"Louie," the FX show starring sardonic stand-up comic Louis CK as a version of himself, is ostensibly a comedy. But "Louie" carries an air of mystery – or at least surprise.
The program returns for a second season on FX Thursday night, following last year's initial batch of strong, compelling episodes tied only by his sullen, painfully introspective character – and wild shifts in tone.
Last season, we were treated to scenes that ran from the whimsically surreal (a woman escaping a date with Louie by fleeing in a helicopter) to the creepy (a perverted dentist) to the darkly surreal (a boyhood flashback where a doctor's graphic description of the Crucifixion culminates in him successfully exhorting little Louie to drive a nail through a classmate's wrist).
So forgive us if we're not sure what to expect in the second season – but we’ve seen enough to harbor a hope for more bizarrely great episodes.
If CK's stand-up humor is an acquired taste, then his show is an exercise in building an appetite for a free form, rejection of sitcom conventions. Yes, he's a divorced father of two girls, and yes, segments of his stand-up act are sprinkled in, a la early "Seinfeld." But CK's act is far less predictable than his seemingly stable, familiar surroundings – the often-strange plots threads usually don’t get tied up, neatly or otherwise, when his half-hour TV show/analysis session is up.
CK is a practitioner of the comedy of the uncomfortable, which can thrive, as with "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David's brilliant "Curb Your Enthusiasm," upon confrontation. There's plenty of confrontation in "Louie" (see his vicious takedown of a heckler from last season) – but the battle is just as often an internal one, a 40-something man's half-hearted fight against aging and mortality waged with sarcasm (and, in one memorable episode, pot and ice cream).
As CK noted early on in Season 1, “I know too much about life to have any optimism.”
Still, he’s fortunate enough to have what appears to be full creative control over his show, allowing him to trample off onto tangents that make it difficult to define “Louie” – and, for some of us, impossible not to watch. As CK recently told Pitchfork, "Right now, my stuff is finding a lot of people, so I have some credibility. That's comfortable. But I have to keep surprising them."
We've seen enough to have optimism that "Louie" will take us to some new places in his psyche this season – and we’ll happily watch for more unexpected stops along the strange, often achingly funny journey.
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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 the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.