Louie’s fourth-season premiere is appropriately titled “Back,” and the wait for it has been especially agonizing; it’s been 20 months since his third-season sign-off, with durable writer/director/star Louis C.K. taking a season off to recharge his creative batteries. Such long hiatuses can sometimes damage a show’s momentum, but not here; Louie’s first two episodes back indicate that he hasn’t skipped a beat, while pairing them (as did last night, and will do all season) highlights the show’s quiet versatility.
“Back” is, basically, a catch-up show—a day in the life episode, without a defined narrative or any big conflicts (indeed, not every scene even has a discernable point). On stage, he discusses aging, which leads to a snapshot of what his life is, now, at 46. He goes about his day. He gets his balls busted by his friends. He takes care of his daughters. He goes to his regular poker game. He throws his back out.
So lacking (and, let’s be honest, not needing) a through-line, “Back” is a vignette episode, with a couple of standout bits. The early-morning scene with the garbage men is, in its way, a perfect encapsulation of the Louie (and the Louis) ethos. It begins as observational, a realistic dramatization of a relatable experience: in this case, the obnoxious behavior and inappropriately loud volume of garbage collectors. And then, he builds it—these guys are just a little bit too loud, banging their garbage cans against the truck just for funsies and screaming gibberish. And just as that small tweak becomes clear, it takes the leap into absurdity, traversing from the objective to the subjective experience, as they crash into his apartment, breaking his shit, bouncing on his bed, screaming at him. That’s not what’s happening, obviously, but that’s what it feels like in Louie’s head, and this brilliant little sequence serves to situate us back into that peculiar space.
The other highlight is the long poker game, in which Louie’s regular band of guest stars discuss the pleasures and particulars of their masturbatory habits. The first-season poker conversation about the word “faggot” was an early indicator that this show was something special; this most recent variation made this viewer laugh longer and louder than just about anything I’ve seen on television recently—while also admiring (as is so often the case here) the naturalism of the dialogue and the candor of the discussion. And it’s also something of a case study in ensemble acting: every single person at that table finds the right way to click into the scene, whether through dominating the conversation (as Jim Norton does), tilting it (as Sarah Silverman does), leaning back, piping in, and so on.
“Back” is full of small pleasures: Louie’s conversation with his crass super (“Hey, what’s up comedian, I got a joke for you!” “It’s not gonna be another racist one, is it?”), his abusive back-and-forth with Todd Barry, the off-hand byplay between the women at the adult toy store (“I don’t have anything to do with all those cock rings!”), his scene with a pitch-perfect Charles Grodin (I could watch Grodin eat grumpily for hours), and the unspoken way that he just pushes away the guy who’s pushing into him during the scene with Barry. Also worth mentioning is that, though there’s no defined A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C story arc, the way the back massager reconnects to the earlier vibrator quest is an effective use of a call-back to tie up a meandering narrative.
He does something similar in the second episode, “Model,” and they used to do that kind of thing all the time on Seinfeld, which is why Jerry Seinfeld’s appearance here seems particularly appropriate. What’s particularly delightful about Seinfeld’s cameo is how he plays himself as a total asshole—tossing Louie the benefit gig in clear desperation, presuming his friend’s knowledge about arrival and dress, giving him shade when he gets there (“Oh, God, Louie, what the…”), and then totally throwing him under the bus when he predictably tanks, announcing the name of the charity that he kept withholding, making fun of the jacket that he made Louie wear.
His bombing at the benefit is painful, but the one voice in the darkness laughs hysterically—a little detail that first seems merely a nice touch, but then takes over the narrative. Out in the ornate courtyard, he meets the source of that laugh, and takes his time putting a face to it: Yvonne Stahovski from Chuck, a goddess who drives him away in her sportscar, takes him to her beach house, and seduces him. He is totally thrown, and she seems to enjoys it—until the episode takes a really dark turn.
“She didn’t know that you were violently ticklish.” Victor Garber is just plain wonderful in “Model”’s key scene, laying out its ultimate outcome: that a one-night stand has put our hero into lifelong debt. It’s a direction we certainly don’t see coming, any more than the incident that causes it, but that’s how the story goes on Louie; some episodes (like “Back”) don’t have a story at all, while those that do (like “Model”) are wildly unpredictable and borderline surreal. Not that we’ll ever hear about those $5K-per-month payments again anyway; Louie is a show that lives in the moment, and he certainly won’t resist a juicy pay-off for something as boring as long-term continuity. Each episode is its own, unique thing, and then he moves on. Or, as his super puts it, “Why do you gotta clutter it up? I mean, aren’t you a comedian?”