meta, baby, meta.
“A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times” (PBS, Monday). Samantha Grant’s stylish, Errol Morris-y documentary chronicles the rise and fall of Jayson Blair, the fabulist-plagiarist New York Times reporter whose discovery and dismissal was news itself in 2003. The major characters are present and speaking for themselves, including Blair; then-executive editor Howell Raines, whose own career in journalism Blair’s misadventures effectively ended; and Macarena Hernandez, the San Antonio Express-News reporter whose piece on the family of a missing serviceman Blair used fatally for his own. But Blair, who also wrote a book about it (the ridiculously titled “Burning Down My Master’s House”), can only be regarded as permanently untrustworthy, even in his claims to want to better understand himself, and even Raines, a new broom in the newsroom whose demands for More, Faster some blamed for the conditions that made Blair possible, has come to defend himself.
That said, “A Fragile Trust” does put a face on the faker; it makes him human, if still fundamentally inscrutable, something more than a receptacle for one’s own imported attitudes on lazy kids (a colleague points out that the lies took more work than the reporting would have) or affirmative action. (Blair is African American; some contemporary commentators made this the issue.) Grant also tells a story of institutional dysfunction and how incompatible personalities or autocratic leadership can lead to bad decision-making, or a lack thereof, and an additional story of old media grappling with new and an accelerated pace and increased workload that guarantee that mistakes will not only be made but can easily stay made. What the film also makes clear is that convenience is a slippery slope; the Times itself had a policy, called “one toe,” whereby a reporter would be flown to a remote location to file a story written elsewhere in order to claim the dateline: an illusion of presence that Blair, who represented himself to his bosses as traveling when he was staying at home in Brooklyn, stealing and inventing facts for his stories, took to a remarkable extreme.
[For the Record, 4:56 p.m. May 2: An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the title of Louis C.K.'s series as “Louis.” It is “Louie.” ]
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