Once Louie premiered on FX in the summer of 2010, Louis C.K. was elevated from the being a comic’s comic to one of the most influential voices in comedy. His self-distribution models for his stand-up specials have been picked up by plenty of other comedians, and it seems that more and more comedians are given a chance to present an exaggerated portrait of themselves on television. Following the conclusion of the third season, while riding a wave of critical and profession success, Louie would take a year off before returning for its fourth season. Though the show remained superior to practically every other show on television, it was much more somber in tone. But the season was weighed down by three multi-episode story arcs, especially that two of them were intently focused on relationships. It’s not a coincidence that the best episodes of the fourth season were standalone episodes. I still don’t want to say that the fourth season of Louie was a decline in quality, more a shift in tone. For the season premiere of its fifth season, Louie has shifted back to a much more comedic tone in the hilarious and uncomfortable Potluck.
The episode opens with a 2-minute stand-up bit from Louis about the origins and mysteries of the cosmos. Of course, there’s a punchline that may offend, but it is one hell of a punchline. When we next see Louis, he’s in the office of his therapist, his appearance disheveled, expressing his deepest feeling of self-doubt. Upon noticing the therapist slowly drifting to sleep, Louis has a realization – he’s a “boring asshole.” Attempting to break out of his doldrums, Louis reaches out to the host of a PTA potluck, Marina (Judy Gold), who isn’t exactly welcoming to Louis’ self-invitation. After a bit of difficulty finding the right potluck, Louis finds himself at Marina’s place and quickly finding himself the object of her scorn. As she explains the situation with the surrogate mother she’s employed, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, Louis tries to join the conversation only to be pushed aside. There’s much more going on here, but I won’t dare divulge any details – that would be criminal. Needless to say, it just works.
In this first episode, Louie has already taken a lighter tone than anything in the fourth season. I laughed more frequently and harder than I did during one episode of the last season, which I must emphasize I did enjoy just not as much as previous seasons. With the character of Marina, Louis C.K. is lampooning the worst kind of so-called educated liberal, completely rejecting modern medicine, including vaccines, in favor of something that is entirely natural. This extends to the birth that the surrogate must give completely free of medications. Unlike the fourth season where this situation might be handled in a much more dramatic light, Potluck has situations that build like a joke with a set-up and a punchline. And like the stand-up that opens the episode, the punchline might offend a few, but damn if it doesn’t work.
It’s hard to fault Louis C.K. for using his expanded platform to explore more serious issues, but it’s hard to explore serious issues while still being funny. I think much of the fourth season of Louie kind of proves that. It’s always interesting work even if it isn’t as consistently hilarious as before. As a season premiere, Potluck shows that Louie isn’t shying away from commentary, it’s just more focused on being funny first and foremost. Of course, this is just one episode and the tone can vary wildly between episodes – which is one of the greatest virtues about Louie – yet everything within this episode is emphasizing the humorous elements, accentuated by having the episode bookended with bits of stand-up. At its best, Louie is a show that can encapsulate the styles of Woody Allen and Jean Luc Goddard. Though Potluck may not be Louie working at its absolute zenith, it’s still a rousing start to the season.