"Louie" is about NYC-based standup comedian Louis C.K as he muddles his way through a dark, troubled, lonely, depressed existence. Specifically, it is about how Louis C.K sees that existence for what it is and still tries to find humor and meaning in it.
"Louie" is my favorite show on television right now, maybe my favorite TV show ever. At the same time, it is terribly misunderstood, judging by most of the reviews I've read (most of them very positive, most of them by paid critics) and the promos I've seen.
People judge the show's merit based on how funny it is. Many rave that the show is "hilarious." They compare it to shows like "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." I disagree with all these sentiments and think the criteria that reviewers use to judge "Louie" misses the mark. "Louie" isn't a knee-slapping comedy in the vain of "Seinfeld" and to a large extent "Curb…" In fact, it's really nothing like "Seinfeld" or "Curb" beyond the fact that all three shows are about occasionally misanthropic comedians. "Seinfeld" and "Curb…" are comedies that present absurdist realities deliberately skewed for laughs. I'd hesitate even to call "Louie" a comedy. Really, it's more like a drama about comedy and the people who produce it. "Louie" is an unflinching glimpse into the comic's mind, which is sometimes but not always a funny place. Even when the show ventures into absurdity (e.g. Louie waltzing with a realtor who explains how a $17 million house will make all of Louie's very specific problems go away), the point of this absurdity is to provide insight into Louis C.K's imagination and fantasy life as defenses against life's injustices, not as an artificial mechanism to get laughs (think Kramer erecting "The Merv Griffin Show's" set in his apartment for an effective example of absurdity just for the sake of humor). You have to bring an unorthodox perspective to "Louie." You can't just passively sit on the couch and wait for the fat man to make you laugh. You have to attempt empathizing with Louis C.K's struggle to find humor and meaning in the darkest aspects of existence. Hopefully, the net effect will be cathartic and enlightening. Hopefully, it will give you some fodder for your own existential journeys. At the very least, hopefully you'll feel like you have an ally in the "good fight" against the world's demons and your own. You'll laugh along the way, but that really isn't the point.
There are broad stretches in "Louie" where the material is very depressing and there are, intentionally, no laughs to be had. The episode "Eddie," for example, is about an estranged friend of Louis C.K's. A struggling comedian living out of his car, Eddie is embittered, erratic, delusional, and beyond the point of social maladjustment; he's lost the will to live and has only reconnected with C.K to announce his plans to commit suicide. It's intentionally unpleasant to watch Eddie as he makes a scene in a liquor store, drunkenly stumbles onstage and delivers an depressingly unfunny summary of his self-loathing at an open mic night, and quasi-coherently berates Louis C.K for "selling out" (Louis C.K basically just stands there and takes it). Eddie behaves like your stereotypical homeless crazy person, someone most of us would typically write off as one of society's castaways, but at the same time it's impossible not to identify with him. From our/Louis C.K's perspective, Eddie easily could be Louis C.K if Louis C.K never got his lucky break (which the episode explains was a spot on "Letterman"). He could be any one of us after twenty-something years of never getting any breaks and gradual estrangement and neglect from the rest of the world. He might be a stand-in for one of the many, many comedians befriended by Louis C.K along the way who lost the "good fight" (Greg Giraldo springs to mind, especially during the open mic scene which vaguely resembled some of Giraldo's uncharacteristically awkward final performances). Given the show's first-person narrative and occasional surreal motifs, Eddie could be Louis C.K's imagination of what he or anyone like him could (have?) become without the benefit of a few strokes of pure luck. It's dark stuff, but life is full of dark stuff. And it's up to Louis C.K. to (a) talk Eddie down from that ledge and (b) find the will to be funny. Because he's a comedian who deals with other comedians, Louis C.K. says some funny things during the episode. He says funny things during all the episodes; it's his job, after all. But the overall tenor is intentionally depressing and disturbing and we never find out what happens to Eddie. The funny moments in "Louie" are like the funny moments in real life: they puncture more serious stuff but they're not oblivious to that stuff either.
Some people complain that the show is too dark, but it's important to note that most episodes end on a life-affirming note. "Duckling," for example, sees Louis C.K befriending and sharing a terrifying experience (that ends well) with people very different than him (country singers, fundamentalist Christian cheerleaders; for the uninitiated, C.K is a liberal comedian from NYC) while performing for troops in Afghanistan. The episode is about how basic human decency and those "little moments" in life can bring joy out of something as awful as war. In "Joan," a professionally frustrated Louis C.K becomes thankful for the opportunities he has, despite the understandably frustrating entertainment industry bullshit he has to endure, after getting a frank lecture from Joan Rivers. "Bully" ends with C.K bonding with a teenage bully's parent, who is a child-abusing bully himself. Both C.K and the abusive father decide that they're screwups who are trying their best. What I took away from this episode is that people are basically good and try their hardest, even if they seem (and in some cases objectively can be) awful. "Louie" doesn't create an artificially schmaltzy world where everyone is happy and beautiful all the time. It doesn't waste time boldfacing and underlining any episode's "uplifting takeaway." Louis C.K respects his viewers too much to cram happy sunshine-y goodness down their throats; he treats them like the mature adults they are. If canned schlock is what you crave, well, another season of "How I Met Your Mother" is on its way.
Some episodes can be more lighthearted. "Come On, God," for example, is about Louis C.K re-examining his addiction to self-pleasure after befriending an attractive and idealistic Christian woman; it plays out with the same awkward humor typical to Louis C.K's standup. "Subway/Pamela" is a hysterically funny episode about the differences between men and women: basically, women only communicate romantically by sending subtle signals and will only respond to subtle signals from others; men will directly tell women how they feel and will be oblivious to anything other than direct, unambiguous verbal responses. Again, it's hysterically funny, but it's hysterically funny only because it's unflinchingly realistic: just about every heterosexual person has experienced this communication breakdown between the sexes (He directly asks out the woman He loves with a clear statement of his very profound feelings, She rejects Him verbally but subsequently starts sending "signals;" He is oblivious to these signals because She's already rejected Him and He's taken Her word; He directly asks whether She's been sending him signals and She is so annoyed by this directness that She never wants to talk to Him again). It's hysterical because it happens all the time, not because say, a wacky character has erected "The Merv Griffin Show" set in his apartment or because, say, someone on "Two and a Half Men" made a clever double entendre using the word "come." Hardly anything is artificially injected into "Louie" for the sake of laughs. Again, to whatever extent it's funny, it's funny because life is funny.
As you can see, "Louie" isn't an easy show to describe. If you want a standard for comparison, Alexander Payne's movies ("Sideways," "About Schmdt," "Citizen Ruth" and - to a lesser extent - "Election") are probably the closest to "Louie" in terms of humor and overall style. The tone is somber and realistic, most of it is filmed onsite and not in a studio, and the humor in the show comes at you like the humor in real life. The Coen Brothers' pitch-black comedies (e.g. "Fargo," "Barton Fink") are comparable to some "Louie" episodes (some are more stark like "Fargo;" others are more surreal like "Barton Fink"). If you're expecting another "Seinfeld" or "Curb," you'll probably be disappointed. If you're expecting another "Two and a Half Men" or "How I Met Your Mother," you'll definitely be disappointed.
Some people complain that the episodes contain many unrelated vignettes instead of following a single, easy-to-follow single-story format. These people, in my opinion, miss the show's entire point. Again, the show is supposed to depict real life through the perspective of someone trying to find the humor in it. And real life is frequently a series of unrelated vignettes. We see some things clearly. Other things are filtered through dreams, fantasies and fits of strange passion. From them all, we take away a singular perspective. "Louie" isn't going to cram a perspective down your throat, but it gives you enough to piece together a good one if you're willing to put in a little effort. If you like to engage a little with your entertainment, this is the perfect show for you. If your approach to TV is more passive, well, a new season of "Two and a Half Men" is on its way.
So, to summarize, this is an outstanding show and you definitely need to check it out. But don't bring to it the same set of expectations that you would bring to a sitcom. Be prepared to empathize with Louis C.K (it's not hard; he's probably the most likeable and "human" person on TV) and his existential plight. Try to engage with the show. Think a little about the way you make sense of your life and the world around you, especially during the most challenging times. You'll get back everything you put in tenfold. "Louie" is the rare show that respects and rewards thoughtful and introspective viewers.