With apologies, it's been a little while since we checked in in "Louie" -- we were partly interrupted by festival-related travels and because the show took last week off, presumably because it would have clashed with Barack Obama's speech at the DNC. Or the VMAs. Happily, over the past weeks, Louis C.K.'s been unfurling his most expansive story yet, a three-part tale that last night's episode marked the middle act of, in what seems to be building into something resembling the first "Louie" feature-length movie.
Although that's not quite true -- as with this season's earlier two-parter, "Daddy's Girlfriend," the episodes stand on their own. The first part of "Late Show" opened (after one of the finest bits of stand-up of the season, involving the questionable writers of Amazon reviews...) with Louie booked on "The Tonight Show," only to see him become the main guest when Tom Cruise bails. By all accounts, he kills it -- though C.K. cannily doesn't show the set itself -- and he's called in for a meeting, along with baby-faced agent Doug, with the president of rival network CBS played by director Garry Marshall, in a terrific cameo.
Marshall tells him that David Letterman is set to retire, and asks if he'd be interested in the job -- although it emerges that the approach is more about using him as a bargaining chip against Jerry Seinfeld, who the network really wants. Still, Louie has a real shot, and we're left at the end of the first episode waiting to hear Louie's answer, but pretty sure, after Marshall's nerve-exposing, almost musical monologue about how Louie likely peaked years ago, that he'll take the chance.
It's a pretty good set-up that starts to pay off handsomely in "Late Show Pt. 2" this week. The episode opened with Louie having lunch with his ex-wife, and telling her about the offer and his misgivings at a potential West Coast move that would result in seeing his kids less. But she tells him to chase the gig, saying it's more important for his kids to have a successful role model than to have him around three days a week. And so, he launches into a training regime, reluctantly jogging through the streets and heading off to see Jack Dall, a mysterious figure who the network chairman has said will help get Louie ready for his test show.
And in the show's greatest casting coup to date, Jack Dall is played by cinema's finest auteur of the weird, David Lynch. The quiff-haired filmmaker isn't a total stranger to TV comedy (he's voiced a semi-regular character on "The Cleveland Show" for some reason), but this is the most substantial role he's taken in front of camera since "Twin Peaks" two decades ago, and the dichotomy of Lynch playing a sort of '50s throwback light entertainment guru is an amazing one, and both Lynch and C.K. are careful not to overplay the weird -- things are just a little off-kilter, but there's no talking dwarves or anything.
In the midst of his training, which Louie isn't exactly acing, he gets a call from Jay Leno, who's heard the rumors that he might have a new competitor. Leno (a fairly impressive little performance akin to last season's Dane Cook appearance) tells him that if Louie takes the gig, he threatens his credibility, saying it's hard to be 'hip' for fourteen minutes of material a night. But as Louie's pal Chris Rock says, it may be that Leno's simply trying to defend his own position. Although after Louie's visit to, and ass-kicking at, a boxing gym (run by Isaiah Whitlock Jr. -- Clay Davis from "The Wire"), he discovers that Rock had his own motivations -- he seems to be chasing the same gig, and may have screwed over Louie to do so.
There's always been a degree of inside baseball to "Louie," but the last couple of episodes have gone inside baseball to an almost "Larry Sanders" degree -- it's hard not to draw comparisons with that classic sitcom given the plotline (it seems particularly reminiscent of the early episode, where Dana Carvey fills in for Larry). But C.K.'s careful to include the usual absurdity, surreal touches and grounded snippets of family life, and the three-parter is shaping up to be one of the richer entries of the season, although it's hard to judge entirely until next week's conclusion.
Indeed, it sort of helps to reinforce something that we've been feeling for a while -- it can only be a matter of time before C.K. returns to feature directing, a long-held ambition, and pulls off something spectacular. Indeed, his appearance in Woody Allen's next film almost seems to serve as a sort of passing of the torch -- and we hope that some canny financier steps up and gives C.K. the same kind of one-movie-a-year, full-creative-control approach that his idol has enjoyed for decades. But for now, we hope that "Louie" remains as consistently strong as it's been throughout the season.
"Late Show" Pt. 1 [B]
"Late Show" Pt. 2 [A-]
Bits & Pieces
- We did have some slight formal issues with the first part, which started off with an almost documentary-like visual grammar, complete with on-screen captions, only to drop the conceit -- an unusually sloppy choice for C.K.
- Although TIna Fey did the same gag first on "30 Rock," we'd be lying if we said that the reaction shots of young agent Doug didn't improve evey episode a little.
- Will we finally see Letterman and/or Seinfeld crop up in the closing part? It certainly seems to be building to that, but we wouldn't put it past Louie to zig when we expect him to zag.
- Having said that, C.K. mostly stayed away from overtly homaging his guest star, and the coda, with C.K. and a receptionist swapping places and personalities, was classic Lynch stuff.
- Impressive restraint shown by C.K. in not throwing a "Shiiiiiit" in there for Isaiah Whitlock Jr. Maybe in the closing part.