Louie C.K.’s decision (and FX’s) to air this season’s 14 episodes of Louie in paired hours for seven weeks is bound to lead to some intriguing juxtapositions. Last week’s duo, “Back” and “Model,” served as counterpoints, showcasing the different types of narratives that Louie does well. That said, it almost seems that he might’ve been wiser to pair “Model” with last night’s “So Did The Fat Lady,” since the latter episode almost seems a response to the previous one (and to some of the smarter critiques that followed it). The trouble is, “Fat Lady” is also one of the weakest episodes of the show thus far, so perhaps it needed to be followed by an episode as strong as “Elevator Part I.”
This is not to say that “Fat Lady” is bad; in fact, it starts off quite strong, and settles in to raise some important points about gender, comedy, and romance. “I do love women, very much,” Louie insists on stage (they’re the first words of the episode), but in spite of the many, many waitresses at the Comedy Cellar who’ve rejected his advances, he blows off charming, funny Vanessa (Sarah Baker), because she is, in her words, a “fat girl.” The hypocrisy is made particularly clear by the sequence that follows, wherein Louie and another, um, gentleman of a larger carriage make the snap decision to start taking better care of themselves—but of course, such a shift in living requires one last binge-eating blowout. And once that blowout is over, they back out of the health kick that prompted it immediately. Like, outside of the diner.
Yet the popular culture presumption, from King of Queens and According to Jim to Knocked Up and Superbad to, yes, last week’s Louie is that as long as schlubby guys are funny, they get thin, conventionally “hot” women. But the trend is never reversed—not only do you never see a heavy woman with a slim, buff guy, but even a guy like Louie won’t consider a funny, interesting woman like Amy, who is comparably attractive. (And, as smarter critics than this one have noted, Louie’s “Model” episode attracted none of the “not hot enough” furor that greeted Lena Dunham after Girls’ “One Man’s Trash” episode.)
This is a fine, incisive point, one well worth making, and kudos to Louie for tackling it. The trouble is, he makes the point, implicitly, and then keeps making it, explicitly. His discomfort with Vanessa’s advances (“Are you scared that I’m asking you out? Because I am”) are crisply counterpointed by not only his “bang bang” adventure, but clumsy pass at another thoroughly unpleasant—but thin!—waitress at the Cellar. Their coffee date captures a nicely overheard, hanging-out vibe, and they forge an easygoing chemistry. But when they arrive at the episode’s conclusion, the fact that Vanessa’s monologue makes so many valid points doesn’t negate the fact that it feels like just that: a monologue, or, more accurately, a lecture. In the two episodes that began season four, C.K. showed a remarkable confidence in his own storytelling, and his audience’s decreasing need to, as Matt Zoller Seitz puts it, have our hands held. But the closing scene of “So Did the Fat Lady” goes on and on, stating the point, and then stating it, and then stating it again in case we missed it. Louie is, most of the time, better than that, and he usually thinks we’re better than that as well.
Luckily, “Elevator Part I” doesn’t give us much time to dwell on its predecessor’s stumbles. Its first half features one of the most intense sequences of the show’s history—and some of Louie’s best acting. The premise is simple: Louie and his daughters are going for a subway ride, complete with a reminder of the “subway rules” pertaining to accidental separation. So younger daughter Jane, convinced she’s “still dreaming,” decides to take those rules for a spin.
What’s remarkable about the sequence is that nothing bad actually happens to Jane—but nothing has to. The drama and tension here is not in some tragedy befalling Louie’s daughter; it’s in him imagining what could happen, and losing his mind imagining it, and finding himself powerless to do anything beyond freaking out, issuing stern strategy to his other daughter, and running a lot. His sheer terror, as he screams in the train, announces his plan (“As soon as these doors open up we’re running”), and apologizes to his poor Lilly (“Love ya love ya sorry”), is palatable; the fury with which he gives Jane the business (“This is real! Bad things happen! You can’t do something like that again!”) is tough to watch—as it’s always tough to watch a child being chastised—but it feels torn from his very soul. He’s capturing the fear and frustration of parenthood here, and there’s more than enough of it to go around; the moment he writes for his ex-wife outside the apartment door is equally powerful.
And then, as is so often the case on Louie, the scenario switches. After a funny, slightly absurd sight gag with a cab and an old woman, we get close enough to see that, hey wouldn’t you know it, that old woman is Ellen Burstyn. She gets stuck in an elevator; Louie is unfortunate enough to end up on one of the floors she’s stuck between, sent on various errands into her apartment, ending up attacked by her terrified niece.
“Elevator Part I” doesn’t come to much of a conclusion, but the title would indicate that it’s not obligated to; it follows in the form of last season’s multi-part episodes, and in fact, according to an email from C.K. to his fans, this is the first of a six-part episode, followed by a three-parter and a two-parter. I must confess that I’m not quite sure where else there is for this one to go—but then again, if he’s got six episodes to get there, he presumably has the luxury of taking his time. It certainly won’t be the first time Louis C.K. has surprised us.