This Is Not That Thing: LOUIE, GIRLS, and What We Are Owed
Does Louie have obligations to us? This a question I’ve pondered again and again, certainly during this most recent season, where my own impressions have been both ringing and clashing with a lot of other viewers’.
Let me state up front: I am not here for Lou-splaining. I am not a Louie apologist. I first saw Louis C.K. doing standup in 1993. He had hair and he did a funny bit about motorcycles. There were nine other comedians in the showcase, but he was the one I remembered and made a note to watch for again. Over the years, I’ve loved some of what he’s done and less-than-loved other of it. For instance: I love Pootie Tang, hate Lucky Louie.
In regards to FX’s Louie, I’m all over the map. Much of the show’s first two seasons had that sloppy, early draft, suppressing-a-satisfied-smirk quality that I already didn’t like from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Most episodes, I’d watch quietly, end with a shrug, and then go read a review that gushed about what I’d just seen. I was never convinced. The last two seasons have been far more interesting to me, as C.K. played with the world of his show and seemed to want to reach for something deeper.
A mood’s been swelling in the critical media and social media I follow: The current (just-finished) season of Louie has been brilliant to some, problematic for others, and, to a vocal bunch, a flat-out betrayal. Google “Louie not funny” and you’ll find a flood of posts, rants, and Gawker thinkpieces about where the show’s gone wrong.
(That Gawker piece I just linked to, by the way, is the one most worth reading: It’s not merely about the lack of comedy in season four — it’s about feeling soured on the shitty, dangerous, hurtful choices the character’s made, choices that feel weirdly condoned by Louis C.K. himself. Whether this is true or not, it’s an important discussion.)
As I’ve watched Louie — and as I’ve rewatched those first two seasons with my kids — here’s the thing I’ve had to keep reminding myself: If I want a tightly structured, half-hour comedy filled with jokes, I have roughly six decades‘ worth of shows to choose from.
But this is not that. This is something else, and it’s always been something else. Is the six-episode “Elevator” arc, or Todd Barry sucking up ten minutes to recap his day, really any more form-breaking than season one’s “God”? Or “Dr. Ben/Nick,” from even earlier in that run, an episode where less than nothing happens? Or the pilot, which is just two half-formed short films? He was telling us from minute one that this was going to be the show, and yet we still keep trying to jam our TV-comedy notions around it.
I’m not here to defend Louis C.K.’s writing, and I’m sure as hell not going to defend some of the show’s fucked-up moments with women. (Also known as Lou-splaining.) I am here to defend his right to tell the stories he wants in the ways he wants. He has no obligation to us. If we all stop watching, then he’ll know. If we all keep tuning in to see how he’ll disappoint us this week, then that’s on us, isn’t it?
Do we, the collective viewer, ever have a right to expect a certain kind of show? We just don’t. Again: Six decades’ worth of other stuff we might like better. Hell, if you want a one-camera, half-hour comedy about a scruffy, misanthropic comedian making a mess of his relationships, Maron‘s running right now.
I like Louie because even at its basest, or at its most pretentious, it engages something in me. When I wrestle with Louie, I’m using a lot of the same muscles I use when watching GIRLS. I can watch a half hour of GIRLS, not like any of the characters, not especially love what I’ve just seen — and yet, I’m still satisfied. It’s pushed some buttons somewhere inside me. Lena Dunham and her team have made me something I can’t see anywhere else, and while it’s not the way I’d make it — well, that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not the thing I’d make. It’s not the thing I’m used to. And it not only makes me think about what I like and why I like it, it challenges me when I’m writing my own work.
If either of these shows were incompetent or inarticulate, I couldn’t make a case for them. But GIRLS and Louie each have a distinct point of view, one presented artfully, confidently. Mind of Mencia and Californication had distinct points of view, too, also presented with plenty of confidence. But neither was especially artful (nor even competent), and there you have the difference. Do you have something to say? Do you have an interesting way to say it? Are you interested in challenging your characters, or even your initial viewpoint? If not, why are you here?
In my Thursday fiction workshop, we’re doing something new. I normally assign weekly reading — a short story, a novel excerpt, an essay — but since all the students are working on novels, one of them asked if we could read a novel, week by week, as a group and talk about the craft of how it’s made. But as will happen, a discussion of craft necessarily gives way to a discussion about art.
The book I chose was The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta. A number of my students are working on books with themes of spirituality or out-and-out magic, and The Leftovers is about what happens when The Rapture has happened and millions of people have simply vanished from the Earth. Several people are working on stories with multiple points of view, and The Leftovers has that, too. Nearly everyone is working on something with a Big Theme, and I don’t know that you can get bigger than the whole “why are we here/does God care about us” theme. Finally, most of my students are working on commercial fiction, and The Leftovers has been adapted as an HBO series, premiering this month.
Also, I’d never read The Leftovers, so I could go in with the same expectations as everyone else.
I’ve read Tom Perrotta since the mid-90s, so I knew we’d be in capable hands. I went into this experiment thinking we’d be ticking the boxes from week to week: How’s the plot proceeding? How does Perrotta teach us who his characters are? Do they feel like distinct characters from the start? How are the transitions? All the stuff we talk about with my students’ own work.
Reading The Leftovers has turned out to be a master class in This Is Not That Thing. Every week, it’s like a six-person brawl has broken out, and it’s exhilarating. From the start, reactions were divided. Some people felt like it took forever to start moving (we’re reading in 60-page chunks over a 6-week period), some people felt like it rushed past the Rapture stuff. Some didn’t engage with any of the characters, some did. Some thought the writing was nothing special, some thought it was gorgeous.
The one constant issue in the group is with regard to the story itself. For a book with such a high-concept premise — the Rapture happens and those LEFT BEHIND have to sort out why they’re still there and whether they can move on — it is brazenly unconcerned with anything to do with the Rapture. Nearly all the action happens in one town, Mapleton, and most of the story’s told via the scattered members of one family — a family that didn’t actually lose anyone to The Rapture. (It’s a non-Christian Rapture, btw, or at least it didn’t play by modern evangelical Christian rules.)
Every week, we get further into this story, and every week someone is bothered by the book’s lack of urgency. “Why isn’t anyone looking for what happened to these people?” “I don’t buy that everyone just went on living after this huge, global, unexplainable event.” “Nothing much is happening with these characters.”
I struggle a little with the book, too, and I think it’s because of That Premise. But the thing is, Perrotta tells you with the prologue that this isn’t going to be that book. He starts out after the Event has happened, and then the book jumps in time by three years. None of this is accidental. Perrotta, going back to his early short stories, or to Election, has always been a writer interested in choices. He doesn’t care why the Rapture happened. He’s interested in seeing what people do now that it has. And he operates from a position that seems very real to me: That people would be traumatized and upset, but that we’ll always go back to our old ruts and habits.
If you were in NYC during 9/11, you know this already. The day it happened, I was in Brooklyn and later (when the F-train opened back up) Manhattan, and strangers really were hugging each other on the street, crying in each other’s arms. A bunch of us, not knowing what else to do, ran to hospitals and donated blood. And then time passed. For the nightmare surreality of that day, and for all the horrible change it wrought in the lives of those who lost loved ones, the rest of us got right back to where we were in alarming time.
That’s the book Perrotta is writing here. What do you do after a cataclysmic event? Especially if there are no “hero” stories to distract you from the horror? Especially if you’re a self-absorbed American in the early 21st century? Do you try to make everything right again, or do you try to find a new way of living? And can you ever — and this is the question of nearly all fiction — change who you are? That’s what he’s writing. The Rapture ends up lending the book its dark humor — an unexplainable, unimaginable global event has happened, and we’re all still worried about dating, or whether or not to smoke — but not its storyline.
If you want a book about people LEFT BEHIND after a Rapture, you certainly have other choices. This is not that thing. Yet, for me it’s not dissatisfying. Perrotta’s telling the story he wants to tell — not the one we thought were signing up for — and he’s telling it well, and he’s challenging his characters, and he’s challenging the reader. What else do you want? And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to read about a world where the Rapture’s happened, by the way.
But with any piece of art, you have to put aside what you wanted to see and ask: What are they showing me? And judge it on that.
I started this by talking about Louie. I’m more engaged than ever by that show, but I do worry that C.K.’s interests in expectation-pushing will exceed his abilities as a storyteller. There comes a point, sometimes, where you can feel a writer just fucking with you, and that’s not fun. Late in the Sopranos run, there was a lot of that. You could feel David Chase saying, “Oh, you think these people are interesting? You think they’re fun to watch? Well, HERE.” A lot of people have that reaction to Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead: These stories feel sadistic — towards their characters, toward the audience.
There’s a fine line between challenging and antagonistic. Antagonism, like shock value, like artifice, like formlessness, is goddamn cheap. I hope Louie sticks with challenging.