NEW YORK — Early in the new season of Louie, which returns this week, Louie (Louis C.K.) is stopped by a neighbor who wants to regale him with a sex joke about Pinocchio.
Louie doesn’t want to hear it; he’s heard it before, and it wasn’t funny the first time. But the neighbor insists. He botches the punch line, and starts hysterically laughing anyway.
This is the plight of the straightforward joke on Louie: unwanted, misshapen, not funny. Louie is ostensibly a comedy, made by a great comedian, featuring bits of stand-up and regular appearance by other professionally funny people, and yet it is so not bothered with making its audience laugh.
Comedians know better than anyone that laughter can’t drown out any other aspect of life — that an existence filled with jokes is also filled with every other kind of unsavory, unsatisfying human feeling. (Comedians also know that’s the stuff that feeds the really good jokes anyway.)
In the new fourth season — a trailer for which had Louie jumping off the Brooklyn bridge — Louie gets right back to riffing on loneliness, sadness, shame, fear, powerlessness and, yes, the sweetness and surprise of being human.
The first four episodes of the new season contain all the Louie hallmarks: surreal vignettes, celebrity cameos (Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Ellen Burstyn), and a number of painfully incisive bits about parenting. But the most lively theme is Louie’s relationship to women, and the limits of his kinship to them.
The correct punch line of that aforementioned Pinocchio joke is a woman yelling at a delicately occupied Pinocchio, “Lie to me, lie to me!” Its selection can’t be a coincidence: the ways Louie lies, to others and to himself, when it comes to sex threads through the early part of the season.
In the second episode, Louie is invited to perform at a very swanky fundraiser in the Hamptons, where he absolutely bombs. (He ends up ad-libbing, “You all have slaves.”)
He still attracts the attention of an extremely beautiful woman (Yvonne Strahovski, currently appearing on the new season of 24). Their encounter plays like a fantasy, maybe even a dream. “I love your hair,” she says to Louie as they drive down a beach road in a convertible with the top down, and you begin to doubt the reliability of the narration. Things continue swimmingly, until suddenly, they go extremely wrong.
The unhappy result is made less unhappy because for his troubles, Louie finally gets sympathy-attention from a very cute waitress who has been ignoring him all episode long.
The next episode tackles almost the inverse plot: what if, instead of Louie pulling a woman entirely out of his league, he is pulled by a woman who’s a perfect match? Louis is shamelessly, charmingly hit on by a cool, funny waitress named Vanessa (Go On’s Sarah Baker, in a great, out-of-nowhere performance) whom he turns down, because she is fat.
As is often the case in Louie, Louis C.K. gets some traction out of flipping gender norms: Vanessa is the aggressor, she negs Louie (she hates comedy), she charms Louie, she woos Louie. Louie becomes like all the women who usually say no to him: trying to be nice, but just not feeling it.
But Vanessa’s persistence finally wins out and he agrees to go on a date with her. They have a great time, right up until the moment that, trying to be nice, he tells her she’s not fat.
She takes extreme issue with that. Louie’s being dishonest she points out; he’s pious and falsely comforting. Vanessa calls Louie out for refusing to date a woman like her for fear people will think they are in the same league, even though, of course, they are in the same league. (Louie has spent a part of this episode ritually eating two huge meals, back to back, with a friend.)
She also calls Louie out for trying to stifle her feelings, even if it’s out of supposed kindness: “You can talk into the microphone and say you can’t get a date, you’re overweight — you’re adorable. If I say it, they call the suicide hotline on me.”
I can’t be sure, but I suspect One Man’s Trash, the infamous episode of Girls in which Hannah Horvath nested with Patrick Wilson for a weekend, hangs over both of these episodes. The first is structurally similar: Louie has a dreamy interaction with a gorgeous member of the opposite sex.
It’s likely, however, this episode of Louie will not elicit the same “that’s implausible” response Girls did, a double standard that is one of Vanessa’s points. As in the great, maybe-date-rape episode of Louie from last season with Melissa Leo, Louis C.K. observes that men and women share so many emotions and experiences, but are seen so differently. Louie and Vanessa are similar, but only one of them is “adorable.”
Vanessa takes Louie by surprise, and she is not the season’s only wild card. The deep unknowability of other people (even your own children) is a recurring Louie theme — and also one of the supreme pleasures of watching the show.
There’s nothing programmatic about Louie, which idiosyncratically, unevenly explores C.K.’s ideas and instincts without trying to advance an argument. It’s not a joke you’ve heard before. It’s a great shaggy dog story.
Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com