In the penultimate episode of Louie’s fourth season, Louie and Pamela finally went on a date. Their destination was suitably odd: It was a gallery, overflowing with abstract absurdity. There was an all-black canvas titled Jews, and a ceiling draped with glowing neon nooses. A plasticky figure clad only in tighty-whities reclined against a white wall. It appeared as if the Incredible Hulk had discarded his used Q-tips in a corner. In a side room, the pair encountered a sculpture that was literally button-pushing: When Louie pushed it, a recorded voice bellowed the N-word. When, mortified, he pushed it again, the speaker merely coughed. Was this a put-on? Or was it for real? While other attendees stared stone-faced at a perfectly executed sculpture of dog shit, Louie and Pamela couldn’t stop giggling. Eventually, they gave up trying to understand it all and went to dinner instead.
Art, man. It’s a tricky business! One man’s trash is another man’s treasure — but at the end of the day, neither is as essential as good Chinese food. Few shows on television express this conundrum as well as Louie. The FX series walked a typically bumpy path this year as it veered from provocative to satirical, from sweet romance to surprising violence, from roiling drama to eye-rolling melodrama. Though still more or less a comedy, the show went weeks without even attempting to make the audience laugh. Perhaps Louie’s express rejection of easy compartmentalization helps explain why critics are so desperate to compartmentalize it. This season alone has been pilloried for its misogyny and celebrated for its feminism. It’s been castigated for its ignorance and championed for its insight (often, I should add, for the same episode). It’s been the Best Thing Ever and The Worst. Months from now, when winter has once again throttled the East Coast with its icy grip, shivering citizens will still be able to take comfort in the flickering warmth of the thousand fiery takes Louie’s fourth season left in its wake.
As of this week, all 14 episodes have now aired. How to process a season that juxtaposed a salty monologue about the joys of jerking off with a tender reflection on the frailty of the human spine? Or one that placed a strident rant about the predatory nature of men just before an ugly, real-time example of it? Was Louie’s fourth season trash or was it treasure? Let me answer that with a question of my own: Would it really be so intolerable if it were both?
We live in an era of opinions. In the Internet economy — in which I am a loyal and grateful participant! — loud voices are more than just currency, they’re coal. The Outrage Industrial Complex burns all day and all night with Twitter as its blistering engine room. A constant stream of fuel is necessary to keep the entire enterprise afloat, and so any event, be it the collapse of a government or the cancellation of a sitcom, is greeted with a near instantaneous torrent of reaction. Though the appeal of the virtual yawp can be undeniably intoxicating, I’m gradually finding it less and less tolerable. It’s no secret that nuance and doubt are rarely retweeted, but as Twitter has metastasized, its vaunted panoply of voices has grown more strident and, oddly, more unified — not in their positions but in their ravenous insistence on having one. It’s become less a conversation and more a crusade. Being silent is far worse than being wrong.
This is a particularly poor context for a show like Louie, which, unlike other critically adored programs, makes no attempt at universality. It’s not at all interested in reflecting a national conversation, flirting with the zeitgeist, or examining “the way we live now.” Rather, it steadfastly examines the way he lives now: one fumbling comedian making his way through life away from the spotlight and bereft of punch lines. (It’s telling that the same childhood memory — the time Louie stole scales from science class to pay for weed — was mined for laughs onstage and played for pathos on TV.) It’s both foolish and reductive to respond to these deeply personal1 musings with clickbait argument-starters about what Louis C.K. got “right” or “wrong” about a particular issue. His fickle, occasionally infuriating meanderings are a feature, not a bug.2 Like fellow small-screen auteurs Larry David and Lena Dunham, Louis C.K. stares resolutely into his navel and sees an entire galaxy. Every week on Louie he pushes a giant red button, literal or otherwise, and then gamely chronicles the consequences. He’s not doing this to edify, shock, or potentially even entertain his audience — that’s what his day job is for. He’s doing it to edify himself.
If you were to look solely at the ratings, you might think he’s just about the only person watching, too. Season 4’s numbers were putrid bordering on horrific, averaging around half a million viewers for each original airing. (That’s about half of what fellow FX comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia receives.)3 The coverage of Louie far outstrips its actual reach. There’s an old saw about how even though practically no one bought the first Velvet Underground album, those who did all went on to form bands. Similarly, it could be argued that each person who watches an episode of Louie will, at some point, write a think piece about it. Even in the age of Thrones, Louie stands out for the vehemence and enormity of the discourse it inspires. Nearly every moment of the season, from the sublime (Todd Barry’s perversely exhilarating monologue about what a childless person does all day) to the puerile (a tickle attack leading to Yvonne Strahovski getting punched in the face), was the subject of considerable digital hand-wringing. The more serious Louie got, the more seriously it was picked apart.
And yet, unlike nearly every other showrunner alive, Louis C.K. doesn’t make himself crazy trying to sew it all back together again. He does not live-tweet or engage in chatty postmortems. He does not explain his work, nor does he make excuses for it. But the radically changed nature of television coverage both abhors a vacuum and demands a dialogue. That C.K. appears solely interested in steering the ship, not engaging with its wake, only makes people obsess over his intentions more. Two weeks ago, in a post that — title aside — I generally agreed with, New York critic Matt Zoller Seitz wondered, “Is Louis C.K. Trolling the Internet?” Yesterday, Salon published a piece suggesting the entire fourth season was the result of C.K. “thinking — and thinking, and thinking” about the critical evaluations of the first three seasons of the show and thus the new episodes “felt like an extended reaction-to-the-reaction.” I would argue the opposite: I think Louis C.K. truly and honestly doesn’t give a shit what any of us think or say about him. This is a man who has been dealing with hecklers for much of his adult life and who broke through only when he stopped running from the strange and potentially offensive voices in his head and started harmonizing with them instead. He’s not going to stop now just because one of my peers or I caught the vapors.
Besides, even before his humble show — which, it should be noted, is written, directed, and edited by its star on a shoestring budget — became an online lightning rod, Louis C.K.’s relationship with modern media was fraught at best. Though he had long been well respected in comedy circles, the moment that cemented C.K.’s place in the cultural firmament was a riff he delivered on Conan about how, these days, everything is amazing but no one is happy — that we’re so impatient to receive technological miracles that we’ve lost the ability to be inspired by them. That this bit of optimistic Luddism went viral on YouTube is the irony that has come to define Louis C.K.’s career. He owes his livelihood to the on-demand culture he abhors, and he owes the survival of his TV show to the sort of rapid-fire reaction he himself eschews.4 There is perhaps no better illustration of this contradiction than C.K.’s recent comment about New York City’s controversial Common Core curriculum: “Everything important is worth doing carefully. None of this feels careful to me.” This comment was made on Twitter.
Rather than hold up this apparent inconsistency as a scalp, I’d much prefer to celebrate it. Art, like life, is often silly and it’s always hard. Were he actually to read them, I’d like to think Louis C.K. wouldn’t so much disagree with the content of all the articles upbraiding him for the self-serving monologue he wrote for Sarah Baker in “So Did the Fat Lady,” or the brutish, clumsy assault he portrayed in “Pamela: Part 1.” What he would take issue with would be their tone. Of course he got things wrong! That’s what people do and have always done. It would be insane to expect otherwise. It’s just that now, in a world in which ambivalence is tantamount to ignorance, that fallibility is something we’re increasingly uncomfortable about confronting.
Last year on my podcast I spoke to Jeff Garlin about his career — he was working the clubs a decade before Louis C.K. got started — and the way he described stand-up comedy stuck with me. To hear Garlin tell it, the trick to stand-up isn’t so much about learning how to be funny. It’s about learning how to fail. The most you can hope for, he told me, was eventually to fail better. To me, this is the beauty of Louie: It’s a shuffling, stumbling, proudly digressive study of one man’s repeated attempts to fail better. That’s why the most resonant moments of the show are often the messiest: Louie’s volcanic anger when Jane5 hops off the subway unexpectedly, Amia smashing plates in her aunt’s kitchen, or the way Hurricane Jasmine Forsythe was a silly joke for the first five chapters of the beautiful “Elevator” story line before crashing into the frame as a terrifying threat in the sixth. (This wasn’t sloppiness; this was real life. For many, Superstorm Sandy was a Twitter punch line right up until the moment the power went out in lower Manhattan.)
The most radical part of Louie’s fourth season had nothing to do with its experiments with form and everything to do with the way it sank into untidiness and never once prescribed an easy way to climb back out again. Amia really returned to Hungary. Pamela really sold all of Louie’s furniture. And, as we learned in the finale, Marc Maron really is more popular and successful than Louie will ever be.6 Instead, in ways large and small and in scenes satisfying and not, Louie suggested that the most powerful thing one human being can do for another is simply to be present. That’s what Maron was yearning for in “Pamela: Part 3” (“Do you remember when we were best friends?” he asked. “We were doing comedy and we sucked at it, but we loved it and we were there for each other”), what the hand-holding at the end of “Fat Lady” was about. And presence was the lesson at the end of the brilliant, melancholy “In the Woods,” too, when, in lieu of a lecture, Louie reached out and offered his daughter a hug. Talking is not only cheap, it’s also overrated. It’s listening that takes real skill.
Accepting this sounds easy, but it’s not. It requires a sort of patience that is hard to come by, particularly online, where reflection has mostly been replaced by reflex. To be present — really, truly present — in art and life requires empathizing with uncertainty and wrestling with risk. It means sitting next to the hole instead of trying to fill it — be it with ice cream, pot, or a hastily typed-out “THIS—>>”. What if Pamela’s flippant behavior is actually awful and abusive? What if what Louie did to her was far worse? What then? What is our responsibility to these fictional characters and to each other? We may be conditioned to expect answers to these questions, but it’s not Louis C.K.’s job to provide them. He doesn’t owe us tidiness. He doesn’t need or expect us to like him. (As Pamela said in the closing moments of the season finale: “Can this just be OK?”) Not everything needs to be favorited. Sometimes it’s enough just to have it be heard.