Season premiere review: 'Louie' - 'Back/Model': Tickle me Louie
"Louie" finally returned to our television sets tonight. I published my advance review of the new season earlier today, and I have specific thoughts on tonight's two episodes coming up just as soon as I write a letter to AIDS...
I don't know at what point FX decided that they'd be double-pumping most of "Louie" season 4, but "Back" and "Model" almost feel as if they were designed to air together on the same night. It's not just that they demonstrate two of the many different flavors available from the show — "Back" a collection of vignettes that are loosely tied together, "Model" one long (and very shaggy) story — but that they feel connected as part of a bigger tale about how Louis C.K. is feeling about himself (or, at least, about his less successful TV alter ego) at the moment.
Many things happen in "Back," and we'll get to those in a minute, but it's all building up to Louie's visit to Dr. Bigelow (in a welcome guest appearance by the co-star of my favorite movie, Charles Grodin), where he's told that the reason his back hurts is entirely a matter of evolution. The human back wasn't designed to be vertical all the time, and we're about 20,000 years away from the design being fully corrected.
And just as the back wasn't made to be upright so much, Louis C.K. wasn't made to have sex with Yvonne Strahovski, and this is what happens when he tries it in "Model."
Well, technically, Louie does manage to have sex with Blake, the model (and astronaut's daughter) he somehow impresses while bombing at a charity benefit. But he's just as uncomfortable throughout their entire encounter as he was trying to tell jokes to the billionaires and trillionaires of Hampton Beach, and it all goes horribly, horribly awry when she tries to tickle him and he reflexively punches her in the eye.
Now, the story in "Model" feels in a way like C.K. taking up the old comedian's challenge about how any topic, no matter how taboo, can be made funny with the right approach. (Though the funniest part of the story comes well after the punch, when Louie is relating the whole tragic tale to the waitress who flatly rejected him earlier in the episode, and it appears the whole violent, expensive ordeal will have been worth it because now she's giving him the time of day.) But it also feels like part of the theme set up in "Back," which is that Louie has become completely resigned to all the miseries in his life.
The opening of the season, with the noisy garbagemen barging into a sleepy Louie's bedroom to guarantee his lack o sleep, would function on its own as a perfect little short film, but it's worth noting the expression on Louie's face throughout the scene. He's not angry, or annoyed, but simply accepts it as part of his lot in life. Similarly, he accepts Todd Barry's abuse, and is unfazed when a young guy at the coffee shop walks into him because he's too focused on his phone to notice the outside world. (What really sells the joke is that the guy just keeps walking as if Louie wasn't there, even after the initial impact.)
At the poker game, Louie mostly hangs back while Sarah Silverman and the other comics make fun of Jim Norton for his elaborate masturbation set-up, but you can tell he's intrigued, if only because he'd like something to shake him out of his doldrums. Instead, he's almost too afraid to inquire at the sex shop, and right when he works up the nerve, God plays a practical joke on him by throwing out his back, disabling him so much that a little old lady on the street has to help him get into a cab. And that in turn brings him to Dr. Bigelow, and to his nurse's suggestion of a back massager that we know Louie will be using for an off-label purpose very soon.
Similarly, the trip to the Hamptons in "Model" feels like a massive cosmic joke at Louie's expense. He doesn't fit in there, utterly bombs in his set, and even when the gorgeous blonde throws herself at him, he can't get comfortable for a moment, until all his nerves fly out through his fist and he winds up ruining her life and his own with one punch. If "Louie" were a show that cared about continuity, I would spend every remaining episode wondering how Louie functions in the world when he has to keep paying Blake $5,000 a month for the rest of his life. With this series, though, it simply functions as a great dark joke, and whatever comes next week will have nothing to do with this.
What a delight to have "Louie" back, and to have it return in this form. C.K. tends to ease into things each year — the three previous premieres were among the thinner episodes of their respective seasons — so the scheduling here helped quite a bit. I imagine I'd have liked "Back" anyway, but when paired with "Model," there was no way to feel let down after the show went away for almost two years.
Some other thoughts:
* Neither of these episodes have the familiar main title sequence, nor do the ones next week. I'm guessing C.K. liked the extra time he had to play with in the "Late Show" three-parter when he ditched the theme song, though I also wouldn't be surprised to see it come back at some point.
* As I noted in the advance review, it's amazing to see how relaxed, lively and human Yvonne Strahovski is as Blake, especially in contrast to her work earlier this evening in "24: Live Another Day." (Where — spoiler alert — she also gets hit in the face by a middle-aged white guy.) In general, Strahovski does better in a lighter context (even though her specialty on "Chuck" was bringing some gravity to an otherwise goofy show), but this was almost like seeing a different performer, especially after the last few years of "Dexter."
* Also, I love how Jerry Seinfeld — who in real life is a friend and peer of C.K.'s (as two of the only men alive who can understand what it's like to sit atop the stand-up comedy throne for a while) — is so willing to come and play the heel, first in "Late Show" and now in "Model." His utter contempt for Louie — even though it's his own fault for not adequately prepping the slob — is wonderful.
* And some good, subtle work from Victor Garber as Louie's lawyer, patiently explaining every last detail of this nightmare scenario.
* This week in Alan Wants A Web Series: "The Fab One," in which Louie plays all four Beatles in vignettes about their rise and fall.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com