FX brings hilariously tense ‘Louie’ to cable TV

Allistair Pinsof

The best comedy serves to soften the blow of tragedy. It’s why comedians such as Louis C.K. are still relevant in the YouTube era. We long to drunkenly laugh over someone’s misfortune while, on some level, remembering how unfunny it was when we were the unfortunate ones. This, in essence, is what makes “Louie” this summer’s best original series. It’s as hilarious as it is heartbreaking and often both at the same time.

Louis C.K. rode the late-90s stand-up comedian gravy train to its final destination: the self-referential sitcom. Unfortunately, “Lucky Louie” (2006) only aired for one season on HBO and didn’t get much attention from critics or viewers. The series was trite and dated. Having a laugh track on an HBO series probably didn’t do it any favors either.

Four years later, FX has given Louis a second chance. It seems clear that “Louie” is the antithesis of his previous series. Instead of a laugh track, there are awkward pauses in conversations. Instead of working at a muffler shop, Louis is a struggling comedian. Instead of dull, static shots of soundstages, “Louie” has some of the best direction and cinematography on television.

All of these things prop up the show’s unorthodox structure and pacing. Every episode seems to have two main plotlines. They don’t always connect narratively, but the segments always juxtapose nicely. Take the ninth episode in the series, “Bully.” It begins with a hilariously awkward setup in which Louis is bullied by high school jocks while on a date. It ends with Louis begging for mercy, much to his date’s dismay. The episode then transitions into Louis following the bully home in an effort to tell his parents about the kid they raised. It ends in a place far more profound than where it began, but that’s not to say there weren’t a couple of funny moments along the way.

Despite starting as a series with a $200,000 pilot, “Louie” has attracted a number of celebrities that have contributed solid performances. Seeing Matthew Broderick and Ricky Gervais cause Louis distress is fun, but Tom Noonan (“Manhunter,” “Synecdoche, New York”) truly steals the show with his portrayal of a creepy doctor explaining in graphic detail the crucifixion of Jesus to a young Louis C.K. It culminates in Louis being screamed at to hammer a nail through a classmate’s hand. It’s an intense moment; one that can be laughed at because of the awkward tension or, alternatively, because of the ridiculousness of the scene. It’s that kind of duality that has kept me coming back every week. I know I’m going to laugh, but I’m not sure why.