Season 4 of FX's Louie was even more experimental than usual, with Louis C.K. taking over a year off since the pervious season and coming back with an even more ambitious, stretching-the-bounds-of-television anti-narrative in these 14 episodes that aired this spring. Unfortunately it was a lot more hit and miss than a typical season of Louie, and even worse, he seems to have completely abandoned the notion of trying to be, you know, funny.
It's not that I don't respect the ambition and "artistry" at work- I've often thought of this series in terms of what Woody Allen might look like if he was working class. Louis C.K. can very often go off on tangents and bouts of surrealism on purpose, and those include some of my favorite episodes (I adored his late night date with the mysterious Parker Posey character from last season), but this time his approach was far more serious and autobiographical, and some of that just wasn't very entertaining or insightful. I'll take the biggest miss as the primary example here- the six part arc he constructed called "Elevator," which played as a nearly feature length movie if you squeeze all the episodes together, wherein he romances a visiting Hungarian woman named Amia who speaks zero English. There's really nothing going on in these episodes besides that and Louie having occasional trouble with his daughter Jane's behavior at school. It's just a very rambling story arc that did not need six episodes to tell (the relationship with Amia goes nowhere), and may even be a little boring. And the thing is, six episodes is nearly half the season and a lot of that just felt wasted to me.
Other material this year was better though. The three part arc that finished the season was called "Pamela," which saw the return of co-writer and producer Pamela Adlon (yay!), who I admit I absolutely adore, even though a lot of people probably hate her. To me she's a completely awesome nut whose every word is hilarious and unique. The storyline was actually pretty dark though, as it explored Pamela and Louie's unhealthy and kind of toxic relationship, as Pamela loves to verbally abuse Louie and needle him just to see how much he'll take. That doesn't sound particularly funny, right? It's not, but to me it is fascinating, because as is my common complaint with female characters on television, they are very rarely allowed to be antiheroes or shown with as many complex shadings to them as men, and hardly ever allowed to be villainous either. There always has to be some redemptive or sympathetic core to them, even when dealing with men for whom that's never an issue. But Pamela is somebody with no soft center in the slightest and completely and totally unapologetic about it, much to Louie's frustration, and for that I kind of love her. But the portrayal of this relationship is weird, squicky territory (there's a purposely uncomfortable scene in the first episode of this arc that dares the audience to question whether Louie was trying to rape Pamela), and even though it was interesting, again, very few laughs (unless you laugh at everything Pamela says, which I do, but I'm sure just as many wish she'd shut up already).
So, given that I didn't like the 6-part story, and the 3-part story was uneven, what else does that leave? Well, it leaves the 90-minute episode he attempted that played as an hour long special on the dangers of teenage marijuana use. Yes, I'm serious. It wasn't cheesy, but it also wasn't anything new. It was clearly autobiographical as Louie flashed back to his childhood when he spent a few months getting high and going through the pains of adolescence due to his inability to cope with his parents' divorce (triggered by his adult discovery that Lily is now getting high with her friends). Even though the mini-movie was well-acted (Jeremy Renner is great as a drug dealer young Louie gets involved with) it still felt too on the nose in the end. The very best episodes of the season were the first few standalone ones, actually, which coincidentally, were also the funniest. The episode where Louie accidentally punches rich blonde Yvonne Strahovski in the face was terrific and also the one where he dates an overweight fellow comedian (Sarah Baker) who gives the great monologue about why guys like him don't like to date "fat girls" like her. These episodes felt more like classic Louie, which is probably why I liked it, while the more experimental stuff fell flat occasionally.
So yeah, a mixed bag this year, but the show is still like nothing else on TV, although I'm not sure how it can justifiably be labeled a "comedy" either- hardly anything was funny this season and that was by design. I look forward to it coming back, although I wonder whether some of the praise Louis C.K.'s gotten for being such an "auteur" and breaking new ground has gone to his head so that he doesn't feel the show's worth making if he's not doing that every time. He ought to remember that it's really not such a bad thing to just be funny sometimes, especially because he's so good at it when he is. The best episodes this year were just those kind, and maybe when you reach a little too high it's that much more disappointing when you miss the mark.