When Louis C.K. announced at the end of the third season of Louie that the break between that and the fourth would be extra long, it wasn’t much of a surprise. It’s practically impossible to be a fan of the show and be unaware of its genesis, the way its star writes and directs and edits every episode himself, and C.K. wanting a breather from it made perfect sense. Even if it were made like any other show, the increasingly ambitious arc of Louie, culminating in a three-part series of episodes focused on Louis’ audition to take over for David Letterman, has changed the show’s identity, and it seemed that the break was also about figuring out what would come next.
The surprise with the first episode of Season Four is how much Louie wants to stay the same. In contrast with so many later episodes of the show, “Back” barely has a connecting line. Instead, it brings Louieback to a series of odd, surrealist stories. Starting with Louis being woken up by the garbagemen outside his apartment breaking through his windows, the collection is only intermittently funny, though ceaselessly inventive and entertaining. All of the material seems to flow easily and never feels forced, with one bit leading to the next without a need for a segue. There’s a primary narrative about Louie deciding, on the advice of one of his poker buddies, to pick up a vibrator, which takes over the second half of the episode, but even this comes together in such a natural way that it nearly eludes the show.
Louis C.K.’s odd philosophy about life was present, but without the preachiness that sometimes hits when his experiments misfire. When Louis tells one of his daughters he won’t help her carry her bag home, all it does it cause his other daughter to pick up the slack in order to get both her dad and her sister to shut up. Later that night, she has to write a letter to AIDS, something that’s deadly serious, as she says, but so ridiculous it’s idiotic. The way this absurdity and the truth are mashed together is what Louie is about, and this continues when Louie visits a doctor about his back problems. The doctor explains that this is because humans aren’t meant to walk upright, and so to solve this problem, all Louis has to do is walk on all fours. The solution is simple and logical, yet utterly absurd and impossible to follow. In all of these vignettes, these ideas about the world’s logic collide, and it’s a joy to watch.
For whatever reason, FX is airing two episodes of Louis back-to-back this entire season, so “Back” is followed by the far more disappointing “Model.” Here, we have an ambitious narrative, but a lack of follow-through and a real point to the story. The episode begins with Jerry Seinfeld playing an obnoxious version of himself and asking Louis to open for him at a benefit for heart disease. He fails, partially due to his own problems catering to the audience (the sum total of his preparation is the observation that “chickens are dumb”) and Seinfeld setting him up to do just that. He does impress one person there, largely through his incompetence, and that person happens to be a model and astronaut’s daughter. She’s wealthy and has a fabulous life, and they end up sleeping together. Everything goes well, up until she tries to tickle Louie to make him laugh, and he knocks her out by punching her in the face (by accident).
From here, the episode isn’t funny, and it isn’t even really unexpected. Louie’s being sued by her dad, and … that’s all. It’s easy enough to see what Louis C.K. is doing here as the creator, once again trying to take an old, hoary love story and flip it in an interesting way, but unfortunately, his way of doing so isn’t particularly interesting either. It’s weirdly realistic, yet played as if this were absurdism. (As his lawyer notes, rich people sue poor people all the time—this isn’t exactly a new observation.) At the end of the episode, Louis agrees to pay the money, and then the credits roll. Yes, it’s the deflation of a fantasy, but it’s such a basic one. It lacks complexity, and that’s disappointing.
“Back” was an excellent way of showing that Louie is still the strange, groundbreaking show it’s always been. “Model” was a misfire, albeit a largely enjoyable one, especially before the story becomes weirdly didactic. The first two episodes were so different that I would’ve preferred having them both stand on their own. It’s great that Louie is already moving into new territory and doing its best not to repeat itself, which I would guess was one of Louis’ worries and primary reasons for the long hiatus. Ultimately, Louie’s inconsistency is much of the show’s charm, and the first episodes of the fourth season were enjoyable for the sprawling, centerless series of vignettes they were.