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Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

'Louie' Returns from a Long Hiatus with Two Solid Episodes

Louie returned to FX last night after a year and a half hiatus, with two new episodes, and if you're worried the show would lose its touch during its time away, you can set those fears to rest. The premiere episodes of season four, “Back” and “Model,” while being vastly different from each other in style and tone, are both perfect examples of what makes Louie so great.

“Back” ultimately focuses on Louie’s back problems, but the episode’s name correctly states that he and his show have returned. The episode loosely winds from scene to scene, in a style much like the early seasons of Louie. Also like classic Louie, episode one hits on some of Louie’s favorite beats, like getting older, being a father, loneliness, and the inside world of comedy – interspersed by scenes of his standup in the Comedy Cellar.

It’s a typical “day in the life” episode, touching briefly on the annoyances of city life and heightening them to the point of absurdity with surrealism — one of C.K.’s favorite devices in past seasons. There’s a scene where he juxtaposes the harshness and humanity of New York, though it’s not as visually striking as when he layered a hobo washing himself with a bottle of water behind a world-class violinist busking in a tux. There’s also some parenting scenes, where Louis tries to explain to his youngest, Jane, about why parents sometimes don’t help their kids, of course to no avail. And there are elements of Louie’s life as a comedian, like the maintenance guy who just has to tell him the latest joke he’s heard (but never got the punchline). When Louie tries to teach him the correct version of the age-old joke, he ruins the man's fun. Also like early episodes of Louie, there’s a poker scene with his comedy circle, and this time a much-welcome Sarah Silverman joins the guys too.

The comedic roundtable, which seems half-directed and half-spontaneous, piques Louie’s interest in buying a vibrator (it’s a long, gross, Jim Norton’s-masturbatory habits-provoked plot development). This is the “story” of the episode, and it has Louie hurting his back while trying to point out a non-intimidating vibrator to the local sex shop clerk. And this is classic Louie paydirt: the contrast of his 46-year-old body to his boyish, nervous, continued sexual exploration. It’s the depiction of those pathetic, depraved, hilarious universal truths that C.K.'s so good at putting on the screen and in his standup.

Louie’s trip to the doctor covers familiar ground, like how his aging body simply isn’t expected to work well from now on: the doctor’s (the wonderful Charles Grodin) only advice was that our backs aren’t evolutionarily sound. The story comes together when the doctor’s aged receptionist suggests a Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator for his back pain — a product originally marketed to prude Americans as a massager, but we all know why people were buying it. And we know what Louie’s first use for it will be.

While “Back” is like old-style Louie comfort food — nothing too fancy, just really solid — the episode that followed it, “Model,” is more like season three. It has a longer story arc, more political undertones, and way higher production values.

The episode starts with Louie about to ask a waitress out after a show but being preemptively shut down. Then, Jerry Seinfeld shows up to goad him into opening for him at a charity benefit in the Hamptons (no blue material allowed). Louie agrees, and takes a bus out to Long Island while he works on his clean material, solely based on how chickens are stupid. This sets the rest of the episode up for an aggressively awkward “fish out of water” nightmare/dream-like sequence.

Louie shows up woefully underdressed and underprepared, telling his one chicken “joke” in front of an audience of black-tie billionaires and trillionaires, dressed in a security guard’s formal blazer. Seinfeld, to his credit, plays his exaggerated character like he’s completely comfortable in that environment, which only makes Louie more miserable. But Louie’s self-loathing, post-trainwreck misery is short-lived, since the only laughing member of the audience who then assertively introduces herself to him happens to be a millionaire model with an astronaut father and an expensive convertible.

To a brilliant Euro jazz soundtrack, she seduces Louie. But of course, it’s too good to be true, and he inevitably fucks it up, in the worst way: by punching her in the face. Despite the resultant financially-crippling lawsuit against Louie, his bizarre sob story gets a sympathy date with the first waitress he tried to court at the episode’s outset and his unfitting satisfaction with the outcome is illustrated by his charmingly pathetic Charlie Brown smile.

Throughout these episodes, and unlike some elements of his recent standup, C.K. retains his original character, who’s not as influential or wealthy as he, himself, has become. Especially in the second episode, this leads to some interesting undercurrents and ironies. While he plays himself as not accustomed to wealth, the Hamptons scene involves a mansion and several supercars that C.K., FX, and/or Seinfeld must have provided for the taping. And while not wading too deep into politics, like Bill Hicks or George Carlin would, the way he portrays class differences definitely has a bite.

Undoubtedly to the delight of fans, season four of Louie picks up right where it left off. He’s still a lonely schlub trying to raise his daughters right, he’s only a hit with women on freak occasions, and he still ends up at the Comedy Cellar as a seemingly struggling comedian. But he’s on a first name basis with Jerry Seinfeld. For fans, this is the best of both worlds: after a deserved hiatus to recharge, Louie is back and signaling — with these first two episodes — that C.K. is interested in both dissecting the everyday mundane and telling fantastical allegories, but all with the good old, forlorn characterization of himself at the center.

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