After a protracted 19-month hiatus, “Louie” returns in what feels like midseason form – which is to say, mixing together moments of enormous discomfort, occasional hilarity and just plain weirdness. If anything, the first batch of episodes finds Louis C.K.’s auteur vehicle more personal and scattered than ever, flitting among plots within episodes — almost like animated programs with two shorts in each half-hour — and just generally advancing the grim worldview that while death is inevitable, the indignities associated with life aren’t necessarily a more desirable alternative.
Unlike the multi-episode arcs that defined and at times enlivened the show’s earlier run, this season’s first four installments muster few plots worthy of an entire episode. So Louis C.K. (there’s just no good way to shorten that name) — acting as star, writer, director, producer and editor — jumbles a couple into each installment, almost like a series of short featurettes, abandoning one and moving on to another.
Inevitably, not everything works, including some of the material devoted to Louie’s interactions with his young daughters, as he seeks to balance his standup career and parental duties. More often, though, the show is wonderfully absurd — from a handyman trying to tell Louie a filthy Pinocchio joke (and horribly botching it) to Louie discussing vibrators and masturbation with his comedy pals to, in the second half-hour, performing at a snooty Hamptons benefit to help out an equally snooty and high-handed Jerry Seinfeld. (Guest stars have never been a problem, and this season loads up on them, including Ellen Burstyn, Charles Grodin and Yvonne Strahovski.)
In the third episode, the show pretty jarringly changes gears, as Louie hangs out with an overweight waitress (Sarah Baker) who has made clear she’s attracted to him. Tonally feeling very much like a French or indie theatrical, Baker’s terrifically vulnerable performance turns Louie into a supporting player in his own show, as she tells him, “On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys.”
“Louie” is never going to be a mass-appeal hit, and FX – happy enough to bask in the critical accolades — has gone the extra mile in creating a space that affords its star the latitude to craft a program that so meticulously taps into his comedic voice, which conveys a near-constant sense of bleakness and gloom.
The network has also thrown in the towel, wisely, on trying to pair “Louie” with anything else, instead airing back-to-back episodes over seven weeks. (One suspects the proximity to the close of the Emmy-eligibility window is hardly an accident.)
Simply put, in TV comedy terms, the only thing that comfortably goes with “Louie” is more “Louie.” And for that, a discriminating few — thin, fat or otherwise — should be grateful, or at least, a lot more cheery than its titular misfit ever seems to be.