My taste in television is lamentably lowbrow. So I favored comedian Louis CK’s older show, Lucky Louie, over his new one, Louie, that’s been so highly acclaimed. The older show is a dimmer, grittier version of a standard network sitcom, like Good Times with a white family. I found the new series pretentious formally, filled with too many artfully composed frames, meaningful silences, and dramatic close-ups. Each time I watched I wanted to say to Louis CK, actor/writer/director/editor, You’re a comedian, so just concentrate on being funny. Nonetheless I kept watching, encouraged by the occasionally outright hilarious bits like Blueberries.
And then, this season, came the gorgeous surprise of David Lynch guest starring as a network television executive who guides Louie through an important audition. Lynch is playing an exaggerated version of himself, a show business old-timer with a quivering bouffant, flat western accent, and off-kilter timing, and he looks like he’s simply reading (and shouting) his lines off cue cards. But his presence is both indelible and satirical; you can’t turn away. This titanic character (as well as the three-episode story arc it’s part of) tips the tone of the goings-on from comedy to something a little bit deeper. And, in the director’s presence, the show’s visual design becomes charged with Lynchian meaning. It is, finally, believable that the entire series unfolds from Louie’s specific, sometimes strange, point of view. The face of his boy-manager looks like that of a carnival freak. Three hooks on the back of his dressing room door shimmer with menace. The doorbell in his apartment sounds like it’s ringing from outer space. It all makes Louie’s dithering, ordinary-guy cluelessness enormously touching. It’s hard for sitcoms that are trying to do something fresh strike the right visual and emotional tone. (Watch how The Mindy Project is struggling right now.) Louie nailed it.