The current season of "Louie" has been a lot of things: sweet, sad, scary, fantastical, poignant, revelatory, disturbing, riveting and even repellent.
What it hasn't been is consistently funny. Which just might be okay.
Louis C.K. caps the fourth and most fascinating season of his label-defying FX show Monday leaving us uncertain of – and unprepared for – what's next.
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The series, from the start, offered frequent shifts in tone – from the surreal whimsy of the first episode (a woman escapes a date with Louie by hopping in a helicopter) to his Season 3-ending impromptu trip to China, where he wandered into dinner with a friendly peasant family.
This season has upped the ante on the unpredictable. C.K. delayed the current run by nearly a year, presumably to recharge his creative battery. He apparently used some of that time to dig into the deeper, darker recesses of his comic mind, as he contemplated his relationships with women and his young daughters.
The second installment of the season served up the unsettling spectacle of Louie accidentally slugging a beautiful young model, who had just slept with him for reasons that remain unclear. In the next episode, he initially acted like a jerk toward an overweight woman with a crush on him, building to her heart-grabbing monologue about life as a "fat girl," written by C.K. and brilliantly delivered by Sarah Baker. (“Louie, you know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? ‘You're not fat.’”)
Louie struggled to deal with the turmoil buffeting his younger daughter, who, in the season’s most frightening sequence, fled a subway car, making him live an urban parental nightmare. He later caught his older daughter, barely 12, smoking pot, kicking off the latest and most intriguing "Louie" yet: essentially a 90-minute flashback to his adolescence when he turned to weed to deal with his parents' divorce.
The show played like a raw, adult version of the old "ABC Afterschool Special" series, offering a painful look back at his fractured youth and giving insight into his ongoing daddy issues. Louie, who is trying desperately to be a good father amid his own divorce, is slowly discovering that restraint, acceptance and just being there might serve the girls best.
His parental/divorce anxiety played out most dramatically in a fantasy sequence – perhaps part wish fulfillment – in which he braves an epic storm and an array of New York lunatics to rescue his ex-wife and daughters from a Sandy-like catastrophe. The hurricane seemed oddly appropriate for a season roiling with emotional storms, most notably with Louie’s ill-fated, short romance with a visiting Hungarian woman who doesn't speak English. They somehow communicated, movingly conveying the not-so-sweet sorrow of parting.
But Louie apparently doesn't understand the meaning of no. We're still processing the June 2 episode in which he clumsily but clearly tries to force himself on Pamela, his on-again-off-again love interest. "This would be rape if you weren't so stupid," Pamela told him. "You can't even rape well!"
She delivered the line like a joke, but it came out chilling – there's nothing funny about Louie (or anybody) as a would-be rapist. The scene proved all the more jarring, juxtaposed against an earlier monologue – the season’s longest sustained comedy segment – in which Louie extolled women and decried "wife-beater" as the nickname of a T-shirt.
Where the show heads next is anyone’s guess – "Louie" succeeds best in keeping viewers off-balance. C.K. is brave enough – or foolish enough – to let us visit places in his psyche that other performers would keep shuttered. He’s not intent on making us laugh or even think as much as making us feel something.
As we await the final act of this season of "Louie" – back-to-back episodes about his relationship with Pamela – check out a preview in which she meets Louie's ex-wife and her significant other in a scene that oozes with awkwardness:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.