Spoilers for the season four finale of Louie below:
In the final half hour of Louie's season four finale, "Pamela, Part 3," Louie's new girlfriend Pamela (Pamela Adlon) notices that Louie's ex-wife is black. This is itself not shocking, in that Louie's ex-wife has been black since Louis CK cast Susan Kelechi Watson in the role in season three. But no one has commented on Louie about the fact that Louie and his ex have two very blond daughters.
In fact, in a season two episode, Louie's sister referred to his (then-unseen) ex as "that pasty, big-titted, black-eyed guinea bitch." So it seemed as if Louis CK had simply, deliberately cast the role race-neutral, as you might with a staging of Shakespeare. Indeed, he said as much, telling Jimmy Kimmel, "If the character works for the show, I don't care about the racial." That might be jarring in another show, but Louie's realism and continuity had always been situational. A few constants stayed the same--Louie was a comedian with two daughters--but others (how many siblings he had, his ex-wife's race, whether a certain actress played his mother or his date) changed.
Pamela, though, came out and asked what Kimmel and some of the show's viewers had wondered: "How is she the mother of those almost translucent white girls of yours?" And Louie explained it--Janet's mother was white--like you might do on any other show with the typical constraints of realism and continuity. It would be the most normal thing in the world to address in any other TV series, which made it a very un-Louie moment.
It's an example of how, in season 4, Louie has, with mixed results, tried to become something different: a show in which, once things happen, they stay having happened. (Sort of. It doesn't seem like Louie is still indentured to a Hamptons millionaire astronaut; and the Greenpoint subway stop Louie got off at in "Pamela 2" was not, after all, destroyed by Hurricane Jasmine Forsythe.) It meant that the series had a chance to build stories that lasted, that had stakes and continuing effects.
But it also means that Louie is inviting people to receive it the way they do other TV shows. For instance, that if Louis CK shoots a scene between Louie and Pamela, as he did in "Pamela pt. 1," that has all the hallmarks of a rejected pass turning into a sexual assault, it's going to color what we see in the episodes after it.
"Pamela" parts 2 and 3 recalled That Scene in the first installment. Asking Pamela out, he reminds her that she "kissed him back" at his apartment and she says, "I most certainly did not"--though she accepts the date. After it seems to go swimmingly, Louie and Pamela go back to his apartment, and again she excuses herself in a hurry. Again, Louie intercepts he and plants a hand in the door--but she tells him, "Louie, you can't just make people do things," and he walks away (albeit to sulk).
This all seems to be building to a larger point about their relationship, that she's insulting to Louie, that she pulls him in to push him away, because she has a difficult time expressing love in so many sincere words. "There's just some things that I can't do," she says, during that last scene in the bathtub. "Can this just be OK?"
It's a good question. It's a potentially productive story. And it probably lost more than it gained from being set up by Louie overpowering Pamela in his apartment. There's probably a valid case that Pamela is not a character who would earnestly call out Louie on his behavior or admit to being made vulnerable by it. But that doesn't mean the audience is just going to forget it, or should, and it gets in the way here. If Louis CK wants Louie to be more serial, there's a tradeoff--things that happen will stick. People will take it seriously. I give him credit for wanting to challenge himself and wanting his work to evolve, but it means facing what Louie and Pamela are facing: that commitment means you can't hit reset on everything you do or say and expect people to remember only the things you want them to.
And it’s too bad, because on its own, this final hour is funny and sweet, raw and delicate, in a way that recalls Louie’s past tonal balancing acts while raising the show’s stakes. It opens with Louie and Pamela going to an art exhibit, goofing on the pretentious exhibits and getting in trouble with a conceptual-art piece that shouts “Nigger!” when Louie pushes a button. It’s a metaphor for the risks this season has taken, and not just because--get it?--Louie literally pushes a button. This year has been an attempt to make art, often without the escape hatch of comedy, which means you may move and unsettle people powerfully, but at the risk of coming off pretentious or self-serious.
What this season of Louie has been willing to get serious, very serious about is love and Louie’s relationships with women. After a string of mismatches, he tries to make something work with Pamela, someone as damaged as him but in her own way, who operates at his level of difficulty, who busts balls as aggressively as the comics Louie plays poker with. (Even when she talks to him about his ex-wife, she's like a comic testing her audience’s p.c. boundaries: “Did you see those white babies come out of her juicy black pussy? Because I think she stole them.”)
Pamela is the ultimate version of what Heather Havrilesky has called Louie's "Manic Bossy Nightmare Girl"--forceful, difficult women whom Louie has had short relationships with over the course of the series. This time he wants to make it stick; he wants intimate, open love, expressed in so many words. And the final paradox of the episode is that his only shot at getting that with Pamela is accepting that he might never. You can’t force a person to open to you in a real way--not by cornering them in a hallway, not by whining, not with a sweet move involving a rare meteor shower. You can only, Louie is saying, open up yourself.
And the episode makes that nakedly plain, as it were. Louie, mailbox-shaped body and all, gets nude: not just nude, but as nude as he can get without pixellation or a move to HBO. Like the much-discussed nudity of his TV kindred Lena Dunham in Girls, it’s to a point. Louis CK is showing us Louie’s body--shot from a low angle, ripples and crevices and shadows--to show him presenting himself, sans exoskeleton, to someone who may never entirely shed her shell. (She’ll ask him for his first-kiss story, then tell him one that’s actually about beating the hell out of someone. Ah, young love!)
It’s a lovely last scene, if also a reminder of why, overall, this season of Louie didn’t succeed as well as past ones. This scene had a sweet-sour balance of tone I’d been missing, that tenderness and slapstick. Where the show used to find beauty in a filthy subway and philosophy in the absurd, season 4 sometimes served up wisdom-on-a-platter in the form of characters like Charles Grodin's doctor. (Why, I happen to have a metaphor for the human condition right here on a leash!)
But I loved a lot of this season, and I admired its effort not to be too cool, to risk taking itself too seriously, to take off its shirt and risk being laughed at and not with. I don’t want Louie to become ordinary--an artsier, looser version of a kind of dramedy that other shows are already doing--and I hope Louis CK doesn’t want that either. But this ending laid down a challenge for a future season 5 (assuming the show, not yet officially picked up, doesn’t reinvent itself all over), for both character and creator: seeing through what happens when you strip yourself down and go all in.