I can’t tell you how many sitcoms I generally do not find that funny which would rank among my favourites. Louie, however, manages not only to rank among my favourite sitcoms while only raising a few laughs each episode, but also firmly among my favourite TV shows. Louie is the envelope-pushing creation of New York comedian Louis C.K. and chronicles his day to day life as a standup comedian and a single father bringing up his two daughters in New York. Nothing groundbreaking about that. It is the shows production which most obviously sets it apart from other (perhaps more conventional) sitcoms. The shows format is very loose, there is no overarching plot line and it is essentially a show about nothing. We are given small slices of Louie’s life through vignettes which are intercut with routines from his standup act (which I think are specifically filmed for the TV series, these scenes often provide the closest thing to pure comedy the show offers and are, generally, the funniest). The show is done in a very free-form way, sometimes the opening credits don’t come in until almost a quarter of the episode has aired, there are surreal dream sequences, flashbacks and a total disregard for continuity and very few supporting cast members. The show is obviously semi-autobiographical and filmed in a verite style, there are obvious parallels with Louis’ own personal life, marriage, divorce, standup comedian and single father. He is playing himself, or a version of himself at least.
The show is created, written, directed and produced by Louis, when the idea for the show was conceived Louis had a number of demands which he wanted met, firstly he was to have total creative control over the shows direction and content (the reason why it is so unconventional, no studio interference) and that he would only work on the show on days where he didn’t have to mind his daughters, such requirements inevitably meant that he had to turn down much higher budgets from other television networks in favour of FX for the level of creative control they offered and the unconventional work schedule they allowed him. Some might call him insane for turning down a higher budget on more recognisable network, however, I find his reasons commendable and wish more people in the industry would follow in his footsteps.
The show itself is definitely funny, not very frequently, but then it doesn’t necessarily try to be. Not once have I felt a scene fell flat or took a cheap joke. The show simply is not concerned with getting a big laugh rate. Instead it has a much more relaxed and leisurely pace, often with joke set-ups taking several minutes before the pay off arrives, sometimes entire scenes, even episodes (minus the standup segments) pass with very little attempts at humour. So, while it is a funny show, it isn’t really frequent enough to warrant watching it. So, why then? Well, that lies with the heart of the show. I have never seen a more honest or humble show in my life (and I’ve seen a lot), Louie does drama as well as some of the best dramatic productions (in fact the AV club recently compared the quality of the second season to seasons of their two highest rated shows: The Wire season 4 and Breaking Bad season 3) and better than most others. The subject matter (in line with the dark comedy of the show) takes us way out of our comfort zone and handles each brilliantly. From the issues of raising children as a single father, suicide, depression, unrequited love and religion are a few of the themes which standout.
As mentioned earlier, the truthfulness and modesty that is displayed in these scenarios is second to none, Louie is really wearing his heart on his sleeve. A particular standout episode from the second season (which finished airing in the USA two weeks ago) featured an incredible acting turn from stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope, playing an old friend of Louie’s on the brink of suicide, what followed was perhaps the best 20 minutes of television I’ve seen all year. With so many dark and emotional subjects dealt with, it would be easy for the show to resort to cliches or look for easy or self-righteous answers. But Louie is always better than that, every situation is dealt with by a man who has no superior knowledge to the rest of us and acts in the only human way he knows how. For me this is what makes the show so compelling and enjoyable; seeing a man struggling through life and making the best of it. None of the situations Louie has found himself in so far seem at all contrived, the show at times can become a bit surreal, but this doesn’t make it feel any less grounded in reality at its core.
For a show as dark and uncomfortable as Louie, it might seem odd that the show comes across as life affirming, with a positive message. Yes, Louie’s routines are endlessly bleak and the situations he finds himself in usually horribly depressing (usually with him at the butt end of all situations), but at the end of the day he struggles through and is the best he can be. I’ve read a few complaints online about the character Louie is playing in the show being a bit too caring and humble, or a man who is down on his luck and playing a bleeding heart too often mainly just to garner sympathy from the audience. I don’t especially think any of those complaints are valid, we readily accept characters that are purely evil in television/film, so why not accept a genuinely good character? Furthermore, not every scene sees him acting purely in the best interest of others (or even his daughters), he can quite often be a selfish character acting in his own best interests (nobody is perfect!), which for me further strengthens and adds depth to the character he is playing. It doesn’t matter how true to his real personality the character we see here is, he is playing a character we can empathise with fully and understand his actions and motives. I haven’t seen such good characterisation in a sitcom since the Office (UK, USA slightly less so) and Arrested Development. For me the true mark of a quality sitcom (along with the humour, obviously) is the believability of the characters and the dramatic content. Each of the aforementioned has done an excellent job on all three.
The show’s visual style is very low key, in keeping with the overall production of the show. It is filmed on location in New York (primarily, there are a few departures, most notably to a USO show in Afghanistan, which it turns out was actually filmed in South America, nevertheless the single extended episode took up the majority of the shows budget) and done in a way which is akin to a Woody Allen movie or a low budget independent movie (two comparisons I’ve seen frequently made). Louis edits the episodes himself on his MacBook and is the only writer and director with a budget of £300,000 per episode (£200,000 for the first season). The soundtrack is mainly made up of smooth jazz numbers which perfectly fit the pacing and mood of the show.
As far as sitcoms go, if you are looking for all out laughs, my vote would go to either Curb Your Enthusiasm or FX’s anarchic It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Which are both hilarious in their own rights. However, if you are looking for a more well rounded piece, I would recommend Louie, the characterisation and truthfulness of the show is what mainly sets it apart from other sitcoms and where I feel Louie achieves greatness that Curb and Always Sunny have always failed to reach. It’s not for everyone, I know people who have tried it and not made it past the first episode, or people who have given it a real stab and find it far too dry and self-indulgent. But if you can get into it, it’s a true gem of a show which I hope can sustain the high level of quality into its planned third season and beyond.