At this point, it seems like Louis C.K.'s career is one ambitious study in seeing just how far he can push boundaries.
Take a look at how he navigated around excessive Ticketmaster fees during his last comedy tour and sold tickets directly through his website. Or the way he throws out his standup material every year and starts from scratch. Or how his comedy gets audiences out of their comfort zones with a nothing-is-off-limits philosophy that's not afraid to go there.
One of C.K.'s greatest accomplishments in this regard is his television show, Louie, a half-hour FX series that returns May 5 for a fourth season after 19 months off the air. The show follows a middle-aged standup comedian named Louie around New York City, and the descriptors stop there, because Louie isn't just a comedy, or a drama, or a series of standup vignettes, or a meditation on fatherhood, or a study in absurdism, or a possible autobiography.
It's all of those things. And, more than that, it's anything C.K. wants it to be.
C.K. — who writes, directs, produces and stars in every episode of the show — has always treated television conventions as things to throw out the window. He's too busy introducing viewers to ideas and techniques beyond the typical TV tropes, pushing them to embrace more than just what they're comfortable with.
Early episodes of Louie weren't continuous 30-minute episodes, but separate shorts put together to form a half-hour. Most episodes are intercut with C.K. performing standup that has nothing to do with the plot. There's little to no continuity in the series; the mother of Louie's children and even his sisters have been played by different actors.
Yet it all hangs together as part of C.K.'s unique vision. And, after seeing the first four episodes of this new season, it's clear that Louie is still one of the most challenging, humane, hilarious things in any medium.
Maybe the best thing I can say about the show in its fourth season is that it's still, somehow, continuously surprising. There are familiar scenarios (the first episode brings back a group poker game with fellow comedians like Sarah Silverman and Nick DiPaolo), but the beats in these four episodes are consistently unpredictable. In true Louie fashion, many of the plots aren't even resolved. It can be frustrating that a development in episode 2 is ditched in episode 3, but it also opens up the show to anything, heightening the spontaneity. In that sense, Louie defies the silly plot-guessing game that plagues too many shows these days. What's going to happen next? With Louie, it's exciting to not know.
Louie has always been rather dreamlike, with a great sense of "Did that really happen?" permeating every scene. One sequence in the May 5 premiere is a perfect example of the show's ability to seamlessly work these moments into the narrative. It's obviously not happening, but it's a clever way to express what Louie is feeling.
Every episode has standout moments. The second (also on May 5) features a highly entertaining cameo from Jerry Seinfeld as an aggrieved version of himself, and Victor Garber, Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck) and Ellen Burstyn stop by later on.
But I can't stop thinking about episode three, in which Louie fends off the advances of a heavy-set waitress at a comedy club before ending up on a date with her. What results is a powerfully honest monologue about body image, written by C.K. and delivered beautifully by Sarah Baker, an actor who had a supporting role in NBC's Matthew Perry show Go On but proves here that she deserves bigger parts.
Funny as it is (and, don't worry, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments), it's scenes like these that make Louie so affecting, so different from anything else. C.K.'s show is grounded in a humanity that makes it hard to stop thinking about after the credits roll.
Michelle Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mstark17.