By Isaac Butler
One of the oddest aspects of the TV show Louie is the way that a certain kind of narrative sloppiness has reached feature-not-bug pervasivenes within the show. The first season of Louie spends a great deal of energy making sure we know Louie only has one sibling, his brother. By midway through the second season, he has two sisters. When one of them drops off her daughter for the weekend, Louie, the daughter and the brother hang out, only the brother appears to no longer be his brother, despite being played by the same actor. Louie crashes a motorcycle at the beginning of season three only to drive it in the second episode. There's a whole disappearing-reappearing jacket thing in the episode where Louie wants to buy a house.
(I do not include on this list that Louie's ex-wife is black. Simply put, I know interracial couples whose children have pale white skin and blonde hair. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.)
Patton Oswalt has penned for Slate a stirring defense that I find almost-- but not quite-- convincing:
Louie has not foregone narrative logic; he’s embraced illogic. I’ve known Louis C.K. since 1990 and, like all great comedians and even greater story-tellers, he’s sloppy with the details. And he’s got a filmmaker’s innate sense of visuals over logic. Over and over again, both onstage and in one-on-one conversations, he swears his shaky allegiance to the factual, chronological nuts-and-bolts of the recounting of a story, or even the remembering of a life. There he is in this episode, on the motorcycle from the season premiere—the one he crashed into a truck—which he absolutely should not be riding. Then there was the episode last season where he was checking out the new apartment and his jacket disappeared and reappeared moment to moment. He’s jettisoned daily order for a larger, emotional truth. I know that sounds cheesy, and very new-agey, but it’s an old-fashioned notion, one Louis refuses to let die. Robinson Crusoe strips down naked, swims out to his shipwrecked boat, and then fills his pockets with goods. Ray Davies is purposely oblique about being “glad [he’s] a man / and so is Lola …” Ozu’s domestic interiors have zero spatial congruity from shot to shot. But we recognize the great, human storytelling, and feeling of trust and confessional, in all great works and, guess what,Louie is a sloppy, illogical, great piece of work.
This paragraph actually attempts-- with less success- what Louie is doing, which is to say use panache and ability to jump over some serious holes. Robinson Crusoe doesn't conform to our ideas of what a novel should do because those ideas hadn't been invented yet. Much of the book is actually an achingly dull religious tract, and the same events are revisited multiple times in different narrative modes with key details changed or elided. Lola's deliberate entenre-laden ambiguity is completely irrelevant to what the show Louie is about. Louie doesn't use narrative ambiguitiy to any productive end. If Lola contained a verse about meeting the titular character in a bar and then a later verse that said that actually they met five years later in an ashram, it would be a little closer to what the show is doing. I'm also not totally sure that the spatial incongruity of Ozu's films is relevant here, but I'll have to leave that to someone who knows Ozu's films better than I do.
Anyway, what I am convinced by is that clearly the narrative illogic of Louie doesn't matter. It doesn't matter to me or impact my enjoyment of the show, and it clearly doesn't matter to critics or audiences. What I'd like to figure out is why it doesn't matter. Pretty much any other mainstream narrative work that was this sloppy on basic issues of narrative detail would get slaughtered by critics. In fact The Killing regularly got mocked for having moments that seemed narratively inconsistent or illogical (for ex: a scene where Linden uses a fake name in front of someone and then answers a phone within earshot with her real name).
I think it's a mixture of three-and-a-half things. One of them is affect related. Louis CK is just a really likeable guy and an oddly charismatic screen presense. Simply put, he is so fucking charming even in his self-lacerating misanthropy, that you root for him, and this rooting for him transfers onto the show. You want to cut the show a lot of slack as a result simply because you like him and by extension it. Second is a more transactional operation. The rewards of following the show down the paths that CK carves out outweigh whatever the problems are with the show. There's a fear-- a fear I share-- that a more "well crafted" show would lose the vitality and originality of CK's voice. So it gets a pass on this stuff, a not dissimilar pass to the one that Kevin Smith got until it became absolutely clear that he actually just isn't very good once you get beyond the bracing piety-destruction of his foul, foul mouth.
Third-- and I think this is most important for those of us who create-- the show creates a frame that makes this illogic a non-issue. Louie as a narrative project constantly changes all sorts of rules on you. Sometimes it starts with standup. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it ends with it. Sometimes there's no standup in an episode at all. Sometimes it begins with its credits, sometimes it doesn't. As story might take multiple episodes to complete, or five minutes. The show changes to fit the needs of each individual story, whatever they are.
These kinds of change-ups regularly happen in literature, sometimes happen in film and very rarely happen in television (think, for example, of what a big deal the Three Trips episode of Mad Men was... it was a big deal because it was rare). Within the lower-rated end of TV comedy, this kind of rule-shifting is happening more frequently, But still, even within that, very rarely do the actual given facts of a show change. Community might vary wildly in terms of style from episode to episode, but the show wouldn't abruptly make Jeff's father a regular and well-adjusted presense in his life.
Finally (this is the half thing) it's also worth thinking about which details are allowed to change. They turn out to be the details that don't matter that much. I mean, if Louie suddenly had three kids (or none!) that'd be a very strange shift that most people wouldn't accept. But the given rules of the world: Louie is single and divorced. He has two kids. He is a stand up comic. he has frought relationships with the rest of his family. He has friends who are other professional stand up comics. These stay consistent.
UPDATE: Over on twitter, Jason Zinoman writes in to say a few words about how the illogic helps on top of the ways it doesn't detract. He says that the narrative illogic "underlines the fact that Louie is from one subjective flawed POV to an extreme much more so than Girls or Curb Your Enthusiasm," that narrative illogic supports C.K.'s surreal brand of humor that traces back to his earlier, less-autobiographical material, and that the illogic "often serves as a jolting surprise... [which is] essential to comedy. But also to his brand of genre blurring [and his] worldview." Jason also adds that it's dangerous to give CK a lifetime "free pass" on this stuff, as it could easily slip into indulgence. "How many play debates end with `but it's abstract'". I think that all makes a lot of sense.