Even though I know comedian Louis C.K.’s unconventional comedy, Louie, and continuity are about as familiar with each other as Avril Lavigne and integrity (take that, Avril!), I was still holding onto some faint hope that maybe the first episode of the season would make at least a passing reference to where it left us a year and a half ago with the tragic, bizarre, and sudden death of Parker Posey’s character Liz, and Louie spending his New Year’s Eve in rural China.
Well, that was stupid of me.
“Back,” of course, has no interest in continuing or touching upon past plots whatsoever. However, that lack of connection with what came before it establishes an overall consistency with the rest of the series. In addition to being disconnected from what came before it, the scenes that make up “Back” are largely unrelated to one another and alternate in tone, resulting in an episode that is surreal, dark, awkward, and hilarious. In other words, it serves as a reasonable encapsulation of what we’ve come to expect from Louie.
There isn’t a lot in the way of plot to grab onto here. In fact, the logline FX provided for this episode is “Louie has a typical day.” And that’s about right. However, a typical day for Louie can consist of some pretty weird shit.
The episode still presents society as an obnoxious, mindless entity, taking the daily annoyances committed by the people around us and ballooning them to absurd levels. One of the best and funniest examples of this is a scene in a café when, in mid-conversation with his friend, comedian Todd Barry, Louie casually pushes away a patron so engrossed with his cell phone that he bumps into Louie’s side and stays stuck there, walking in place, like a glitched-out video game character.
Speaking of Todd Barry, Louie often presents a version of the world in which everyone hates its protagonist and the conversation with Barry is possibly the meanest portion in the episode. I like Barry (his role in Delocated is awesome), but the version of him presented here is more cruel than funny in a way that doesn’t really work for me. He’s supposedly Louie’s friend, but the scene ends with him saying “Your kids suck and you suck at comedy” as Louie just sits and takes the abuse (something he does a lot in this series).
Much better is Tony (John Dinello), the super in Louie’s building, who tries to tell Louie this great joke he’s heard about Pinocchio going down on his girlfriend, but gets the punchline all wrong. It’s a great scene in which Louie having to explain the point of the joke in technical terms (“His nose grows and goes into her vagina”) becomes funnier than the original joke premise. And it continues the show’s brilliant depiction of how annoying it must sometimes be to interact with casual acquaintances when you make a living being funny.
Louie’s kids, the only characters who have been with us from series’ beginning besides Louie himself, turn up in a sequence of scenes that remind how childrearing is inordinately frustrating, but punctuated with sweet moments that make it seem worthwhile. Another inkling of consistency comes from the scenes of Louie doing stand-up that bridge the others together. The show wouldn’t be what it is without these, but the material this time around isn’t too great. It’s focused entirely on the subject of age. Louie talks about how getting old feels and how younger people who think they’re old aren’t really old at all. It’s fine, but it does feel, well, a bit like an old man ranting about getting old.
The episode also revisits one of the show’s iconic scenes, as Louie sits down for another conversation with several other comedians around a poker table. It’s not as poignant or as engrossing as the lengthy discussion of homophobia and gay culture from the show’s first season, but it’s not trying to be. It’s just a frank discussion of masturbation habits. But it’s pretty funny and bizarre as it climaxes with Jim Norton explaining how just knowing that he has a big, black dildo sitting in his desk drawer makes him come really hard.
The episode spends a decent bit of time on its final sequence with Louie hurting his back and visiting a doctor who happens to live in his apartment building. The moment he hurts his back and a frail old woman helps out by hailing a cab is another prefect representation of the show’s worldview, demonstrating that there is goodness in the world from places you don’t expect, but that it invariably has to come from someone who is already dealing with enough of her own hardships.
The scene with the doctor (played by Charles Grodin, who I didn’t recognize at first) is veritably Kafkaesque and is a good way for the episode to go out. The doctor at first seems like a jerk, eating his lunch in front of Louie and having no interest in examining his back problem, but, as the scene progresses, he evolves into coming off like just another person in this tragic world, resigned to the unfortunate truths (if they are indeed truths) that he’s arrived at over the course of his career. Louie’s back hurts, he explains, because humans use their spines incorrectly—vertically, when they should be horizontal. “Accept the fact that your back is going to hurt sometimes,” he says. “Be very grateful for the moments that it doesn’t.” It’s sad, it’s frustrating, it’s funny, and it sounds pretty accurate.
This review may have come off a bit scattered, but then so did the episode. It throws out concepts and tones, abandoning them as soon as Louis C.K. has gotten bored with them. It brings back the few familiarities, like Louie’s kids and his stand-up in the Comedy Cellar and even revisits one of the show’s most celebrated scenes. It doesn’t surprise with anything too unexpected and it doesn’t reach the heights of comedy and/or tragedy that its best episodes have achieved, but “Back” functions as a solid refresher on Louie’s world and the sort of thing that happens in it.
It’s nice of him to bring us back.