[This is a review of Louie season 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
In defiance of convention and the convenience of labels (is it accurate to even call this show a comedy anymore?), season 4 of Louie essentially played itself out in three parts, with one story heavily weighted in the past and two others tied together by Louis CK's heartstrings, as he pursued the most beautiful of human connections in the most clumsy of ways.
Before jumping into the latter stories and the "The Many Loves of Louis Szekely," though, let's take a moment to appreciate the two-part tale, "In the Woods". Carved out of CK's life and primarily told through flashback - with only a few peeks into the present day - the story allows for CK to deal with both the horror of finding out that his child is using drugs and the hypocrisy that comes when he is supposed to lecture that child for something that he did at her age.
CK's measured handling of the situation is laudable and cliché free as we learn about the spring that turned a young Louie CK (Devin Druid) into a pilfering dope fiend and the adults that saw something in him and how their faith turned into the guilt that powered a swift turn back toward the side of grace. It's the performances that turns something that could have veered toward After-School special territory into a piece of drama with real weight and humanity - specifically the performances by Skipp Sudduth, Amy Landecker and Jeremy Renner as an initially friendly and then frighteningly blunt drug dealer.
Besides the above mentioned trio, season 4 of Louie has Charles Grodin masterfully stealing scenes as the scattered, sagely and easily annoyed Doctor Bigelow - while Hadley Delany, Ursula Parker and especially Susan Kelechi Watson as CK's daughters and his ex-wife Janet, keep the show grounded. Some of the best performances of this season - from Grodin, Kelechi Watson and also Ellen Burstyn (Evanka) - take place within the space of the six episode arc, "Elevator", which like "In the Woods" feels like it could have lived as a film.
In "Elevator", Evanka introduces Louie to her niece, Amia (Eszter Balint), who does not speak English. That CK is able to forge ahead with a relationship with little spoken communication is notable because it shows us just how devoted to the notion of romantic love CK is on the show. However, it's also a contrast to the events of this season's third episode, and the final standalone ep, "So Did the Fat Lady".
In that episode, CK is pursued by Vanessa (Sarah Baker) a beautiful but larger woman who he resists despite their obvious chemistry. CK goes so far as to make himself look like a shallow jerk while allowing a supporting character to take the reins. This time it somewhat backfires as Vanessa's empowering speech at the end simply goes on too long and starts to feel unnatural before CK does, at long last, what Vanessa wants and takes her hand in public. Vanessa gets what she wants... sort of, and that's a recurring theme throughout these "romance" stories; both the "Elevator" six-parter and the loosely connected (in my mind, at least) stand alone episodes and the "Pamela" three-parter.
In the second episode, "Model", Yvonne Strahovski plays Blake, a free-spirited model who throws herself into a night of nameless passion with Louie out of pity or boredom. Though the night ends in the Emergency Room for Blake (thanks to an accidental elbow to the nose), Louie emerges somewhat pleased with a sob story in pocket and a previously disinterested waitress on his arm. He gets what he wants... sort of.
Even though "Elevator" ends with the heartbreaking scene in a Hungarian restaurant as the waiter (Yury Tsykun) reads Amia's heartfelt letter to Louie as the three of them sit at a table, Louie again sort of gets what he wants, because he has clearly been trying to fill the void that Pamela left when she flew away at the end of season 2 and now he can, with Pamela... if only she'll let him.
There is a strange honesty to the sometimes charming and often bizarre relationship that CK has created for his character and the Pamela character. It's complex, but besides people on TV, whose relationship isn't a little complex from time to time?
In the first part of the three-part "Pamela" arc, Louie and Pamela's back and forth takes an aggressive turn, as CK's character tries to force his wants for a romantic relationship by refusing to let Pamela leave before clumsily pushing himself on her despite her protestations. It's an uncomfortable moment for viewers that ends with Pamela finally relenting and giving CK what may be the world's most awkward kiss - a kiss that he promptly celebrates. Once again, after a bit of sacrifice, Louie gets what he wants... sort of, but the question is: what did CK, the writer and director, want from his audience after that episode? Unsurprisingly, theories abound.
Was it a commentary on male entitlement? An effort to show an exaggerated version of the Louie character's stubborn desires and the Pamela character's resistance to them in the way that the show sometimes exaggerates real moments to an absurd level? Is there something else at play? It was assumed that the incident would be resolved in "Pamela Part 2" or "Pamela Part 3", but it is barely referred to again, save for the moment that Pamela seemingly staves off another incident by telling Louie that he can't, "make people do things!"
Following that, Louie and Pamela tiptoe toward a romantic relationship with a hilarious and absurd date at a museum and a picnic before consummating things. Pamela is now, it seems, Louie's girlfriend, but she can't tell Louie that she loves him. In an emotionally bare moment that recalls their first missed connection, however, Pamela is blunt and soft at the same time with Louie's heart when she lays out her ground rules and Louie seems to, again, sort of get what he wants.
The theme repeats and this drier and darker season wraps, but we're a bit unsatisfied with the end because we're not sure that CK has earned this reward, and that has everything to do with the show's shifting style.
Throughout Louie's run, the show has excelled at telling self-contained micro stories with humor, while occasionally tackling longer tales and leaving story threads untied. CK is telling multi-part dramatic stories with more frequency now - stories that seem to inform each other - and the same rules do not apply. Louis CK has, more than ever before, grounded this show in a world and allowed supporting characters to take root. In doing that, it means that actions have consequences for both CK's character and the other characters - and when those consequences are ignored, it challenges the legitimacy of the overall story. Basically, Louie isn't an etch-a-sketch that can be shaken clean every time CK wants to go in a different direction. No more starting fires and walking away.
Stay tuned to Screen Rant for the latest news on the next season of Louie on FX.