After watching “A La Carte,” the second episode of the fifth season of Louie, I want to begin this essay with the premise that Louie CK is a pretty enlightened individual…especially for the last few years. I say that because I take for granted that the quality of his writing, like many others before him, will be subject to the law of diminishing returns. In other words, Louie should be more stagnant at this point, but it’s not. Somehow it resists complacency and finds ways to adapt without sacrificing an aesthetic that his audience has come to appreciate as distinctly louie-esque. It’s a resolute melancholy, a rawness that stays grounded in both beauty and despair. This perspective, however grounded in reality (disregarding the occasional surreal and/or absurd sequences), is what offers insight into the human condition…or at the very least, provides a few laughs. It is a lack of a shame coupled with a lack of sympathy for his character. Yet it is often the characters around him that keep him honest. Pamela is the most obvious example. As a love interest, she represents the only naive aspect of Louie’s character that he is unwilling to purge. Though in this particular episode, he’s certainly given himself a realistic timeline (two years) to let go of this naivety. It may happen to coincide with a steep decline in his physical attractiveness, but that still constitutes progress, no? Regardless, this naivety is something Louie continues to acknowledge, most critically through the character of Dr. Bigelow who chastises him throughout season four. And since Louie is the sole writer for the show, it’s not difficult to impose this kind of transparency on the narrative (with apologies to Roland Barthes, who never mentioned anything about the confessional). Love, for someone like Louie, is the vague hope that things will get better. It is a more delusional form of honesty, not incompatible with his self-effacing approach toward everything else.
This hope is brought to climax during season three when Louie pushes himself to audition for a hosting gig on late night television. Fittingly, it comes not as a vignette, but as a legitimate story arc. It is one of the few moments throughout the series where Louie allows itself to mark progress. However, it is an ambivalent kind of progress, the kind many of us cling to without understanding why. Louie just wanted to show us that even if he got his shit together, it wouldn’t make a difference. Success is just a more comfortable form of mediocrity, which makes Louie a unique exercise in futility, failure in all of its routine machinations. So why should we consider this a divergent narrative?
Well, here’s the secret to the whole operation: The art of Louie is in escaping the narrative, living to tell the story. He really does have his shit together, but through the context of the show, we can’t help but perceive him as a failure, i.e. Louie is the one navigating his divorce, raising his children, telling the jokes, etc. In the end, his experience is not indicative of the actual premise of the show. This was alluded to near the end of season four. Pamela inspires Louie to create his own television series and in that moment, we see the genesis of the show (not to mention a nice little meta-moment to end the season). In other words, Louie CK; comedian, father, divorcee, and hopeless romantic; actually gets his shit together. He learns how to become a writer, director, editor, producer, showrunner, etc. Then he develops into a more competent storyteller and the rest is history. It’s a complete contradiction. He’s selling us on his the irony of his past and the idea that he is still stuck in the same place as before.
That is the significance of the second episode of the fifth season. This enlightened perspective is slowly seeping into the fictional version of Louie we’ve come to sympathize with. He’s no longer helpless or pathetic. Maybe in a general sense, but in the hierarchy of competing personalities, he’s able to circumnavigate his awkwardness and tell a younger comedian that he won’t make it. He’s able to go a la carte with the love of his life. He’s able to confront his insecurities without losing his dignity in the process. Maybe this is the Louie we’ve been waiting for. Breaking Bad was molded with a similar premise, although heading in the opposite direction. By the final season, Walter White is almost unrecognizable. Could the same thing happen to Louie? Who knows? But the sympathy for his character is already well established. Therefore, it would seem more than plausible for him to be willing to take a chance on alienating his audience for the sake of ruining the spectacle. Not to mention throw in a few more fart jokes in the process.