Quacking Up: Louis CK as Literary Metaphor on 'Louie'

Louis CK on ‘Louie’/Image © FX

After a self-imposed (and well-deserved) extended hiatus, Louis C.K. brings his acclaimed television series back to FX on May 5. Now in its fourth season, "Louie" is, broadly speaking, a fictionalized version of the comedian's life as a divorced, forty-something father in New York City. More of a collection of short films than a traditional half-hour sitcom episode, the show balances writer-director-sometimes editor C.K.'s high art impulses with profane and pointed humor and unexpected emotional depths. It's one of the most interesting, innovative, and unquantifiable projects on television -- and perhaps the most devastatingly human, too.

In its powerhouse third season, "Louie" further developed some of the thematic and plot ideas from the previous two: his character's relationship with his young daughters, Lilly and Jane (the refreshingly natural Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker), and ex-wife (Susan Kelechi Watson); his awkward dates; and his underlying and pervasive dissatisfaction. Over thirteen episodes, C.K. compellingly portrayed loneliness and frustration, expanding on Louie's need for human connection and desire for something better, even if he can't identify what that better thing might be.

This performance hinged on two terrific serialized narrative arcs -- something relatively new to the series -- that unified the third season. [Warning: Spoilers ahead if you're not caught up!] As the title suggests, the two-episode "Daddy's Girlfriend" expands on earlier plots about Louie's concern for his children (a mutual one, as it turns out) and his attempts to reach out to others, resulting in a date with Liz (Parker Posey), a bookstore clerk who suggests books for Lilly. As with many of the show's characters, Liz isn't what she seems, swinging between highs and lows throughout the evening. We only glimpse Liz in subsequent episodes, but her darkness haunts Louie and the back half of the season: death, an STD, a falling-out with a friend, estrangement from his father, Lilly's sadness, and, climactically, professional self-doubt.

The three-part "Late Show" finds Louie up for the retiring David Letterman's job, almost two years before the real host announced his departure. In a storyline that addresses the character's stagnancy and fear of failure, Louie prepares for a test run with the mysterious Jack Dall (David Lynch, who C.K. shoots with appropriately Lynchian style), his reluctance to pursue the opportunity eventually turning into a hopeful determination that's quickly snuffed out when he doesn't get the job.

All these narrative threads culminate in "New Year's Eve," the season's poignant finale, inspired by the classic 1933 children's book The Story About Ping. While it -- a Christmas gift to Jane -- may seem like an unlikely source for an episode of television, its story and themes parallel those of the third season. (It's also a callback to "Duckling," a second season episode.) The tale of a duck who lives with his extended family on a boat and his adventures on the Yangtze River after he doesn't return home one evening, Ping is a book about connection, opportunity, and experience, showing how we can leave home to test the waters while having the comfort of knowing we'll still be accepted back, loved and missed, even after we make mistakes.

Louie's trajectory, particularly the "Late Night" arc, is a longer, bleaker version of Ping's; his daughters' steadfast support empowers him in his quest for a girlfriend or a big job. At the start of "New Year's Eve," Louie's depression over the "Late Show" job pervades the episode; after Christmas morning with his daughters (cut with hilarious flashbacks of him preparing their gifts), he's left alone -- "all alone," as his sister (Amy Poehler) says -- for the rest of the holiday period, sleeping or barely conscious, until he decides to go to China. Whether Louie merely dreams or actually takes this trip has been debated, due to C.K.'s narrative and visual surrealism leading up to these scenes, but the scenes in Beijing, as Louie attempts to find the Yangtze River despite being nowhere near it, offer an optimistic coda to the season. Joining a local family for a meal -- an important part of Chinese life -- he becomes immediately part of their household, despite the language barrier. To the strains of their laughter and "Auld Lang Syne," the camera pulls away from the house with its now-closed door and pans upward for an idyllic shot of the Chinese countryside, bathed in natural golden light -- an ending that feels, at last, like a celebration and a release. Louie, like Ping, is home again.