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‘Louie’ is back and still on his game

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle
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- K.C. Bailey/FX
Louis C.K. as Louie in the FX comedy “Louie.”

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Some people, they go away for a while and then come back and you think, “Wow, I forgot how great he (or she) is.” Louis C.K. isn’t one of those people. With Louis C.K., you never forgot to miss him, even when his Emmy-winning show “Louie” was gone from FX for 19 months.

“Louie” returns to FX Monday night with its belated fourth season, and its star is as much on his game as ever. To make up for that painful gap, FX will air two episodes back to back every Monday through June 16. Spring has never been more welcome.

Louie is a guy who always seems somewhat perplexed by daily life. Women at the Comedy Cellar where he plies his trade have to tell him to stop asking them all out because it’s tedious having to tell him no. He develops a back problem and goes to a doctor (Charles Grodin) who, while eating his lunch, tells him to come back when he’s got something more interesting to complain about. He does a benefit in the Hamptons with Jerry Seinfeld and bombs so badly, only one woman in the crowd is laughing – and somehow the laughter of one woman (Yvonne Strahovski) is even more painful for us to watch (in a funny way) than complete silence.

Emotional range

You will love the first four episodes of the season and probably all the others as well, but each has a singular identity beyond the shared theme that daily life is hard work.

The fourth episode, “The Elevator, Part I,” is like a great Buster Keaton short with dialogue. It’s about an old woman (Ellen Burstyn) who gets stuck in an elevator, and what ensues is no less a classic than Keaton trying to tow a house behind a car.

The episode titled “So Did the Fat Lady” evokes Chaplin, again with dialogue, as Louis meets plus-size Vanessa (Sarah Baker) and she delivers what can only be called a spoken-word comedy aria dissecting how men react to a “fat lady.” It’s sad and awkward for a while, and then it’s poignant, and at the end, it’s funny. All of that in 20-odd minutes, and all of it entirely believable. It’s the kind of emotional range you’d expect in a great novel, comic or otherwise.

Often in the show, Louie will seem to be walking around in a kind of daze. Life is such a struggle, it seems to leave him dumbfounded, constantly searching for his own misfiled library of emotional reactions. Then, in what often seem like moments of desperation, he thinks he finds the reaction he’s looking for, lets it out and, of course, it’s inappropriate. That stuns him all over again, and he returns in greater panic to that disorganized internal library.

These four episodes remind us why “Louie” is unlike other TV comedies. It’s not just the absence of a laugh track, or a “situation,” in the traditional sitcom meaning of the word. It’s that each episode operates on so many different levels in ways we aren’t always aware of until the show is over. The writing is in a class by itself, richly nuanced beneath deceptively uncomplicated surfaces. There are pratfalls, verbal and physical, and intentionally telegraphed jokes. They are meant to make us think, well, that’s where the show’s comedy is.

But the real comedy isn’t quite that obvious. We see a man walking into an apartment. In the background, we see a woman sleeping on the couch. He doesn’t see her. We know he will see her, because we’re meant to know he’ll see her. But even when the expected punch line occurs, that’s not what the scene is about. We’ll get that a minute or so later.

The best writing

Yes, the show benefits from superb performances from series regulars, as well as guest stars like Sarah Silverman and Victor Garber. But it’s the writing that puts “Louie” on the highest possible level of comedy. There simply is no better-written comedy on TV today.

By the way, the first episode on Monday is called “Back.” It refers to Louie’s back, yes, but more important, “Louie’s” back.

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