Defying Definition: Louie, Finales, and the Pleasure of the Multitudinal

Defying Definition: Louie Season 2

September 10th, 2011

I haven’t written about Louie all season, which makes me one of the only people who hasn’t done so.

Sometimes when this happens I’ll go into the archives and find vast collections of half-written reviews sitting in my “Drafts” section, like all of those failed attempts to discuss How to Make it In America last summer that never got past “Hey, isn’t that theme song awesome?”

However, there are no half-written drafts for Louie, despite the show pretty easily cementing itself as the best comedy of the summer (and probably the second best drama as well), and in tagging this post I discovered I’ve never written a post specifically about Louie. Admittedly, I fell a few weeks behind at least twice over the course of the season, which made the idea of covering it weekly all but impossible (despite the fact that I actually had screeners for the first four episodes). That being said, I do think that this is symptomatic more than it is causal, as I never really felt a particular need to be “caught up.”

While internet chatter created a great deal of temptation, the fact that episodes piled up on my DVR is not a point of disinterest but rather a lack of motivation. Without any sort of serialized element that could be spoiled, and without any continuity that would convince me to catch up on more than one episode on a time, I sort of developed my own pace, stopping and starting wherever I saw fit. Individual episodes proved more engrossing, but immediately turning on the next episode seemed unnecessary. There were logical stopping points, and so I stopped, often for longer than I had initially intended.

However, I was caught up in time for tonight’s season finale, and I do want to write at least a little bit about the show given that the second season has been pretty tremendous. Specifically, I’m interested in the ways in which the show’s lack of “continuity” creates some particularly interesting questions when it comes to a finale. Within television genres, only sitcoms are really exempt from any form of continuity when it comes to finales, and even they often angle towards ongoing storylines or future developments in a finale in this day and age. Considering the finale raises questions about the generic qualities of the series and the formal debate ongoing regarding its structure, which in turn leads into a comparison of my own and a discussion of comparisons in general, which as a whole represents the collective impact of Louie‘s season and finale: there’s a heck of a lot to talk about.

The distinction I want to make is between continuity of story and continuity of character. A sitcom like Modern Family doesn’t necessarily have continuity in terms of plot, but its archetypal storytelling means that they do have continuity of character, which becomes the point of rumination in a finale. Now, in the case of Modern Family, you’ll note that both of its season finales feature broad thematic storylines that tie all of the characters together, gesturing back to the basic premise and reaffirming the Pritchard family bond. It may not have any real continuity with previous storylines, and could have taken place at any point in the season, but the choice to air it as the final episode emphasized its basic restatement of the show’s main themes.

It reminded me of my time studying short story collections during my Master’s degree, where the function of individual stories was one of our main points of interest. One of the things that I always found intriguing was which story was chosen to be the final one, and what sort of impact that had on our experience of the collection as a whole. While it’s likely that I’ll read a few stories at a time when I read a collection, provided I’m not trying to blast through it at 9pm the day before we’re due to start talking about it at 8:30am, when you read that final story you have “finished,” which creates a very different sensation. It’s a point of forced perspective, a point that authors (or showrunners) are very aware of. While serialized dramas, comedies with serialized elements, and procedurals tend to focus on gesturing towards the future in order to build suspense, a show like Modern Family is more interested in reflecting on the season that was. The Wire would be an exception on the Dramatic side, a show that wanted to reconcile the season that was in order to emphasize the statement being made, and I’m sure there are others; however, in general, this is the trend as I’ve experienced it.

Louie is arguably a comedy, and is classified as one for Emmy purposes, but it’s really a dramatic series about life and comedy which inevitably taps into humor (among other forms) as a storytelling mechanism. And yet, its fundamental lack of traditional continuity means that its finale is in a weird place, and I went into the episode wondering to what degree it would feel like a finale. If this is an anthology show, which I’d ultimately argue that it is, could this episode have been placed at any other point in the season? While it was obviously designed as a finale, and shot as one, would it still be recognizable as an endpoint for the season that was?

What’s funny is that I decided I wanted to write about this question before watching “New Jersey; Airport,” which ended up feeling like a finale in a large number of ways. In fact, one could even argue that there is legitimate plot continuity, with Louie’s unrequited attraction to Pamela reaching a point of bungled resolution in the episode’s closing moments. Heck, you could even find plot continuity in Louie’s failed sexual exploits (whether based on fruit-related purchase failures or spurned advances with Joan Rivers and the Anti-Masturbation Crusader) in relation to his threesome with Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham – that was an odd phrase to write – that leaves him stranded in New Jersey. So long as we redefine “plot continuity” to mean “continuity of plots” as opposed to “continuity of a plot,” this actually felt like a fairly concrete end to the season that was.

When I compare Louie to a Short Story Collection, I’m entering into what is now a large pantheon of comparisons that critics have made in an attempt to conceptualize this generically complex series by comparing it to other genres. However, I want to emphasize that I don’t really think Louie acts like a Short Story Collection, nor do I consider this comparison is an effort to ‘solve’ Louie’s generic malleability (which I think is a critical part of its success). Instead, it reminds me of the ways in which the cohesion of a short story collection is a point of constant debate, the placement of its stories a point of contention for any critic (or student, or reader) to contend with. Terms like the Short Story Cycle and the Short Story Composite are distinct entities introduced by different scholars to conceptualize this potential cohesion, but they’re also vague terms open to interpretation.

I’ll admit to being incredibly wary about these kinds of literary comparisons, to the point where I generally avoid them entirely. However, I make an exception in this case because I think the comparison acknowledges the formal distinctions within the literary form in question. When people off-handedly compare The Wire to a novel, they’re comparing it to a broad generalized idea of the novel as opposed to its various mutations. Alice Munro’s short story composite, Who Do You Think You Are? (or The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose in the U.S., where the Canadian title was considered too philosophical), was actually contracted as a novel (despite manifesting as short stories), and I love this jacket quote from John Gardner that Amazon has listed with the U.S. version:

Whether Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel I’m not quite sure, but whatever it is, it’s wonderful.

With Louie, I think any sort of “cross-media comparison” (to borrow a term that Jason Mittell uses in the post I’m about to discuss) needs to acknowledge that we are still not quite sure what Louie is (as wonderful as it might be), landing on the “I’m not quite sure, but” side of things. Jason’s post on Louie as “Jazz for TV (with fart jokes)” is a perfect example of this, discussing the show’s connection with a genre which through its combination of improvisation and control becomes itself a topic of much debate. Jason locates a number of valuable points of comparison between the two, including an intriguing consideration of cultural hierarchies, but my mind immediately turned to this:

Now, my brain is wired to reference everything to The Simpsons, but I love Cosby’s search for a simile as a parallel for the discussions surrounding Louie. Jason ends his post by suggesting that he plans on classifying Louie as Jazz when discussing its genre in future conversations, but he leaves out the next step where someone in the same conversation – it could even be me! – proposes something else entirely. With this kind of analysis, our goal isn’t definition but rather understanding, developing terms that help us conceptualize and communicate our experience with the text and terms which acknowledge on some level its multitudes. It’s possible that some will adopt the terms other suggest, but it’s just as possible they’ll come up with terms of their own.

I thought the finale captured this kind of beautifully in its second story, as Pamela and Louie have a moment of miscommunication which fundamentally reshapes their understanding of that goodbye. They experience the same event, but they do so from two different perspectives, and they hear two different things: for Louie it offers hope for the future, and for Pamela it offers a sense of closure. The episode as a whole is caught between the past and the future, reflecting on themes and ideas that have been common within the season but also focusing on themes that are equally interested in what happens next (whether it’s Chris Rock questioning what Louie is going to do with his life or Louie and Pamela “moving on” from their friendship).

Putting it at the end of the season has a very explicit effect compared to how it would play in the middle of the season, which reminded me of my experience reading short story collections and probably reminded you of something else entirely. As wary as I sometimes am of comparisons to other forms of media, and as much as I hope that our discussions of Louie remain – like Mittell’s – framed within a televisual context (lest we attempt to elevate beyond the medium entirely), I enjoy the conversation that these comparisons create. It’s a perfect example of how television is defined not only by the text itself but by the way we experience it, and the way that the conversations we share with those around us (both online and, shockingly enough, in person) enrich and contextualize that experience in new and exciting ways.

And after a season of mostly sitting out from that conversation outside of some brief Twitter interactions and a handful of conversations with friends and colleagues, it’s nice to see that the finale has opened the door for an off-season of continued discussion.

Cultural Observations

  • I think “Duckling” will go down as the most singular achievement of the season, but I’m not so sure that it’s the strongest episode of the season. It’s a tough question to answer, really, because there are some episodes with great scenes but which don’t come together as well when considered as an entire episode. “Duckling” benefits from its singular focus and extended running time, and is really great, but I feel like that almost gives it an unfair advantage.
  • I’ve said this before on numerous occasions, but it feels so weird to be finishing the second season of Louie and not being in a state of uncertainty regarding its future. That there’s already a third season is just bizarre, and it makes me hopeful that this becomes a Curb Your Enthusiasm situation where FX will keep airing the show so long as C.K. wants to keep making it. It won’t happen on basic cable as opposed to premium, sadly, but that’s the dream.
  • Curious to see what kind of attention Louie gets from the Emmys next year – I think the show airing this year has made him a legitimate contender in the writing category, and even a dark horse contender in Actor, but does the show have a chance to break through next year? My gut says yes, although it depends on how the new comedies are received and which shows fall out of the race.

1 Comment

Filed under Louie

One response to “Defying Definition: Louie, Finales, and the Pleasure of the Multitudinal

  1. M

    i wonder if louie himself has made any attempts to define the show. might be a good starting point for establishing some sort of framework (although I agree, a framework isn’t totally necessary…or at least, there’s no rush to establish one). i’ve read a few of his interviews, but can’t recall how he describes the show. i’m assuming he would refrain from doing this, but it would be interesting to look back, see what sort of labels, definitions, he has applied.

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