“A la Carte” is a much more interesting episode than the season five premiere. It might not seem radically different from Louie of the past and—with its three disconnected tales, its focus on awkward conversations, and a couple of dips into the surreal—perhaps it’s not all that different. But, in the context of the series as a whole, “A la Carte” introduces a subtle shift for the fifth season.
This is mainly evidenced by how it progresses Louie’s relationship with Pamela (Pamela Adlon). I’m really happy to see Pamela back again already, since the premiere worried me by leaving her out completely. Aside from Louie’s kids, Pamela’s been the only character you could really call “recurring” throughout the entirety of the series. Previously, however, Pamela dropped in and out kind of at random, but this episode makes evident that she is an ongoing, important aspect of Louie’s life.
On the other hand, there are two other, unrelated story bits in “A la Carte.” The cold open concerns a dire situation when Louie, out food shopping with his daughters, is suddenly stricken with the urgent need to take a shit. Following that, we get another brief tale in which Louie is forced into the uncomfortable positon of coming up with constructive criticism for a hopeless fledgling comedian.
The Pamela plot dominates the episode, but this other stuff is great too. The thrilling need-to-poop sequence contains a number of brilliant moments, like when Louie’s daughter Jane attempts to enlist a police officer to help her dad. “I can’t help you,” says the cop matter-of-factly. There’s also when a store clerk calls Louie’s kid a “little white bitch” and you hope Louie will come to her defense, but instead he just ushers them out of the store, leaving the moment to hang there as a sad, unresolved little injustice. Best is the culmination of the scene with Louie’s pooping of his pants paralleling the clichéd “go on without me!” scenes from countless action and war films.
The scenes with the new comedian, Bart Folding (played by real-life comedian, Nate Fernald) are awesome too. The open mic Louie gets pressured into running captures the depressing, awkward environment of a real open mic (also, hey look!, it’s Stephen Wright!). I love too that the only advice Louie can ultimately think to give Bart is to try talking in a funny voice.
The Pamela scenes are long and the majority of the episode is devoted to a dinner conversation. If you’d never seen this show before, you might wonder why the hell you’re supposed to care about these two people talking so much. But for longtime fans of the show, the bizarre courtship of Pamela has been a key story lurking behind the entire series’ timeline. Honestly, I was worried with what the show would do with Pamela following her and Louie finally getting together at the end of season four. How do you add on meaningfully to “and they lived happily ever after?”
Obviously I’m a big dummy because this stuff is fucking great. Louie has been through a divorce (both in real life and on the show) so it only follows that he would explore the premise of, after pining after and pursuing your dream partner for so long, what it actually looks like when you finally get that person. And what Pamela and Louie have isn’t as “ever after” as it’s cracked up to be. Pamela feels like they should keep this pseudo-fuck-buddy relationship at its current stage; they’ve both been through divorces and they know where this road leads if they follow it to its conventional end. Borderline abusive weirdo though she is, Pamela also often comes off as the voice of rationality, something she again manages here. (I do feel the need to note the oddity that Louie’s the one pushing for exclusive dating, but he also had sex with someone else just an episode ago. Hmm.)
On top of all this, “A la Carte” squeezes in another of the show’s defining characteristics with a few brief flights of unreality. There’s the bit where a waiter starts grating cheese over a well-endowed woman’s bosom (Louie’s double-take reinforces the notion that there’s a chance this is not just in his head, but could actually be happening). There’s also the fourth-wall-tickling moment (that almost seems mocking of the two-part flashback episode in season four) when Louie begins to tell a story from his childhood but Pamela stops him short. It’s hilarious that CK assembled an entire classroom set and a bunch of actors and extras for a shot that only lasts several seconds.
Finally, there’s the payoff at the end that, in no time at all, Bart Folding, following Louie’s advice of using a funny voice in his act, has already become a national phenomenon and is performing on The Tonight Show. He’s still doing the same routine about his mother beating him, but now he’s delivering it in a high, nasally register. It does a good job of playing with the idea of just how elusive the concept of comedy is. Furthermore, in the past I’ve claimed that, though the unpredictably of Louie is what makes the show, it loses the payoff of a more conventional, narratively cohesive production. However, this episode achieves a happy medium by telling three disparate stories and then throwing in a funny, unexpected payoff to one of them.
Altogether, “A la Carte” reinforces that Louie is going to continue to tackle whatever it fancies and will still chuck the occasional absurdist non-sequitur at you, but it’s also not forgotten the sense of continuity that defined season four. It feels like a marriage of both versions of the show thus far and I love the way it’s shaping up.