Louis CK is considered one of the best comedians of our time, but his FX show, Louie, still flies under the radar for many TV viewers. With season four premiering May 5, and the first three seasons available to stream on every major service, this is the perfect time to binge Louie.
Here’s what you need to know before you walk the mean and hilarious streets of NYC with Louis CK.
What’s the premise? In this quasi-autobiographical FX series, Louis CK plays himself, a stand-up comedian and single dad living in New York City.
What’s it like? Even though he’s following in the tradition of many successful comedians who landed steady sitcom gigs (Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano), Louis CK’s show is unique to the space. Certainly, Louie is derivative of Larry David’s creations (the show even features stand-up interstitials like Seinfeld), but it would be better described as similar in tone to Woody Allen’s European-influenced movies. Louie is not constructed like a traditional sitcom — you won’t get a bombardment of jokes centered around 22 minutes of conflict — but rather it feels like a series of short films, all based on the same mostly-optimistic-yet-woefully-misguided main character. Anyone who has watched Louis CK’s comedy specials knows that he is a master of irreverent, hyper-honest observations, and in Louie the same perspective holds — only the point of view is tailored to the medium of TV rather than stand-up comedy. It’s normal to enter Louie’s head through flashbacks, fantasies and even hallucinations to see the world how he sees it. The results are often funny, although — as with Woody — they cross into existential territory.
How long will it take? In total, Louie is 40 episodes, each running just over 20 minutes. Short vignettes comprise a single episode in most instances. A few exceptions include a three-parter about Louie’s bid for a late-night show, and a two-episode courtship of a bookstore employee played by Parker Posey. If you were to binge all the Louies in a row, it would take you a few days (assuming your life includes other activities), but watching every episode before you dive into the new season is unnecessary; Louie doesn’t rely on continuous viewing to make sense.
What do the critics think? All three seasons are fresh on the Tomatometer. In her review of season three, Maureen Ryan of the Huffington Post said, “There can be no doubt that Louie is the best comedy on television.” Matt Roush of TV Guide wrote “This masterful character study of a midlife comedian’s melancholy misadventures is pretty marvelous.” And Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture called Louie “bizarre, inventive, and bold.” Be aware, however, that the show dips in the blue ink quite a bit. Verne Gay who wrote a positive review for season three in Newsday warned, “It’s not for all viewers — there’s a lot of vulgarity here.”
Why should I watch this? There’s nothing else like Louie on television right now — and that’s mostly because Louis CK holds a majority of the artistic control (a deal he made for a smaller chunk of change in early negotiations with FX). He writes, directs and stars in all the episodes, and even edits some of them, making him one of the few — if the only — true auteurs of television. CK’s encapsulation of the human experience, which he portrays as simultaneously beautiful and repulsive, hilarious and heartbreaking, takes place in New York City, the perfect setting for examining everything wonderful and awful about people.
What’s my next step? If you enjoy Louis CK’s perspective on things, you should definitely watch his specials — especially Chewed Up and Oh My God. He also has stand-out roles in two smash films from 2013, Blue Jasmine and American Hustle. HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm picks up a number of Louie’s threads, such as the question of how much the real person is like his TV counterpart, or how we feel about ourselves when we identify with the main character. There will be cringing. For shows that accurately portray the modern verve and grime of New York, check out How to Make It in America and Girls on HBO, and Comedy Central’s new cult fave, Broad City.