‘Louie’ should give funny guys food for thought

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - ROBERT LLOYD TELE­VI­SION CRITIC

In a stroke of con­cep­tual pro­gram­ming fit for the lead para­graph of a re­view like this, FX has sched­uled two se­ries in which co­me­di­ans play ver­sions of them­selves one af­ter the other on Thurs­day nights.

One you know, or should: “Louie,” star­ring the nearly epony­mous Louis C.K., is cer­tainly one of the best things on tele­vi­sion, now or ever. The other, the new and plainly ti­tled “The Co­me­di­ans,” with Billy Crys­tal and Josh Gad, is cer­tainly not — but it has its points.

The lat­ter is based on a Swedish se­ries, “Ulve­son & Hern­gren,” about a younger and older comic work­ing to­gether on a new sketch se­ries. Here, it’s “The Billy and Josh Show,” which is also be­ing made for FX. (“The Co­me­di­ans” is pre­sented as a re­al­ity show track­ing its cre­ation.) You may ex­pe­ri­ence the briefest mo­ment be­tween think­ing, “Isn’t Billy Crys­tal too big a star to have a show on FX?” and re­al­iz­ing that Billy Crys­tal has a show on FX.

Oddly con­ser­va­tive but for its ba­sic-ca­ble lan­guage,

“The Co­me­di­ans” is a strangely mixed bag, which works or doesn’t from mo­ment to mo­ment and from mode to mode. Some of it is strik­ingly ob­vi­ous — when Crys­tal picks up a wooden box from the desk of a woman talk­ing about the re­cent death of her dog, it is clear for miles around that they con­tain the re­mains and that they will wind up on his per­son. But Crys­tal’s fol­low­ing line, ad­dressed to the ashes on his shirt (“Come on, boy — I’m go­ing to take him around the stu­dio”), is sur­pris­ing and ef­fec­tive.

The plots can run to the silly; many jokes live on the indis­tinct bor­der be­tween edgi­ness and clue­less­ness, and it’s not al­ways clear whether they were in­tended to sound a lit­tle stupid. An episode about the stars’ clum­si­ness deal­ing with race “in and around” the show is it­self clumsy at times.

And yet there is some­thing solid and sat­is­fy­ing in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two leads that be­comes clearer as the show goes on. You don’t sense that they’re a great com­edy team, ei­ther within the con­text of the show within the show — in a world with “Port­landia,” “Key & Peele” and “In­side Amy Schumer,” “Billy and Josh” is weak com­pe­ti­tion — or the show about that show. But as men of dif­fer­ent ages com­ing to know each other, Crys­tal and Gad make an in­ter­est­ing cou­ple. And the less overtly comic the scene, the bet­ter they are.

“Louie” is back for a fifth sea­son, and age is an is­sue there too. (It al­ways has been, but it doesn’t get any less the case.) C.K.’s looka­like is slip­ping read­ing glasses on and off of­ten; his girls are grow­ing up.

“You’re about two years away from a sharp decline in your looks,” friend-with­ben­e­fits Pamela (Pamela Ad­lon) tells him, while the pro­pri­etor of a cook­ery store di­ag­noses his dis­com­fort with younger peo­ple — “be­cause we’re the fu­ture and you don’t be­long in it” — but also points out that given a de­sire for his daugh­ters’ gen­er­a­tion to im­prove on his own, “If you feel stupid around young peo­ple, things are go­ing good.”

The con­ven­tions of mod­ern tele­vi­sion lead us to ex­pect that even sit­coms have sea­sonal arcs and re­la­tion­ships that change over years. But while there is some con­ti­nu­ity in “Louie” — the newly sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with Pamela, es­tab­lished at the end of last sea­son, is still alive in this one — it’s a show that re­peat­edly wipes the slate (kind of) clean. (Which is not at all the same thing as let­ting its main char­ac­ter off the hook.)

C.K. is a short story writer by tem­per­a­ment, and though his body and brain re­main at the cen­ter of the ac­tion, what­ever one episode es­tab­lishes about the char­ac­ter’s life and his­tory is li­able to be rewrit­ten in an­other. What’s im­por­tant is the work­ing out of an idea, to see where it goes with­out wor­ry­ing un­duly about how it re­lates to the mass of the show; the cre­ator is not build­ing a mythol­ogy here.

The Pamela story was con­tro­ver­sial for a scene that some char­ac­ter­ized as “date rape,” and what the char­ac­ter char­ac­ter­ized to Louie as what “would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.” (It echoed a pre­ced­ing story line, with Eszter Balint, and fol­lowed other much-dis­cussed sto­ries about men and women.)

There was no rape, but there was a kind of blun­der­ing sex­ual in­tim­i­da­tion, not meant to be taken lightly or ap­prov­ingly. More of­ten than not, the shame is Louie’s to bear; the les­son is his to learn. There are scenes in the new sea­son (I’ve seen four episodes) that seem writ­ten not ex­actly in re­sponse to that scene, as if a de­fense were be­ing mounted, but which are meant to re­flect back on our mem­ory of it. There will be dis­cus­sion.

It’s a funny show, fun­da­men­tally, but not al­ways, by in­ten­tion. Not ev­ery­thing works, or works equally well; like Louie, Louis is only hu­man. But it’s a mat­ter of the reach that ex­ceeds the grasp — the se­ries’ faults are over­whelm­ingly sins of am­bi­tion. C.K. puts com­pli­cated hu­mans on screen and makes it hard for you to judge them.

“The Co­me­di­ans” is a ve­hi­cle — lit­er­ally a de­vice to de­liver its stars to your eyes. But “Louie” is a thought process made flesh.

KC Bai­ley FX

LOUIS C.K.’S “Louie” re­turns for a fifth sea­son on FX with a lot on the co­me­dian’s mind yet again.

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