Louis C.K. can do a lot with a little. In his three seasons writing, directing, editing, and starring in Louie, he’s crafted an ever-evolving project that pivots between sitcom, stand-up comedy special, short-film experiment, and surrealist drama. C.K.’s distaste for continuity — and Netflix hosting all the episodes — allows anyone to jump in at any point for any amount of time. So, with Season 4 arriving on Monday (with two episodes!) after a 19-month wait, we’ve gone ahead and rewatched the entire series to painstakingly assemble a ranking. [Note: “Louie” = the character, “C.K.” = the actual man.]
39. “Niece,” Season 2: Great stand-up about twentysomethings’ shittiness — “you’re wearing a vest that matches the building, just do the thing that is the point of the place” — is almost all this one’s got going for it.
38. “Double Date/Mom,” Season 1: Weak opener with Louie’s brother, then a half-baked plot about a demanding, self-centered mother announcing she’s gay. Does a decent job at depicting the experience of dealing with parents as an adult.
37. “Looking for Liz/Lilly Changes,” Season 3: Chloë Sevigny tries to help Louie find a happy ending, then weirdly gets herself off in a café. Louie fears for his children’s well-being. Not much to hang on to here.
36. “Halloween/Ellie,” Season 2: Great underplayed gag with Lilly trick-or-treating as Frederick Douglass. Builds and builds, only to make us vaguely uncomfortable. Part 2 takes a long time to show us what we already know: C.K.’s sensibility isn’t something old-fashioned Hollywood execs are interested in.
35. “Pilot,” Season 1: Nice intro stand-up about being alone — not single, just alone — and a parent. Field trip results in weird panic about being in Harlem. (In 2010. Yes.) Dull failure of a date with Chelsea Peretti; when Louie goes in for a kiss, she jumps into a helicopter. Great gag, limited replay value.
34. “New Jersey/Airport,” Season 2: Sometimes Louie is boring, like the first part of this one. Steven Wright and Chris Rock pop up only to chastise Louie. Part 2 has some good back-and-forth with Pamela Adlon, C.K.’s TV wife from HBO’s short-lived Lucky Louie, which is always a plus.
33. “Dad,” Season 3: Brilliant cold open with Jane on the violin, but it’s downhill from there. Just too strange and half-baked; Louie’s got daddy issues but would rather show us three instances of stress-vomiting than do any real storytelling or explaining. Funny confrontation with a Bawstan tough guy and a big getaway scene through the city, but it’s more fun for C.K. than it is for us.
32. “Late Show, Part 1,” Season 3: Excellent stand-up on American exceptionalism and privilege. Jay Leno cameo is hard to get excited about, as is Garry Marshall’s turn as a CBS executive underscoring all of Louie’s fears of failure. Somewhat unfair to rank alone, as it’s pure setup for the two episodes that follow, but Louie would be the first to tell us life’s not fair.
31. “Gym,” Season 1: Cold open on a sexy newscaster saying silly things in Louie’s ice cream fever dream. Pleasant, dirty interplay between Louie and Pamela on the playground. Bobby Cannavale trains Louie in a tedious montage. One of those episodes that meanders from start to finish, but not wholly unpleasantly.
30. “Travel Day/South,” Season 1: Great stand-up about entitlement. Silliness at the airport, but it’s too plain and familiar. Fans (in the South?) are weird. Some people repress their homosexual proclivities, and if one of them saves your life, you might as well thank them with a kiss.
29. “Dentist/Tarese,” Season 1: Of course Louis, in an anesthesia dream, would imagine a talk with Osama bin Laden, giving himself the chance to say 9/11 “wasn’t nice.” Then he fetishizes and stalks a black grocery cashier and gets told, “Suck a dick, son,” and, “You don’t get what you want — not all the time.”
28. “Pregnant,” Season 2: “Mama’s better,” says Jane, the little one. Ouch. Then we’re on to a stellar cooking montage, a vital lesson about fairness, a visit from Louie’s sister, a strong meditation on being awkward with strangers, and a capable panic scene. Points lost for a four-minute fart joke with a woman screaming the entire time.
27. “So Old/Playdate,” Season 1: Part 1 is transparently silly and devoid of replay value. Then Pamela permits Louie’s friendship providing he doesn’t try to “stick your dick up me.” Pamela episodes always get extra points. She and Louie talk about dad standards vs. mom standards. Louie says he dreams of offing himself once his youngest turns 18.
26. “Moving,” Season 2: Raw stand-up where Louie hasn’t sanded down the offensive edges for public consumption. Accurate portrayal of the insane New York realty game. Bizarre homeless man switcheroo witnessed from the window of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre–ish apartment with a toilet in the kitchen. A lovely ending (Louie and his daughters paint the old apartment, thereby avoiding a move), which is also rare.
25. “Dogpound,” Season 1: Louie turns into a self-proclaimed “bag of shit,” pizza-and-ice-cream-demolishing monstrosity when his daughters are away. Has an out-of-control stoner sesh with a neighbor, resulting in a smashed car and a motor-bong rip. A dog is adopted, dies.
24. “Telling Jokes/Set Up,” Season 3: Knock-knock party at dinner with the girls; the priceless insanity of child humor. Comedian Allan Havey (now playing Lou on Mad Men) tricks Louie into an awkward setup with Melissa Leo, which turns into a smooth date. Kerfuffle re: double standard of who goes down on whom, followed by Louie getting sexually assaulted. Not especially fun or comfortable, but certainly boundary pushing.
23. “Joan,” Season 2: The part of a comedian’s life that involves playing big dumb casinos. Investigation into the perils of being a “comic’s comic” and the difficulties of swallowing one’s artistic pride. Joan Rivers kills it in the big room, then offers generationally sound advice for Louie, specifically on when and how to be content. Louie kisses and, after swearing himself to secrecy, hooks up with Joan, who was born in 1933.
22. “Bully,” Season 1: One second you’re admiring how well Louie asserts itself as a New York TV show by hitting magical food spot after magical food spot, then you’re in the deep end of an entirely everyday NYC experience: the terrible group of loud teenagers. Dialogue is the kind that lets you know it’s real-world C.K. working out a problem on the page, but it also feels authentic. Over on Staten Island, Louie finds himself neck-deep in an old tradition of yellers, hitters, and homophobes.
21. “Heckler/Cop Movie,” Season 1: Unrepentant heckler gives us one of the series’ most adept moments of milking humor from discomfort — and also an honest, icky portrayal of how discomfiting it can feel for a woman in a comedy club. Louie goes way too far, saying it was medical malpractice for the doctor not to pull the woman’s head off at birth. Part 2’s a throwaway compared to all that, but it’s fun watching Matthew Broderick lose his patience with how awful Louie is at acting. “Ugh, your father is dead.”
20. “Ikea/Piano Lesson,” Season 3: The sensationally damaged Delores has an explosively bad day at Ikea. Meh interlude about crabs. Then Sarah Silverman and Marc Maron (in his boxers) show up so Louie can learn how to forgive and take responsibility. Except he’s so self-absorbed he doesn’t realize he already did it five years ago. Maron’s great.
19. “Come on, God,” Season 2: Louie hits Fox News to stand up for jerking off. Gets identified as “Comedian/Masturbator.” C.K. turns a fundamentalist into an actual human worth listening to and hanging out with. Insane masturbation fantasy scene-ifies the classic “bag of dicks” stand-up riff.
18. “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 1,” Season 3: Stand-up by the lovely Maria Bamford. A reality TV facsimile only C.K. could concoct. Louie starts prowling for a lady, specifically to please his daughters. Finds magnificently alluring, adorably bookish Parker Posey. Louie serves up one of the most doubtful date propositions ever. Boyish smile at the end is the best — one of very few episodes ending with a win. (Part 2? Different story.)
17. “Country Drive,” Season 2: Road trip with the kids offers a great meditation on boredom. “You live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. And even the inside of your own mind is endless — it goes on forever, inwardly, you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to be bored.” Celtic-style music: A-plus. Louie’s epic jam session to the Who’s “Who Are You”: grade contingent on how much you get off on knowing C.K. is getting off by utilizing his complete creative control. Whole third act is (hilarious, poignant) stand-up, which is unusual and nice.
16. “Oh Louie/Tickets,” Season 2: Opens with a reimagining of how awful the circumstances surrounding C.K.’s HBO sitcom were. Miniature, wonderful Bob Saget cameo. Great comedy about a girl hanging herself from the shame of orally sexing Louie. Culminates in a tense, onscreen pseudo-resolution to the controversy surrounding Dane Cook and the stolen jokes. Manages to humanize Cook and give C.K. diehards some vengeance.
15. “God,” Season 1: The religion episode. Introduction to the topic of faith: a restroom glory hole. Onstage, Louie interprets the Old Testament God as not only vengeful but insecure, drunk, indecisive, and shitty. In a Catholic school flashback, the terrifying man from House of the Devil visits to graphically teach the children about Jesus’s crucifixion. Great kicker: a cig-smoking handyman nails Jesus back to the cross.
14. “Barney/Never,” Season 3: Artsy black-and-white cemetery opener. Subdued Robin Williams meets Louie at a diner to laugh over a terrible man’s death. Strip club remembrance party follows, set to the funereal sounds of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.” Segment concludes with a phenomenal guffaw between Williams and C.K. “Never” portion is a nonstop surprise — the kid causes an intersection disaster, eats a bowl of raw meat, throws Louie’s rug out the window, shits in the bathtub. Great sum-of-the-parts episode — with a spectacular J.B. Smoove vignette at the end.
13. “Bummer/Blueberries,” Season 2: Louie’s one and only decapitation. Brilliant scene about mortality and self-centeredness on New York’s High Line. Killer stand-up about a terrified New York transplant navigating the subway. Series’ all-time worst hookup ends in spanking and an explosive meltdown. Then a great, possibly real ending with C.K. telling a noisy table at the comedy club to shut up.
12. “Subway/Pamela,” Season 2: Opens on a virtuosic subway violinist inadvertently scoring a homeless man’s impromptu water bottle shower. No meanness beats Pamela’s meanness: “You are very, very uncool, Louie, and you’re very boring. You think I’m awesome, I think you’re OK, it’s just the way it is.” Her bile’s met with the most perfectly Louie love monologue and the most perfectly Louie result.
11. “Late Show, Part 2,” Season 3: Interesting conversation with the ex-wife about whether children need their parents around or need their parents to be successful at the peril of face time. Then David Lynch is on Louie, acting, playing an ancient coach of broad comedy with hard and fast rules, saying, “Sent here? What’re you, a letter? Nobody sent you.” Somehow Louie ends up in a boxing ring.
10. “Dr. Ben/Nick,” Season 1: Part 1: What if Ricky Gervais were his exact self, only a medical doctor? (And if he were a cut-rate delivery system for C.K.’s usual strain of self-deprecation.) Priceless stand-up bits on aging (“I’m really on the decline; there’s never gonna be another year of my life that was better than the year before”) and the term “Indian giver” wash away the earache from Gervais’s laugh. Then we’re on to one of the best televised displays of frenemyship ever, between C.K. and conservative comedian Nick DiPaolo.
9. “Eddie,” Season 2: “I have only the courage for a perfect life,” Louie says onstage at the outset. Doug Stanhope shows up as Eddie, a sweaty, gaunt, alcoholic, misanthropic mess, a guy leading a decidedly imperfect and bleak life. Pickled with bitterness after years of being nothing more than a road comic, Eddie and Louie hit a depressing open-mic in Brooklyn. Suicide may have never been treated with this level of scary, sad ambiguity on film — Louie refuses to talk Eddie out of it, but also can’t let go that easily. The elephant in the room is luck: Sure, C.K.’s worked his ass off, but what longtime struggling comic hasn’t?
8. “Poker/Divorce”: Season 1: Idle dick-talk turns to a homosexuality quiz for Rick Crom. Perfectly nails the environment where you can share conflicting beliefs with friends and still bandy about your ignorance without repercussions. Solid window into how lovingly horrible comedians (and regular old friends) can be to each other. “Poker” is only one third of an otherwise so-so half-hour, but it’s unforgettable and vital.
7. “Night Out,” Season 1: In a Washington Square Park opener, Louie loses the interest of his date — a single mom — by telling her he’s a single dad. A bedtime scene with the girls flows smoothly to a stage routine with one of the all-time great lines: “‘Daddy, birds are like paintbrushes that make colors in the sky.’ Honey, shut your mouth right now. Just SHUT YOUR GODDAMN MOUTH. I will kill a bird in front of you.” Babysitter thinks Louie is pathetic; Louie accepts it in a late-night set at a tiny club. Builds to a perfect ending with early pancakes and a made-for-the-scene song about “shitty, shitty nights.”
6. “Something Is Wrong,” Season 3: One of the show’s most sneakily aspirational episodes. Starts with a master class in dick humor, one where the ante is upped with every new line. Then a game of relationship charades with Gaby Hoffmann, a shocking car smash that must’ve cost an insane amount more than most episodes, a filmic motorcycle montage (this is one of a small handful of episodes edited by longtime Woody Allen editor Susan E. Morse), a Louie-appropriate motorcycle crash, and a belated introduction to Louie’s ex-wife.
5. “Late Show, Part 3,” Season 3: The conclusion to the “Late Night” trilogy, Louis C.K.’s personal Rocky. Louie almost cries before having a clown meltdown to make David Lynch’s Jack Dall laugh. Jerry Seinfeld shows up like evil showbiz royalty. Late Show With Louie C.K. demo goes splendidly, with ace appearances from Susan Sarandon and Paul Rudd. It’s an unusual sensation to simply root for Louie and expect he might actually succeed. He doesn’t, but it still manages to become another rare Louie episode ending in triumph. (And that moment the ponderous musical theme that’s haunted the three episodes turns into a victory ditty? Greatness.)
4. “New Year’s Eve,” Season 3: The episode accomplishes so damned much in such a short span. A four-minute cold-open on Christmas leads to midnight surgery on a doll’s head and frustrated, exhausted weeping. Louie soaks into the joy of a storybook with his daughters. Amy Poehler cameos as his sister via telephone. Parker Posey’s Liz returns, only to die suddenly and horrifically. The show deals so frequently in surrealism that feels like absurdism, but this feels like the kind of surreal moment that’s too crazy not to be true. Liz’s death motivates Louie, after a season of faltering and hesitating and bumbling, to go to China, which is massive for the show and the character both. The feeling of discovery and revitalization is palpable. The conclusion, in someone’s home in the middle of nowhere outside Beijing, is, as C.K.’s fond of saying, amazing.
3. “Miami,” Season 3: The most easygoing, joyful, flat-out pleasant episode of the series, and a tantalizing travelogue. Some of the best music, as well. Only time C.K. brings up his Mexican heritage. Builds to the superlative awkwardness of Louie and his new bestie Ramon entering the gay-panic zone, where no one’s able to actually express a real thought: “First of all, I have zero … anything.” Appropriate stand-up coda about the pressure for heterosexual men to assert their heterosexuality 24/7.
2. “Duckling,” Season 2: [Note: This is one episode. Netflix says it’s two, but the DVD, IMDb, and Wiki all have it as one.] A weird riff on ducks might be the show’s loosest stand-up — it really feels like being there in the club while Louie works out a new bit. (His segue is “speakin’ of animal-type humor that’s not totally finished … ”) The episode gives us something we don’t often get: a slice of life that only a professional entertainer experiences. It’s cool seeing a long outdoor show in front of some troops whose values might not be quite in line with Louie’s. We get to watch him delicately, grossly win over the crowd, right after an all-American musician and some sexy cheerleaders have had the easiest time in the world. The second half is distinct from the first, and ends with Louie tumbling after a baby duckling and inadvertently defusing a tense situation between opposing soldiers. Possibly the most cinematic ending of the series, unless it’s “New Year’s Eve.”
1. “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2,” Season 3: It’s strange to proclaim a nearly humorless episode as Louie’s best, but it’s also fitting. Like C.K.’s strongest stand-up routines, Louie’s shiniest episodes make you interrogate your own beliefs and experiences, and they keep at it for months and years after the TV’s been turned off. This one expertly simulates the feeling of dating, where your worst fears and greatest hopes commingle with reckless abandon. Parker Posey’s Liz is entirely open to interpretation — is she a drama queen, mentally off-kilter, brutally honest, a trickster, primed to seize the day since an illness threatened her life as a teen, some combination of those things, or none of the above? The episode’s also as classically New York–y as Louie’s ever gotten, with the spontaneity, the streets, the homelessness, the food, and the rooftop views all getting a piece of the spotlight. While Louie sometimes feels like a hodgepodge of scenes from a to-be-assembled indie movie, “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2” plays like its own feature.