In considering last week’s Louie episode “Elevator Part I,” your correspondent wondered (and forgive me for paraphrasing myself) where exactly this multi-part episode — six installments, according to the writer/director/star — was going. It’s an entertaining and engaging half-hour, to be sure, but were it not for the numerical appendix in the title, it might’ve very well been mistaken for a typical Louie stand-alone: a couple of seemingly unrelated stories, tied together by the presence and voice of Mr. C.K. The second and third parts of “Elevator” certainly don’t answer that question. But they make it more interesting.
What we’re dealing with here are two seemingly unrelated threads: the acting-out of Louie’s youngest daughter Jane, and his awkwardly charming sorta-romance with the Hungarian woman in his building. What’s new is C.K.’s choice to intermingle them, rather than telling them one at a time, as is his usual style. Louie is not a show that customarily engages in the typical sitcom structure of the “A plot” and “B plot”; in earlier episodes, if he wanted to tell two stories, he’d just tell one in fifteen minutes (or five, or whatever), go to commercial, and then tell the other one.
So in some ways, this “Elevator” arc is Louie testing out a more “conventional” structure — the romance is the “A plot,” Jane’s school trouble is the “B plot,” (and, for good measure, his interactions with his heavyset buddy are kind of a tossed-off “C plot”), and by interweaving them, he is building interest in an ultimate conclusion that (presumably) ties them all together. But this isn’t conventional television, of course, because Louie is taking what another show might see as a half-hour or hour’s worth of story and telling it in three hours. This doesn’t sound like an improvement, and yet it is.
You see, on this kind of canvas, he’s able to box out some room for the narrative, and give it space to breathe. For example, “Elevator Part II”’s opening sequence, which finds our hero doing nothing more unusual than shopping, is a wonderful example of how the show lovingly, evocatively captures the everyday feel of contemporary New York life — better than anything currently on television, I’d argue. (Same goes for the lunch date later in the show.)
The long scene where he sits on the park bench and talks with Lily about her school trouble feels less written than transcribed — it mirrors his recent Twitter rage about Common Core — and features the always effective writer’s trick of putting wisdom into the mouth of babes (“They don’t know how numbers work, they want me to do it all wrong… They don’t answer any real questions”) before turning around and reminding us she’s a child by having her pose some truly inane “real questions.” (Side note: can we talk about what a terrific actress Ursula Parker, who plays Jane, has turned out to be?)
Even better is the scene that comes shortly thereafter, where Louie and his ex-wife Janet (the excellent Susan Kelechi Watson) go for coffee to figure out what to do about Jane — but really, to return to what seems to be an ongoing argument about public vs. private school. It’s a terrific scene — all done in a single two-shot — that’s functioning on several different levels at once. On the surface, it inches forward the narrative. Yet as it progresses, it turns into a fascinating snapshot of a failed marriage; Louie’s keen self-awareness (“You are way out of line.” “I know that”) is clearly the result of years of arguing with this woman, and there’s something sort of remarkable about the way he reaches a point where he “can’t say anything worthwhile” anymore because he’s too upset and too emotional, that “There’s no way for me to say anything but shit now.” We would all be wise to recognize when we hit that moment in a conversation like this. But most intriguing is the scene’s subtextual race and class politics: Louie, the working-class white liberal, wants to make sure his kids are in the multicultural “real world” of public schools instead of the bubble of private schools, while his wife, the wealthier African-American professional, harbors no such desires.
And then there is his little reunion with Pamela (Pamela Adlon), back in town and ready, at long last, to say the words Louie’d longed to hear for so long: “If you want try to pursue a guy/girl kissing-type of thing, I’m willing to go down the road with you.” The fact that the emotional wounds she inflicted upon him are still so raw and open causes him to reject her immediately, vastly overinflating his new relationship. The way she responds (“No one wants to be with you Louie, stop lying!”), and the viciousness of her ball-busting in the remainder of the scene, is as succinct a portrait of humor-as-defense-mechanism as I’ve ever seen.
In other words, smashed into a conventional 30-minute box (21, really, once you lose the commercials), scenes like these — or his list of favorite things, or his conversation with Evanka (Ellen Burstyn), or the return of Charles Grodin’s Dr. Bernstein — would likely not make the cut at all, or at least exist as a slither of their current selves. I’m not sure where we’re going in the this story’s three remaining episodes, but after this week’s two installments, I’m giddy with anticipation. The narrative itself isn’t exactly War and Peace; as Dr. Bernstein says, “People are born sick, and they never know a moment of anything but pain and suffering… So nobody cares whether you date this girl or you don’t. Just pick a road and go down it, or don’t.” But the anything-goes structure is clearly allowing C.K. to push further, do more, put the unexpected on screen. I certainly didn’t expect something like the hallway violin duet, which is a potent reminder of what’s so magnificent about this show: in the midst of all this rejection and stress and pain, there are these moments of great beauty. Look at Louie’s face in that scene. It’s kind of everything you need to know about his show.