The fifth season of “Louie” quickly feels like a microcosm of why the series is both widely admired and lightly watched. Featuring wild swings in tone, Louis C.K.’s deeply personal, frequently melancholy vision of life opens with what amounts to a mini-masterpiece of awkwardness, then proceeds to deal with his ongoing peculiar romance, a troubled friend and finally an unexpected encounter that’s both raw and disturbing. Almost nothing else on TV — certainly in half-hour form — rivals the particularity of C.K.’s approach, which has garnered the kind of well-deserved accolades that have kept FX quietly humming that “Brother Louie” tune.
As writer, director, editor and star, Louis C.K. has become one of TV comedy’s genuine auteurs, while indulging impulses that can take the series in unforeseen and uncomfortable directions. That included last year’s serialized arc involving Louie’s hopeless romance with a woman who didn’t speak English, which felt more like a French art-house film than almost anything on television.
Compared with that, this year’s flurry of episodes is a laugh riot, and indeed, less serialized than actually diced into bite-sized bits — in some instances featuring scenes that don’t relate to anything else in the half-hour, as if the comic just had something he needed to get off his chest.
Indeed, a couple of the four previewed episodes play almost like those animated shows that split a half-hour into two self-contained stories. The premiere is what really stands out, with Louie first meeting with his therapist, then choosing to attend a potluck for parents of one of his daughters, even though he hasn’t gone before. Things, not surprisingly, go wildly awry, including his attempt to be a Good Samaritan to a very pregnant surrogate mother.
The subsequent episodes are equally interesting, if a little odd, involving an open-mic night and Louie’s confusing relationship with the commitment-phobic Pamela (producer Pamela Adlon); his evening out with an old acquaintance (guest Michael Rapaport); and an altercation with an angry stranger.
Given the spiritual debt he owes to Woody Allen, it’s hard not to filter “Louie” through Allen’s pessimistic assessment of life as being divided into the horrible and the miserable, observing that everyone should feel grateful just to be the latter. Louie’s outlook is about that rosy, and the indignities associated with living in New York only enhance the size of the dark cloud that perpetually hovers over him.
Small wonder that “Louie” has never exactly been a ratings powerhouse, which hasn’t prevented FX from keeping him around and even granting the show an extended hiatus period — this time returning it with the Billy Crystal-Josh Gad pairing “The Comedians,” which, dealing as that show does with alter egos of the actors, occupies similar thematic terrain in a somewhat broader fashion.
“Louie” will never be a mass-appeal hit, nor would the show likely be such a critical darling if it were. Yet given the mix of laughs and sheer weirdness the comic delivers, his misery really is deserving of company.