Is "Louie" (premieres Thursday, June 28 at 10:30 p.m. ET on FX) the best show on TV? A case could be made for that, though "Breaking Bad" is certain to make a credible bid for that title when it returns July 15.
That said, there can be no doubt that "Louie" is the best comedy on television.
At first, it might seem limiting to call "Louie" a comedy, but that category is essential to the show's success. Like "Breaking Bad" and other top-tier dramas, "Louie" has a sure grasp of its tone, writing, dialogue, acting and an increasingly impressive visual style.
But "Louie's" great strength comes from the fact that the comedy category is malleable, at least in the hands of creator Louis C.K. The FX show isn't weighted down by a story that progresses through particular time frames, by mythology or by ongoing characterizations that have to travel in certain directions. Much as I love serialization, we'll never hear an episode open with the words, "Previously on 'Louie.'"
This gem of a program escapes not just the confines of Serious Drama, but the limitations of the half-hour format: "Louie" gleefully forces the TV comedy to be more flexible. Stories on "Louie" expand and contract based on the amount of material in them (some occupy half an episode, while others take up two full episodes). Vignettes can be dark, contemplative, pensive or fall-on-the-floor funny, and all these different kinds of episodes are held together by C.K's hangdog, wary persona and his bemused, searching curiosity. No matter how far afield "Louie" ranges, you know the show will come back to his core concerns: mortality, love, sex, fatherhood, and the faltering quest to be less selfish and more attractive to someone, somewhere.
"Are you alone?" Don Draper was asked in the recent season finale of "Mad Men." Louis C.K. is just as interested in that question, but when he riffs on it, there tend to be more masturbation jokes and less existential angst. Don't get me wrong, they're both great shows, but I'm glad the television ecosystem supports programs that explore love, loss and self-doubt among neurotic New Yorkers in very different ways (and of course "Girls," a similarly personal show that is clearly influenced by "Louie," is on that list).
Because it's not hemmed in by the rules or expectations that accompany television dramas, the FX comedy is able to nimbly follow the heart and mind of its lead character into some weird, silly and heartbreaking places. Given that human nature is endlessly surprising, it's never possible to be totally sure where "Louie" is is headed, and that sense of discovery is one of the best things about the show. It takes the building blocks of comedy -- grumpy dad, cute kids, bad dates, the mundane and weird moments that populate everyday life -- and takes them to enjoyably unexpected places.
We know things don't usually go Louie's way, but half the reason to watch the show is to see him have those occasionally transcendent moments in which his life begins to make a certain kind of sense. The other half of the reason to watch is to see Louie being humiliated or otherwise socked in the face by his existence, because the stoic perseverance and stunned patience he brings to women trouble and parenting crises makes everything he goes through that much funnier.
That doggedness recalls the lead character of another great comedy that's been having a terrific run in recent years, "Parks and Recreation" (on which Louis C.K. has appeared). Louie, like Pawnee's Leslie Knope, never gives up hope that something good -- or at least not bad -- is around the corner. But "Parks and Recreation" is more concerned with the idea of community, and explores the idea that negotiating and putting up with those around you is worth it, despite the hassles. "Louie" focuses all its storytelling on one individual, but Louie's aching, rueful, rigorously self-aware quest for connection couldn't be more universal.
There's something romantic about how much Louie believes in love, despite his amusingly horrific dating escapades, and his unrelentingly honest quest to master this tricky thing called adulthood is what unites it with the similarly raunchy-sweet "Girls." There's no knee-jerk nihilism in Louie's world and much less cynicism than you might expect; Louie's pride in his daughter's ability to construct a joke is one of the most memorable things about the first five episodes FX sent to the media. Maybe that's the over-arching, non-linear narrative at work here: One man's quest to hang on to his optimism and his curiosity and even his joy, whatever indignities life throws at him.
Having read all the above, you may expect the first episode of the season to change your life. Don't. This hand-crafted show doesn't work on a grand scale, and the satisfying season-opener is one of the show's quieter episodes. However, the second episode, which features guest star Melissa Leo ("Treme"), is one of the funniest half hours of TV you're likely see this year, and the installment that follows is an almost perfect depiction of not just the vibrance of Miami, but what it's like to think you've found a new friend in middle age.
It's kind of silly of me to not talk about the details of the subsequent two-parter that stars Parker Posey, given that "Louie" doesn't rely on big reveals and shocking plots to get eyeballs; the show has gained a loyal audience the old-fashioned way: by getting richer and more resonant each season. (Sidebar: "Louie" is more visually confident every year; so much this season is said poignantly -- or hilariously -- without words. I very much hope C.K. makes a movie someday; he's got such a terrific grasp of visual language and economical dialogue that a career as a film director seems like a natural progression.)
The Posey two-parter is, like the best "Louie" episodes, a mesmerizing excursion into absurdity and nervousness and sweetness. It's best not to ruin anything by setting up expectations about the story.
Even so, when it comes to expectations, "Louie" does a pretty consistent job of exceeding them.
Note: Ryan McGee and I discussed "Louie" (as well as "The Newsroom," "Girls," "Awkward" and other shows) on this week's Talking TV podcast, which available here and embedded below.