I was once told by a literature professor something to the effect that one should absorb art as if none of it were an accident. That’s a fairly daunting standard to live up to as a creator within any artistic medium namely because it invites the entire audience to hold the work under the most scrupulous of inspections. I’m not unfamiliar with the sentiment that a piece of work of most any kind possesses a quality relative to that of one’s perspective of it. In other words, the closer you look the more something falls apart. In tonight’s episode of Louie the entire universe showed signs of cracking under the weight of one assumption – that one’s father carries an insurmountable quantity of influence on one’s world.
I won’t pretend to examine this episode as anything other than a novice critic applying vaguely psychological deconstruction methods according to rusty comprehensions of literary theory, but I think it may do the trick. Louie is a series which has the rare distinction of being among those which can withstand close scrutiny where the perception that each element constituting the work contributes to its overall statement.
I can’t help but feel compelled to acknowledge what I consider one of the most common criticisms of Louie, that it’s too busy trying to be arty and weird and isn’t funny as a result. Granted each season tends to include a couple episodes which arguably toe the line to varying degrees of success: season one included the segments “Mom”, “Dentist/Tarese”, and “God”, season two had “Eddie”, “Halloween”, and “Duckling”, and this season’s had “Miami” and both parts of “Daddy’s Girlfriend”, all of which can be deemed pushing it even for Louie’s usual style of unconventional comic tragedy, but all of these episodes, “Dad” in particular, deserve recognition for juggling such heavy concepts with such profoundly worthwhile laughs.
“Dad” was another episode which eschewed the usual opening credits this time in favor of Louie’s oldest daughter demonstrating considerable skill at the violin by playing an impressive and beautiful piece of music which is interrupted by Louie’s angry scolding commentary like “Stop it!” and “Bullshit.” The voice of Lucy’s father invading and decimating her admirable and moving performance was not only an absurdly amusing reference to CK’s stand-up bit about stopping in the middle of New York City foot traffic to bend down and listen to his daughter tell him that, “Sometimes dogs are brown,” it’s also an apt symbol which sets the tone for the rest of the episode.
The following scene in which Louie receives a phone call from his Uncle Excelsior in the middle of being humiliated and disrespected in an electronics store could be seen as the most out of place among the rest of the episode, despite the rule of comedy which states that out of shape men falling over is always funny. But really it’s the first in a pair of scenes which express how Louie feels in relation to his father. Not only does Louie characterize this relationship as one in which he feels embarrassed and neglected, but the first consequence of his uncle’s extravagantly shaming words from the Russian Tea Room, in which he compares the “wretchedness” of visiting Louie’s father to that of having unprotected sex with a prostitute, occur at the poker game during a discussion of Jim Norton’s exposed adolescent extracurricular activities. The ridicule Jim receives of his acutely immature practice is marked as being a catalyst for Louie to process some of his emotions in regard to the notion of seeing his father. So not only does this prospect make Louie feel insignificant and vulnerable, but they’re inextricably connected to his associations with adolescence. Or perhaps the vomiting at the poker game occurred when it did because this is an environment in which Louie usually feels safe and comfortable, an environment of humor and light-heartedness, now comprised for a second time by the grossly captivating Sarah Silverman, which makes Louie feel confident enough that his body was able to force him to confront his delayed reactions.
After his visit to the doctor (whom was not played by Ricky Gervais, something which disappointed me though I think was ultimately a good call) makes it abundantly clear that Louie’s physical symptoms are the result of a psycho-emotional ailment, deciding whether to visit his father, we start to see this prospect’s destructive consequences spill over from Louie to the external world around him: his drink spills on the plane ride to Boston, the city the plane’s attendant describes as being Louie’s dad’s home, he vomits on a car at the rental agency and is subsequently yelled at not only by the rental agency attendant in a very specific manner, but also by his suspiciously knowledgeable GPS, as well as by a frighteningly considerate and affectionate driver before his car window shatters unexpectedly. The closer Louie gets to his dad, the more unraveled the world around him becomes. Louie is the most successful utilizer of magic realism in TV since Six Feet Under both in terms of its comedic success and that of its ability to reveal the core of the issue at hand.
Finally, once Louie is but a mere moment away from his father answering his door, Louie bolts away on foot at top speed before hopping on, albeit a highly fast and powerful machine, essentially a vehicle which resembles a childhood tricycle which takes him to a motorboat that Louie drives into the middle of the sea where he finally can be safely alone. At this point Louie laughs in an attempt at celebrating a victory, but he knows it’s a hollow one.
I love the presence music exerts in Louie. Not only did “Dad” open with some gorgeous violin, but by its conclusion it shifts from the pulsing tone of dread used at Louie’s arrival at his dad’s to the action movie-esque guitar solo during the daring bike and boat ride escape, to a delicate piano solo upon his realization that even in avoiding his father Louie cannot escape his crushing and suffocating effects. The episode’s closing is a stark contrast to its introduction, simple silence as the lone accent to Louie’s lonely defeat.
We don’t know any details about Louie’s father from “Dad” other than that it’s been two years since the character has seen him. That’s fine because the details aren’t what matter. What matters is Louie’s reactions to simply the idea of confronting his father. So earth-shattering is this prospect that it can’t even be broached yet by Louie. It reminds me of how J.D. Salinger depicted the immense feelings his narrator of Seymour – An Introduction held toward his dead brother by having the narrator avoid discussing his brother directly for the duration of the novella. Though these artists can’t broach their respective topics directly, that doesn’t stop them from getting their points across.
The point of “Dad” is to express the significance a father has to his children, something CK has expressed throughout his career. The episode is so successful because it achieves this goal high on both comedic and emotional levels. This episode was by far the one for which my notes are the shortest, but it speaks volumes about how monumental a force one’s father is even to the most hardened cynic, even one who believes normal includes a world view of “boiler plate misery – alone in the world, might as well be maggots sucking on a dead cat’s face, what’s the point, nothing new” perspective, one which CK somehow manages to nevertheless make look noble if not comically tragic.