In the first non-stand-up scene of the fifth season of Louie, our hero Louis C.K. is opening up to his therapist. “I’m not that good anymore about navigating between the good and the bad times,” he tells him. “I just don’t know how to live a life anymore.” And as he goes on, explaining what is clearly an oncoming depression, he realizes that the therapist is nodding off. It’s a moment of realization for him: “I’m a boring asshole now!” he exclaims, and leaves. It’s a funny little scene — the kind of neurotic psychiatry-based humor that Woody Allen birthed a career from — but it’s also, in pretty clear terms, an acknowledgment of the criticisms of the show’s previous season.
This viewer enjoyed that unpredictable and idiosyncratic year, with its elaborate multi-part narratives, experimental storytelling, and decidedly more dramatic tilt. But it was certainly a new direction for the show, shifting the emphasis from the comedy-with-moments-of-drama of the first three seasons to more of a vice versa arrangement. At the TCAs earlier this year, Louie indicated that Season 5 would be “more laugh-centric and funny than Season 4,” and he signals that back-to-basics approach with the reappearance of his oft–replicated opening credit sequence, which disappeared last season.
That imagery of Louie wandering through the Village again does seem appropriate for Season 5; right after he leaves the therapist’s office at the beginning of last night’s episode, “Potluck,” we have a scene of him in the park on a crisp winter’s day, and there’s already a feeling that this year will be about Louie out in the world, and less in his own — a sense of looking out more than looking in.
Of course, looking out means encountering other people, which is where the show gets its comic juice; like Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of the show’s central comic premises is how our hero irritates other people, and it’s worth noting that mere minutes after Louie calls himself an asshole, fellow parent and potluck dinner-thrower Marina (Judy Gold, terrific) calls him the same thing. She also ends the episode by calling him a stupid idiot, after advising him to cut off his own reproductive organs and digest them.
The difference between Louie and Curb is the frequency with with you’re on Louie’s side; when he acts like a jerk, it’s usually to a bigger one. So it’s sort of delicious when he cuts through the subtext with the other parent about his daughter’s violin lessons at Julliard with an impatient “Yeah yeah yeah, she’s… better than you.” And Marina and Danila are so textbook terrible, granting other people permission to touch their surrogate’s belly (a personal-space invasion that Louie, a father of two, would’ve heard about) and proud of their Brooklyn birthing center being “not sanctioned” and braying their anti-vaccine beliefs (a nice little jab just before the end of the scene), that it’s sort of thrilling when Louie screws up their asshole birth plan.
As a storyteller, C.K. continues to subvert expectations — setting up a situation that you think will go one way and then taking it another, zigging when you think he’ll zag. It’s apparent, pretty early on, that he’s wandered in to the wrong potluck, but he thankfully doesn’t drag that realization out; the laugh doesn’t come from ten minutes of wacky misunderstandings caused by carefully-worded questions and answers, but from his response when the new-age encounter group gets to him (“I uh…” followed by a perfectly timed clearing of his throat), and the polite-but-hostile scene at the door that follows.
Likewise, the ride to the surrogate’s apartment seems to set us up for some kind of awkward sex thing, something along the lines of Melissa Leo’s scene in Season 3, and then she starts crying while’s in the bathroom. The actress, Celia Keenan-Bolger, plays it straight and intense — she’s really emotional, and there’s dramatic heft to the scene, and that’s why it works when it then turns into an awkward sex thing, with a payoff that I know I should’ve seen coming, but must confess I did not.
That payoff, vulgar and unexpected and very funny, is reminiscent of the fart joke that capped off the Season 2 episode “Pregnant.” And while the filmmaking is growing even more sophisticated — I like how he’s continuing to play with Allen-style very long takes, and the use of the park musician as a recurring musical bridge is ingenious — you get a sense, throughout the episode, of Louie allowing himself to lighten up a little. “The feeling I was having when I wrote the season,” he said at the TCAs, “was a goofy and playful feeling.” And that’s what comes across in this very promising season premiere.