I know it’s logistically impossible for the opening scene of last night’s Louie, “Cop Story,” to have been a response to Noah Baumbach’s recent While We’re Young, which is all about people approaching middle age and regarding those younger than them with a reverence that gives way to cynicism, skepticism, and ultimately contempt. “Cop Story” tackles the subject in a more interesting way (and with a helluva lot more brevity) by taking the opposite approach: Louie begins his little lecture to the clerk-who-turns-out-to-be-the-owner with contempt, and discovers that it’s an encounter he can’t win. She has comebacks for all of his presumed wisdom, and each one seems to inch him a little closer to an uncomfortable truth about himself. One of the things I like so much about Louie is how it captures the way things stack up, for good or ill; if the season premiere found Louie on the winning end of confrontations with assholes, here we see him getting called on his bullshit.
In fact, that thread is the only real connection between the prologue and the narrative that follows; when a visibly uncomfortable Louie agrees that he and his almost-brother-in-law, Lenny the cop (Michael Rapaport), should hang out, Lenny immediately proposes a time when they can do just that. And when Louie is evasive, Lenny calls him out: “Don’t say you wanna hang out, and then don’t hang out with me!” So he relents, unhappily.
A lesser show might have to give us a scene where Louie explains the audience, via another character, why he’s reluctant, how he never liked Lenny, what makes the guy insufferable; Louie doesn’t need that scene, because we can figure it out ourselves. He’s loud, aggressive, and boorish. He’s constantly punching and smacking Louie—“playfully,” but still. And he’s relentlessly insulting, which is finally (“The thing is, you gotta find a thing that makes you funny!”) all Louie can take.
I can’t help but think the scene where Louie finally strikes back was inspired by the late-night motel confrontation in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; the shout-out is too transparent to be accidental. It begins with us on Louie’s side, as we are on Steve Martin’s, and there’s even some satisfaction in him finally standing up for himself, telling Lenny, “It can’t be that big a surprise to you, that someone’s havin’ a hard time bein’ around you.” But as in Planes, Trains, this is not a one-way confrontation. The camera holds on Lenny, on the pain in his eyes, as Louie’s words penetrate him, and he answers truthfully: “I know that I’m hard to be around. So it is no surprise.” (Both scenes have a wonderful and all but unspoken class subtext as well, with their uptight bourgeois protagonists sneering at their working-class companions.)
He has more to say, certainly, but his big speech is interrupted by the realization that he’s lost his gun. “Louie. Louie, I can’t lose my gun,” he says, moving from pain to total panic, in a snap, and by the time they return to Louie’s apartment and he’s tearing the place up, it becomes clear that this moment of failure has become a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with him and his life. Rapaport, a perpetually underrated actor (and a damn fine director as well), is just magnificent as Lenny, playing the scenes of panic with an almost scary intensity, and greeting Louie’s return (with gun in hand) with total warmth and relief. It’s a real and genuine performance, a character so vivid that Louie seems to have stumbled into his series, rather than the other way around.
But that’s what’s always been so great about the (for lack of a better phrase) “guest stars” of Louie. Because the show is the journey of a wandering protagonist rather than (occasional recurring players notwithstanding) an ensemble piece, he tends to turn the episode over to them, crafting the snapshots of Doug Stanhope’s Eddie, Melissa Leo’s Laurie, Parker Posey’s Liz, or Robin Williams’ Robin with the richness and complexity of a good short story.
Rapaport’s Lenny is, in many ways, a terrible person—bitter, mean, pushy, and possessing a twisted view of female consent that echoes the angry “nice guys” of the MRA movement. (It’s interesting how C.K. will drop in provocative little conversations like that one, and just leave them there; he doesn’t want the episode to be about that, but he’s aware that those guys are out there.) But Lenny’s also a human being, whose pain is palpable and whose struggle is real. And so is Louie. And so are the rest of us.