Norman Lear Meets Albert Camus

FX’s new show, Louie, has only aired two episodes, but it might already be the best show on TV. Party Down would’ve given it a run for its money, but as of yesterday, Party Down no longer exists. (Hey Starz, go zuck it.) I don’t mean Louie is the best comedy-starring-a-stand-up-legend, or the best sitcom, or the best show on non-network TV. I feel like it is already better than 98% of anything currently airing on TV, anywhere.

Granted, I had high hopes for this show already, since I am a huge, huge fan of the stand-up of the show’s creator/writer/director, Louis C.K. And he also wrote for Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock, and The Dana Carvey Show, so his comedy pedigree could not be higher.

But I also had high hopes for his last foray into sitcomery, HBO’s Lucky Louie, and that didn’t quite work out. For that show, Louis C.K. wanted to make a modern Norman Lear-type sitcom, with threadbare sets and working class characters. It was an awesome idea, but one that didn’t quite make it. I don’t know if it was a failure of concept or execution, but it just never clicked into place. I REALLY tried to love Lucky Louie, I really did, but I could never make it past “like”. HBO must have agreed, since they canceled it after one season.

That’s why I don’t believe my judgment is clouded by my feelings about the parties involved, and I can honestly say that Louie is outstanding. It is simultaneously the funniest and darkest thing I’ve seen on TV in years. It is jam packed with LOLs and has moments of despair as bleak as anything you’ve seen on The Sopranos or The Wire–often at the same time.

Louis C.K. basically plays himself, a divorced dad of two stumbling his way back into the single world. It also features clips of his stand-up, which as a sort of Greek chorus to the rest of the action, and are easily the funniest thing on the show. That’s not a comment on the rest of the show–it’s a comment on how Louis C.K. is one of the best stand-up comedians alive. (Video below via Videogum)

I was practically in tears at the last half of this set. And as I laughed, part of me thought, Jesus Christ, why am I laughing at this? Because in pure substance, what Louis C.K. is saying is HORRIFYING. And not in a gross-out way. In a “we’re all gonna die and life is meaningless” way.

Just look at it written down: How “the best case scenario” for any relationship is “you’re gonna lose your best friend and just walk back from D’Agostino’s every day with heavy bags and wait for your turn to be nothing also”. Or how bringing a puppy home is saying to your family, “Look everyone, we’re all gonna cry soon! I brought home us crying in a few years! Countdown to sorrow!”

The only reason this doesn’t sound like a suicide note is because it’s presented comedically, in a Comedy Context, so we can all laugh and say, “Yeah, you’re right, most things we think are important are really kinda pointless, and when you get right down to it, that’s funny.”

Ask yourself: When was the last time TV show came even close to saying something like that?

But the non-stand-up segments are amazing, too. One thing this show does extremely well: showing New York in its actual cramped, annoying glory. It’s not the Sex and the City New York, but much closer to the real New York, where people live in tiny, shitty apartments and there’s traffic and everybody’s sweaty and weird.

In the first episode, Louie picks up a girl at her apartment for what turns out to be the most awkward date in the history of time (he shows up wearing a suit, while she prepares to hit the town in a tank top, and it all goes downhill from there). As they’re leaving her apartment building, he tries to open the front door for her, but opening the door traps her in one corner of the building’s tiny vestibule. He closes the door just enough to let her through, then makes a fumbling attempt to kiss her, made even more uncomfortble the claustrophobic setting. The scene lasted maybe 20 seconds, but it’s the most perfect, New York-y scene I’ve seen in a long time.

Louie is also one of the best directed and edited shows on TV in many years. It’s so artfully done, which is amazing considering it’s made on a relatively low budget and a tight shooting schedule (see this Onion AV Club interview for full deets). Like the scene in the vestibule, which was shot from above, all in one take, so you could feel just how awkward and interminable that moment felt. He might have been able to wring more cheap laughs out of close-ups and quick cuts, but obviously the feeling he wanted to convey was more important than the laughs-per-square-inch.

To me, that’s a sign of maturity. Louie is not needy. It’s a show that already knows exactly what it is and trusts that people will understand it.

I can’t remember the last time I was so impressed with the first two episodes of anything, and not since Annie Hall has someone so skillfully tread the line between comedy and sorrow. Louie is a work of art, and I think you should watch it if you like things that are amazing.