Empathy, World-Building, and Loneliness: A Critical Look At Louie’s Third Season

I. By all standards, 2012 has been a banner year for Louis C.K. He won two Emmys for both his critically acclaimed show Louie and his comedy special Live at the Beacon Theatre, which was produced and sold exclusively by C.K. through his website. The DIY success of Beacon Theatre has prompted other comedians, such as Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari, and Rob Delaney, to release their own specials under the same business model. And, most recently, C.K. used his clout to sell comedian Tig Notaro’s widely acclaimed set at the Largo comedy club, recorded just a day after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This year solidified Louis C.K.’s ascent to America’s foremost comedic voice becoming widely recognized by the culture as one of the most innovative, unique voices working today.

But C.K has decided to take an extended break from the small screen. It’s reported that Louie will go on hiatus until spring of 2014 with Louis commenting on a conference call with reporters that he wants the show “to be something that comes from somewhere important and stays funny,” and that he thinks the year off will help to push the show in a new direction. C.K.’s decision is hardly unprecedented (David Chase of The Sopranos took year-long hiatuses regularly during the series’ run) and is almost certainly a fruitful creative decision that will benefit the show in the long run. However, the most interesting part of this conference call to me is Louis’ comment that he views the first three seasons of Louie as a makeshift trilogy. This past season—and especially the finale—has felt very cumulative in terms of scope and emotional heft. While C.K. has generally avoided serialization, the show has always had a consistent thematic undercurrent of Louie’s maturation and evolution as a character that was heavily explored this season. When Louie was firing on cylinders this past year, every moment felt earned by the episode’s writing, but also, oddly enough, its context within the series. For someone dedicated to making “extended vignettes” with a tinge of the avant-garde, Louie’s third season has felt more and more like a television show working at its creative peak.

II. In “New Year’s Eve,” the third season finale of Louie, we see Louie suffering from abject loneliness during the holidays and slowly coming to terms with the dissatisfaction in his life. “New Year’s Eve” is the best episode of the season and easily my favorite episode of the series because it’s predictable in form yet atypical in content, critical of Louie yet empathetic in his struggle, and, in a series often defined by illustrating the ugly, painful side of reality, surprisingly hopeful. The episode is split into clear thirds: 1) Louie watches his daughters open their presents while silently recollecting the absurd, mind-numbing trouble he had buying and wrapping them before sending them off with their mother and stepfather; 2) After Louie turns down an offer to spend the holidays in Mexico with his sister, he has a dream of his daughters in their 20s discussing how sad and alone he is. Jolted awake by the dream, he takes a bus to the airport the next day where he runs into Liz, a girl he went on an unpredictable, life-altering date with earlier in the season. As they are about to embrace, Liz collapses from her long-dormant cancer and Louie watches her die in a hospital moments before the new year; 3) Louie arrives at the airport and, inspired by a children’s book he read to his daughters about a duck named Ping who lives on the Yangtze River, flies to Beijing instead of Mexico and attempts to find the Yangtze in spite of the huge language barrier. He eventually encounters a kind merchant who promises he will bring Louie to the Yangtze, but instead drives him to a small creek believing that is what he wished. Louie accepts this as Yangtze River. At the end of the episode, Louie shares a meal with a random Chinese family and makes them laugh by attempting to recite the Mandarin they’re speaking.

“New Year’s Eve,” much like the third season as a whole, eschews many of Louie’s defining qualities that have separated it from everything else on television. Instead of the self-contained vignette style that stands in the face of continuity, this season has had a decidedly greater interest in serialization and world building. It has featured story arcs lasting two or three episodes, past characters returning to the show (like Louie’s caring neighbor Pedro, and Delores, one of Louie’s daughter’s classmate’s mother with whom he had a disturbing one-night stand), and an emotional arc that feels like a culmination of everything C.K. has tried to achieve with the series. After three years, Louie’s audience has been coded to expect the unexpected, to accept and engage with the various schisms and bouts of surrealism, but C.K.’s decision to transition his character’s experiences from a vacuum free of narrative consequence to a world governed by some form of linearity has been the most surprising and successful. It’s why elements in “New Year’s Eve,” like Louie throwing a Christmas tree out of his apartment window and watching a twisted Fox News that encourages viewers at home to kill themselves feels standard at this point, but a callback to ducks as a symbol of hope in the face of despair from the second season is all the more affecting.

III. Much of Louie consists of Louie meeting various friends and strangers that challenge his prescribed worldview. “You’ve just got to learn how to talk to people who aren’t like you. Its called empathy, man,” fellow comedian Godfrey tells him near the end of season two, which has become the unofficial refrain of the third season. But learning isn’t simply absorbing information, it’s allowing that information to challenge and potentially change your perspective. Before the third season, Louie has engaged with different attitudes, but hasn’t been pushed to change who he is: a lonely, often depressed middle-aged man stuck in neutral.

But now the stakes are higher. This season began with Louie’s girlfriend breaking up with him, not because she doesn’t like him, but because she doesn’t want to end up in a dead-end relationship simply because it’s easy. Louie befriends a lifeguard when he visits Miami and prolongs the trip to spend more time with him, but doesn’t have the courage to explain to him his intentions aren’t sexual when the situation gets awkward. Louie travels to Boston to confront his estranged father, but escapes at the last minute using a motorcycle and a cigarette boat, ending up silent and alone in the middle of the ocean. Apathy has always been Louie’s default setting, but now people are starting to leave him and it’s leaving him without any helping hand.

However, this season’s three-episode arc, featuring Louie getting offered a shot at becoming the permanent host of the Late Show, offered a chance for redemption. The head of CBS and his wife tells Louie that the Late Show opportunity is pretty much his last shot at success. Louie actively tries to change his lifestyle, being forced to join a boxing gym and to lose weight, for the possibility of something better, and while he is a roaring success with test audiences, he fails to get the job in the end, learning that he was only being used as a pawn to lower David Letterman’s renewal price. The story ends with Louie permanently banned from the Late Show and back at his status quo. However, instead of a typical Louie episode where Louie doesn’t achieve the happy ending, he feels catharsis at his personal progress. He ecstatically screams outside the Letterman studio, pleased that he at least cost Letterman some money and did everything in his power to achieve the success he so desperately craves. In the end, Louie returns to the boxing gym to continue fighting, implying he will use the Letterman experience positively.

But that doesn’t mean Louie won’t end up alone. While it’s believed that humans are naturally social animals, and that that fact keeps us constantly searching for meaningful interaction, but being alone can be very easy, so easy that it may eventually appear to be the preferred option. “New Year’s Eve” takes Louie to task for refusing to even try to not be alone during the holidays. Louie’s sister breaks down in tears begging Louie to come to Mexico with their family just so he won’t be lonely, but Louie believes that he is fine the way he is. It’s not until he dreams of his daughters sitting in China sadly discussing how alone their father is does Louie finally realize that he isn’t the protagonist in his own novel, and that his actions have long-lasting effects on the ones he loves. Humans may be naturally social, but they also have a responsibility to be social as well.

After Louie decides to go away for the holidays, the episode takes on a nightmarish quality before quickly transitioning to a dreamlike one. A series of brief cuts depict Louie’s final interaction with Liz, played by Parker Posey, an eccentric, troubled woman who went on a date with Louie and pushed him to experience life differently before completely disappearing. After Liz and Louie see each other on the bus, dark blood pours from Liz’s nostrils and she collapses. Louie rides in the ambulance with her and, when they arrive at the hospital, he informs the doctor that she had cancer when she was a kid. The doctor doesn’t look hopeful. Suddenly, Liz’s blood pressure drops and she and Louie have this exchange:

Liz: Am I dying?
Louie: Uh, I don’t know.
Liz: I’m not ready for this. This is crazy.
Louie: Listen, you’re gonna be alright.
Liz: I don’t think so. Louie?
Louie: Yeah?
Liz: Bye?

And then she’s gone, with her last words effectively translating to: can this really be it? Louie walks out of the hospital room and sees the rest of the hospital celebrating the New Year, unaware of Liz’s death. Being aware of your own mortality has been a theme in Louie since the beginning (the lyrics to the show’s theme song are Louie, Louie, you’re going to die), but simply being aware isn’t enough anymore. Life moves on with or without you and acknowledging you’re going to die means nothing unless it forces you to change.

IV. In the beginning of “New Year’s Eve,” Louie reads a story to his daughters about Ping, the duck that lives on the Yangtze River. His youngest daughter, Jane, comments that it must be nice to live on Yangtze. Inspired by the story and his daughter, Louie travels to Beijing on a whim and attempts to find the Yangtze. The last third of the episode plays like a languid dream, much of it consisting of Louie aimlessly walking in Beijing. Unfortunately, Louie doesn’t speak any Mandarin and is at a loss on how to go about this. He eventually encounters a duck merchant who half understands his interest in seeing “a river,” and happily brings him to a small creek, clearly not the Yangtze. Louie accepts the merchant’s words and then the camera cuts to an exterior shot, in which the audience sees Louie and the creek as one small part of a giant whole. In the next scene, Louie wanders into a small Chinese family’s home where they graciously accept him for a meal. They try to speak to Louie in their native tongue, but he can’t understand them, so he simply repeats what they say back. The family is overjoyed at this, and the episode ends with Louie sitting amongst strangers laughing in spite of cultural differences.

The story of a man travelling to a different country and finding himself amidst a personal crisis is as contrived as it gets, but it succeeds in Louie because of its placement in the series’ history. The past three seasons of Louie hinted at Louie’s evolution from a responsible, yet decidedly stunted man to someone willing to accept people and situations vastly different from his own experience, but has never followed through. Most people never follow through with the changes they want to make in themselves, simply living in the fantasy of becoming a different person without having to take the difficult step of actually doing it. Louie has illustrated the difficulty of changing who you are for three years, and the reason why “New Year’s Eve” earns every bit of its emotionality is because, after all the stunted progress, Louie finally gets a victory, even if it’s a tiny one. By simply taking that first step into a whole new environment and embracing the difficulty of navigating strange waters, Louie is on the path of betterment. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but he’s finally forged the path.

The defining characteristic of television as a medium is time. Unlike film, audiences can spend years and years with characters, watching them develop over longer spans of time, mimicking the feeling of watching friends and family you love grow and change over time. Louie has gone through various lengths to avoid any sort of long-term character development, choosing to focus primarily on thematic concerns instead, but the reason why this third season has been such a success is because Louis C.K. has fully embraced the medium he works in. By acknowledging the fact that people have spent three years with his characters, C.K. has created his own New York City, populated with his vision, and has subsequently infused considerable emotional tension and stakes that feels earned and necessary.

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