A fair number of people have fallen out of love with Louie over the past couple of seasons, and while I don’t agree, I can’t say I don’t understand. It has, after all, gone from a comedy with dramatic beats to something closer to a seriocomic drama—which this viewer enjoys, and thinks it does well, but is the kind of tonal shift that’ll alienate some people no matter how adroitly it’s executed. And when you look at these two seasons in toto, it becomes clear how much of that shift coincides with the accelerating importance of Pamela—both the character, and Pamela Adlon, who plays her. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that the real value of Louie, and one of its lasting legacies, may very well be that you just don’t see television shows (or films) tacking a relationship that’s this goddamn complicated.
To be sure, the Pamela stuff is a secondary thread in what is otherwise a fairly typical Louie (tricky designation though that may be, in light of last week’s Nightmare Fuel Edition). The opening sequence with Louie and Lilly attending a Broadway show follows much of the same formula as the opening of “Cop Story”; Louie lets loose with his righteous indignation about the rudeness of the young (in this case, his daughter’s second-screening: “How do you appreciate a thing and Google it at the same time? That’s no way to live a life”) and gets promptly put in his place as she explains exactly what she was doing and why, topping it with an earnest, “just because I can appreciate something on two levels doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to have my phone.” The look on his face in the moment that follows is such a beautiful transition, so elegantly capturing what it is to be enough of a grown-up to admit when you’re wrong (or, in this case, maybe not entirely right).
The centerpiece event is Jane’s tenth birthday party, a sleepover with a bunch of her friends, and there’s one particular sound that you can tell C.K. worked long and hard to get just right: the particular aural mixture of squeal and screech that accompanies little kids running around. (I’ve been hearing it a lot lately, now that spring has sprung and my daughter wants to go to the park. Louie nails it.) Jane is making that sound all by herself as she jumps around on the furniture in anticipation as Louie runs the vacuum; they’re all making it as Louie sits in the midst of them, locked-focus on his iPad; and best of all, they make it in the police station when Louie goes to pick up his brother, speeding up the process considerably. (Taking the kids along is a stroke of narrative genius, by the way; the script seems to tee up some sort of emergency babysitter search, but that’s not very funny, now is it?)
And in the midst of all that, there it is: the “Hi” text from Pamela. Oh, “Hi” text, you loaded monster of trouble, you. What’s best about that moment is probably the little guitar cue that C.K. drops in, a subjective musical flash that drowns out the kids and focuses our protagonist. And then he gets into his bedroom, where it’s quieter, and they talk about missing each other—or, more accurately, whether they can talk about missing each other. She won’t admit it; he’ll gladly admit it (“I don’t have any trouble saying it: I miss the shit outta your stupid tits”). It gets unexpectedly sexual (pro-tip: no phone sex during a kid’s sleepover, dresser in front of the door or no). And yet, she’s even lying to him about the simplest thing, about what room she’s in, until the male voice outside the bathroom at the call’s conclusion explains that little white lie.
In the season’s second episode, “A la Carte,” there was something slightly bothersome about their conversation regarding the seriousness of the relationship; it seemed repetitive, stuff they’d discussed before, mostly late in the previous year. But it’s easy to see, after their break-up two weeks ago and the loaded conversation in this episode, what the show is going for: a real warts-and-all relationship, in which of course the same issues and arguments keep recurring and they’re never quite together or apart. Television relationships—television sitcom relationships especially—are so maddeningly black-and-white, so he-likes-her/now-she-likes-him-but-he-likes-someone-else/now-they’re-together/now-they-hate-each-other, that we don’t often get one dramatized that’s so realistically… fuzzy.
Louie (the show and the creator) has always attempted to capture truth, and that’s what’s happening in this recurring plot (“I’m always wondering where you are and where you’re standing and what exactly you’re up to,” he tells her, and that’s such a thing, THAT’S SUCH A THING DURING A BREAK-UP). At this point in the run, it’d be quite easy to take the jagged edges and mumbling non-commitments of these interactions for granted, but he’s doing something really special here—he and Adlon, who’s the closest thing the tele-auteur has to a writing partner (she’s co-written two episodes and co-written the stories for five more, including this one; she’s also credited as consulting producer). Their relationship was left in a weird spot at the end of that left-field phone call, thanks to the voices outside both of their rooms, so who knows where it’ll go next, if anywhere. And that, too, is what makes it so interesting.