'Louie' Season 3 Review: Time To Go Big Or Go Home?

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Now that the Season 3 finale of "Louie" has aired, I thought I'd weigh in on the show's third season. (I reviewed the start of the season here.)

First things first: Despite a wobbly middle -- a rushed sequence that was clearly designed to increase Louie's desire to escape from a miserable holiday season -- the season finale was really pleasing.

"Louie" does quite a few things well, but depicting the travails of parenthood and sending the title character off on unexpected journeys are where it really excels. The midnight desecration of the doll was nothing short of hilarious; I've yet to see a "Louie" parenting segment that didn't make me laugh out loud. Few shows are better at depicting the frustrations of mundane, everyday life, and its rewards, too: Louie reading to his daughter from the book about ducks was written and directed with particular delicacy and grace.

And Louie's arrival in China was depicted with wonderful immediacy and the kind of sweetness, expansive curiosity and mild irony that are the hallmarks of the show at its best. With few words, "Louie" depicted one of the show's timeless themes: Sometimes what you're looking for isn't quite what you'd expected, but it can be satisfying nonetheless. (Also: More ducks! A theme with apparently deep resonance for Louis C.K.)

Any show that can find fresh ways to come at the stress of Christmas and culture clash -- two tropes that are ripe for cliche -- and actually manages to unite them via the theme of "muddling through strange challenges" is doing something right. The middle sequence, in which Parker Posey's Liz arrived only to die almost immediately, was less successful, but that section of the episode also gave us Amy Poehler as one of Louie's sisters. That scene was unsurprisingly enjoyable, even if there was a bit of mild cognitive dissonance arising from the fact that Poehler's "Parks and Recreation" character dated Louie's "Parks" character, so now the two have played both a couple and siblings on TV.

When it comes to the season as a whole, two related thoughts have occurred to me quite frequently: 1) the least interesting episodes were the ones in which "Louie" repeated frequent themes or dynamics without the sense of freshness and discovery I've come to expect from the program, and 2) I think "Louie" is close to outgrowing the series that just won him a writing Emmy. The half-hour format is starting to seem like an awkward fit for his most interesting ideas and for his aesthetic ambitions.

The "Late Show" trio of episodes, in which Louie explored his diffidence about ambition, were top-to-bottom great (and left me with an enormous desire to see a lot more of David Lynch's deadpan comedic skills; he was amazing on "Louie"). But the episodes were excellent in part because there was time to gradually increase the stakes for Louie and make us understand why his "failure" was really a triumph.

Over the course of those three episodes, we saw that Louie allowed himself to dream big, and that was the success of the experience, not whether he got the gig or not (which was always a long shot). Allowing himself to recognize just how ambitious he was and proving to himself that he could actually play the role of a jocular late-night host, if he ever wanted to go in that direction, were milestones that felt important, and those topics supplied a lot of very smart comedy along the way (not to mention pitch-perfect appearances from Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock).

It's hard not to wonder if creator Louis C.K. himself is harboring the kind of ambition that his TV alter ego displayed in that arc. C.K.'s filmmaking skills have grown by leaps and bounds, and over three seasons, he's likewise honed his skills as a storyteller. Last season's "Duckling" and this season's two- and three-part episodes, and more emotionally serious fare like last season's "Eddie" and this season's "Miami" -- all of those could have easily been expanded into even longer stories (same goes for this season's Robin Williams episode, which felt weirdly truncated). Why not make "Louie" movies?

We've seen the show's opening credits and standup bits go away, for the most part, and the longer episodes are often the best ones. "Louie" just seems to be straining at the seams, so why not allow the show to evolve into something else? Or add something else to the mix? I'm not the only one who thinks C.K. should be making movies, right?

To be clear, I'm not saying I want "Louie" to go away as a TV show. Far from it. Perhaps the TV show could just be the arena in which he works out smaller ideas -- i.e., short stories vs. novels. C.K. is obviously very busy with standup tours when he's not working on his TV show, but what if he spent part of each year working on one big story that he could release on his website and/or FX could air as a one- or two-hour movie?

Not to tell two very successful entities what to do -- they clearly are doing all right without my advice -- but I just think FX and Louis C.K., both of which have shown a willingness to embrace new delivery systems and non-standard financial models, should think about what's next for him. How about a movie chronicling Louie's adventures in China? A longer relationship saga? How about turning ideas that can't quite be contained by a few 22-minute episodes into something else?

I'm just saying, surely the network and C.K. could come up with new ways to work together that would be profitable, creatively and commercially, for both parties. "Louie" needs a bigger canvas, and it's my hope that C.K. finds a creative home for his expanding vision. He doesn't appear to need a ton of money to do what he wants to do -- he needs a creative partner who leaves him alone and promotes his work intelligently, and that's what he's got right now with FX.

And of course, sometimes the show does work well when it gets small. Many scenes with his daughters and the hilarious sequence with F. Murray Abraham this season were great. But in truth, I found that quite a few of short segment this year felt repetitive or unsatisfying. I also started to have an unpleasant reaction to several of the female characters on the show.

The "Daddy's Girlfriend" two-parter worked, in part, because it allowed Posey's character to be more than just a participant in yet another "Louie meets a demanding/inappropriate/emotionally unstable/difficult woman" scenario, which finally tipped over into tiresome territory this season. "Louie" has three seasons under its belt now, and it's just gone to that well too many times. It's a problem because, as I said, much of what makes "Louie" work is a sense of discovery and a sense of the unexpected -- not knowing what's coming next is one of the chief enjoyments of the show.

But too often, when a woman shows up on "Louie," I now know what to expect: She will behave irrationally, dismissively, angrily or she will somehow try to take advantage of Louie. He will stand by helplessly or passively or try in some halting way to deal with her (probably unreasonable or unkind) actions or demands. I can't be the only viewer, male or female, who's frustrated with this aspect of the show, which has proved how smart and subtle it can be in so many other arenas.

I get that this dynamic doesn't only affect the female characters -- probably my least favorite vignette of the season involved the self-absorbed kid Never (who had -- surprise! -- a batty mother who took advantage of Louie). And it's not as if the dynamic is always unsuccessful: Melissa Leo's episode was great, but that was in part because the episode made her character into more than just a collection of shrieky demands.

Louie's ex-wife, who doesn't put up with his passive-aggressive nonsense, has also been a great addition to the character's universe. With her, and with the character of Pamela in earlier seasons and to an extent with Posey's character, the show has demonstrated that it can create women with depth and richness to them, not just one-note basket cases. I hope we see more complex women like them in the future, and I hope we see a lot fewer segments like "Ikea" and "Looking for Liz," which felt tired and repetitive -- and in the case of "Ikea," frankly unpleasant and unfortunately a little too emblematic of how "Louie" often deals with female characters.

An uneven season, perhaps, but one with many high points and not too many low ones. And it was a season that may have pointed the way forward for one of television's most interesting voices. Louis C.K. is someone with a lot of ideas, and his most successful endeavors are the ones in which he gives ample time and space to explore his ruminations. Whoever gives him the cash and the occasional opportunity to engage with those ideas more fully will be doing the world a favor.

Ryan McGee and I talked about "Louie" recently on the Talking TV podcast embedded below (which is also available on iTunes). Many more TV podcasts are available on the Talking TV site.

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