Louie, a show that has been consistently hailed as one of the most innovative, heartbreaking TV comedies of the decade, is about to slide back onto your DVR without much fanfare. Certainly, this season won’t attract nearly as much attention as the last, which brought with it a serious case of Louie Thinkpiece Fatigue (culminating in calls for us to just call the whole thing off). But in many respects, the show is closer to a conventional sitcom than it’s ever been. And that’s okay, because Louie’s own influence has made the show’s constant evolution unnecessary.
Success comes from consistently giving audiences what they want; it’s part of why long-running sitcoms often become so lazy, and why even generally respected series can collapse into fan service. But satisfying viewers is different from making a truly great show, one that’s part of a broader conversation. If you’ve done the latter, then after a while you’ll be stripped for parts—and that’s exactly what happened with Louie. Five years after its debut, a string of phenomenal half-hour series have grown from its stem; they effortlessly blend comedy and drama, mining pathos and humor from human problems and pain and refusing to consider that these might be separate things. From Transparent’s lovingly shot sequences of trans women discovering themselves to Looking’s bright parties to Broad City’s impish chaos, each of these series have created a universe on their own terms, even while possessing some CKDNA.
And so, the show even appears to have reached a balance. Early on, its tendency was to bounce between often-disconnected short films; in seasons three and four, it developed a penchant for longer arcs. Now Louis (not Louie) seems to favor episode-length plots, with bumpers or tangentially related cold opens. The changes, though, are as substantive as they are formal; at least through the first five episodes, the show focuses far more on laughs than on brutal emotion. (Not that these things are ever fully separate—it’s a question of emphasis.) Plots are relatively straightforward: Louie awkwardly finds himself at a cult meeting; Louie hangs out with an old friend; Louie goes on a date. His daughters, frequently the show’s emotional wellspring, show up to confirm that their father is an object of mockery. There’s a classic “Louie spends an evening exploring New York with a character who manages to be both archetypal and specific” episode. Hell, there’s even a gloriously over-the-top poop joke.
Partly, this comes across as a reaction to last season’s deep-dive into Louie’s past and his loneliness. At one point this year, he goes to a depressing art movie with his long-term love interest and current sort-of girlfriend Pamela (Pamela Adlon), and when he starts telling her a story about his childhood, complete with a maudlin flashback, he’s rudely interrupted. “I don’t want to hear this” Pamela says, speaking for a good chunk of the audience. And Louie’s myopic dating life, with or without Pamela, is only occasionally raised to a level of prominence. The show’s history is rich enough that the scenes between Pamela and Louie play as an exploration of their specific relationship rather than a general “Why can’t middle-aged socially anxious white men find love?” story. That writ-largeness plagued season four, but by now, even Louie the character has to admit that his life is actually pretty good—whereas his brother and bang-bang partner Bobby (Robert Kelly) is comically flailing, complaining about how he has “No money. No skills. No Twitter.”
But again, that success has bred a twist: while Louie has bred a new generation of shows, Louie himself seems concerned with his increasing irrelevance to the generation of viewer that watches them. In one early episode, he’s forced to host an open mic night, and awkwardly gives a die-hard comedy kid career advice. It doesn’t seem like good advice coming from Louie, but it’s successful, somehow. He doesn’t know what he said or why, but some good came out of it.
In another episode, Louie finds himself in the familiar position of grumbling at a young woman, complaining about his treatment at the hands of an assertive shop-owner. After admitting that he always gets uncomfortable around youths, he’s told (in Louis CK’s own words from a stand-up routine), that it’s because “we’re the future, and you don’t belong in it.” As upset as Louie is, she says, he should be glad. “Doesn’t it follow that if you’re a good parent and your kids evolve and are smarter than you, they’re going to make you feel kind of dumb?” Louie, and seemingly Louis, acquiesce: “So if you feel stupid around young people, things are going good.”