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Louis C.K. Cedes the Spotlight But Keeps Control in "So Did the Fat Lady"

Television
by Sam Adams
May 13, 2014 12:05 PM
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Louie C.K. and Sarah Baker in "So Did the Fat Lady"
Louie C.K. and Sarah Baker in "So Did the Fat Lady"

Overweight women don't often get to take center stage, unless, as the title of "Louie's" "So Did the Fat Lady" implies, it's as a circus act, or a punchline. But the episode, which finds Louis C.K.'s tubby comedian uncomfortably rebuffing romantic overtures from Sarah Baker's zaftig waitress, ends with an extraordinary seven-and-a-half minute shot in which the show's nominal star cedes the screen, and the point of view, to his guest star. ("Elevator Part 1," the first of a six-episode arc, also aired last night, but you'd scarcely know it from the reviews.)

Given how controlled "Louie" (if not its titular protagonist) normally is, it's a startling departure, and it's meant to be, the equivalent of a standup comedian stopping mid-set and handing the microphone to someone in the audience -- the difference being that in this case, the audience member is reading from the comedian's script. This single take ought to command as much attention on its own as "True Detective's" much showier version, but in this instance substance has clearly trumped style.

Baker's monologue centers on the experience of being a "fat girl" -- a phrase she repeats so often it takes on almost totemic significance -- and the single-take approach lends it the appearance of stylistic transparency, so it's perhaps not surprising that a number of morning-after pieces focus on its accuracy. At Vulture, recapper Danielle Henderson wrote a separate essay on "What Tonight's 'Louie' Gets Right and Wrong About Weight and Women" while a Slate headline informs us: "Louie Has No Idea What It's Like to Be a 'Fat Girl'." 

Willa Paskin's Slate review is fortunately more complicated than its clickbaiting case-closed headline would suggest, but it does eventually boil down to the question, "How representative of overweight women is she?" Paskin's answer, she says, shifted after she talked to Baker: "The first time I watched the episode, I read Vanessa's entire speech about the difficulty of being a fat girl as a female cri de coeur. The second time I watched it, after interviewing Baker and learning that she had nothing to do with the script, it seemed more like a male mea culpa."

C.K. is famously controlling with his show, so I'm not sure why it should come as a game-changing surprise to learn that Baker didn't help write the dialogue, nor does that obviate the possibility C.K. could have researched it in other ways. (C.K. has graciously stayed out of the post-episode spotlight, and Baker came on board after the episode was written.) Baker herself resists the idea that the episode is primarily about weight, as she told the Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan, recalling a conversation with C.K.'s producer and sometime co-writer Pamela Adlon (female, non-fat):

She said this particular story is about weight, but there’s a lot of different reasons why women and men can feel invisible, especially when it comes to dating. She was saying, maybe it’s weight, maybe you think you’re too old, maybe you think, you know, "I'm a single parent. Nobody's going to want to date me." Or "I'm not educated. I'm not good-looking enough," whatever it is. There's a million different things. This is just one of them.

Nonetheless, "male mea culpa" seems about right, and you can even scratch the "male," since Louis C.K. isn't arrogant enough to apologize on behalf of anyone but himself. As James Poniewozik writes in Time , "So Did the Fat Lady" embodies the oft-heard mantra "Check your privilege," which includes a willingness to fall on what C.K. would no doubt describe as his fat, stupid face:

What he's not doing is taking "check your privilege" as an excuse to recuse himself, to say, "Not my topic, I'll just sit over here and tune out." Is he getting it right, or wrong? You tell me; you tell him. But I'd rather have a culture where someone like Louis C.K. is checking in than checking out.

In her Vulture recap, Henderson says the episode made her "uncomfortable because I’m not sure if C.K. is using this monologue to reveal something about himself, or if he’s actually trying to get inside the heads of fat women and take a stand on our behalf.... This didn’t feel like a joke -- it felt like a plea, a plea I’m not sure he’s qualified to make." And it does feel that way at first: Here's a self-described "fat girl," explicitly using Louie as a stand-in for all men, schooling him on they think (and it does definitely come across as a "they," rather than a "we.") But it's important to think of that shot/scene/speech in the context of the episode as well as that of "Louie" as a whole, especially when it comes to the glib resolution where Baker's character tells Louie all she wants is for a nice guy to hold her hand, and he obliges as they walk off into the distance.

"On first viewing," writes Libby Hill in an essay at the A.V. Club, "the ending is pat, almost condescending. Louie takes Vanessa’s hand not because he believes in what she’s saying but because he needs the conversation, with all its reminders of how awful the world is for fat women, to end.... Louie would hold hands if it meant things didn’t have to be awkward anymore. Louie would probably throw himself in front of a bus if it meant things didn’t have to be awkward anymore."

In the A.V. Club's review (a lot of double-dipping on this one), Erik Adams observes that so much of this season of "Louie" has taken on an absurdist cast that it's hard to know what's meant to be real and what's not. The monologue at the end of "So Did the Fat Lady" is the least stylized moment in the season so far, which makes it feel at once like a moment of truth and at odds with the show it inhabits. Is that a deliberate disjuncture? Or is it a stab at a moment of simple human communion on a show where "nice" feels like a dirty word?

Although I've put off the comparison in order to consider "So Did the Fat Lady" on its own merits, there's no doubt the episode is a companion piece to last week's "Model," which centered on Louie's seduction by Yvonne Strahovski's knockout blonde, and not only in terms of their obviously mirrored plots. In "Model," Louie's oafishness was comic; Strahovski glides into the kitchen of her beachfront house after a midnight swim in her underwear; Louie follows and slips on the wet tile. In "So Did the Fat Lady," it's grotesque: He and his even fatter brother act out a stomach-turning ritual called a "bang bang" where they have full meals at two different restaurants in rapid succession. Although "So Does the Fat Lady" begins with C.K. on stage at the Comedy Cellar, it's Baker who gets the vast majority of the jokes, apart from the hackneyed shaggy-dog story with which he closes the episode. She's confident and charismatic while he's awkward and repulsive: If you had to pick one of these two characters for a career in the performing arts, you'd go with hers in a heartbeat. Baker, who says she's often asked to play "a fat woman with cats who has no boyfriends," was just replaced in a CBS pilot yesterday, but if there's any justice in the world -- or if anyone in Hollywood has a brain in their heads -- her voicemail should be filling up with offers, and not to play cat-loving spinsters.

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