The multicamera sitcom format has a half-century of history behind it, so seeing HBO attempt to turn the genre on its head through sheer raunchiness is initially jarring — almost like hearing children curse. The novelty, not surprisingly, wears off quickly, though there are still some extremely funny moments in this blue-collar comedy, a wildly uneven half-hour built around acerbic standup Louis C.K. Hardly everyone’s cup of tea, “Lucky Louie” will have its loyalists, though likely as a narrow cult confection.
Indeed, if sitcoms traditionally skew toward females, “Lucky Louie” should appeal principally to guys — filled as it is with jokes about masturbation and the frustrations of the terminally married. The set itself resembles “The Honeymooners,” the most mundane and drab of apartments, then distilled through a fun-house prism, with the initial episodes providing occasional glimpses of (mostly bad) sex and, in later installments, male nudity.
Louie (Louis C.K., who doubles as a writer-producer) works part time in a muffler shop while wife Kim (Pamela Adlon) is the primary earner as a full-time nurse, and they have a young child. In the premiere, she catches him engaging in a form of stress relief in the hall closet. Inasmuch as the two haven’t had sex in months, her sudden interest in reversing that trend triggers Louie’s suspicion that she harbors an ulterior motive — namely, a desire to have another kid, prompting him to dub her most private of areas “a chamber of financial ruin.”
The supporting cast includes Louie’s gruff buddy Mike (the well-traveled Mike Hagerty) and drug-dealing pal Rich (Jim Norton) as well as Walter (Jerry Minor), the patriarch of a neighboring African-American family whom Louie inadvertently keeps insulting.
Like most sitcoms, this one tends to focus on a theme within each episode — though here, the topics include frank discussions about Kim having an orgasm and Louie’s pathetic eating habits. Perhaps the best moment comes during the premiere’s pre-credit sequence, when Louie fields a series of “why” questions from his daughter and finally explains, “Because God is dead and we’re alone.”
Although the show seems designed to generate shock value, cheerful vulgarity is welcome as long as its clever — think of the audience that (once upon a time, anyway) flipped between listening to Howard Stern and National Public Radio. The problem is that “Louie” struggles to make that blue streak feel organic, at which point some gags come across as forced and a little smutty — “Home Improvement” on acid.
Adlon (formerly Pamela Segall, and among other things the voice of Bobby on “King of the Hill”) possesses a strong comic presence that offers a fine counterpoint to C.K.’s standup delivery, but again, her blunt banter with Mike’s wife Tina (Laura Kightlinger) at times feels labored.
Given HBO’s strong association with single-camera half-hours, credit the pay net with at least exploring an about-face by seizing upon the familiar sitcom template and trying to enliven it with the “It’s not TV” imprimatur. And if the experiment doesn’t wholly succeed, considering the bad luck that sitcoms have recently experienced, “Louie” is at least worth taking a roll of the dice.