It’s probably because I’m not a parent, but there’s an aspect of “Louie,” and of Louis C.K.’s comedy, that’s never quite appealed to me — his invocations of his daughters. Hate-parenting is central to “Louie,” of course, but it sometimes seems like a too-easy route to a punch line. The comic formulation is usually the same — he’s trying to protect these two little angels from the evils of the world, while still being fundamentally selfish and self-indulgent. But it’s not always easy for C.K. to relate to those little angels, as witnessed in his famous the Who singalong — Dad, you’re embarrassing me!
And so it was a pleasant surprise that last night’s “Louie” managed to move the story of his relationship with his children forward by looking back. After catching his older daughter, Lilly, about to light a suspicious-looking cigarette, Louie attempts to discipline her as best he knows how — which is to say, dragging her away from her friends and taking her to Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Then he cedes the bulk of the episode to a talented young actor, Devin Druid, who plays a young Louie experimenting with drugs.
The episode takes the form of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie about a “troubled kid” finding redemption. Louie got into smoking pot casually, but then found himself in over his head after getting asked to steal scales from the school’s science lab in order to score more. But the details of the story make it something more than just didactic — the young Louie has a mother who tries her best but isn’t equipped to raise a teenage son alone, and a teacher who earnestly thinks the kid can do better, even though he can’t. (This teacher was originally meant to be played, apparently, by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the episode is dedicated.) The episode, at times, plays into tired tropes of high school — the do-gooder teacher, or the bad kid Louie encounters along the way. But tropes exist for a reason. More significant is the way the episode gets us inside the mind of a person whose mind hasn’t even developed yet — and how willing the adult C.K. is to get out of the way.
Most significantly, any growth we see in the young Louie happens almost entirely off-screen; his attempts to get himself out of trouble are just that, and it’s hard to say if he actually regrets his actions at the time.He does later, though. A show that too often goes overboard in presenting its protagonist as a victim of circumstance or of other people’s projected whims has, for once, presented a situation in which Louie was entirely culpable and made a lot of other people miserable.
And a show that relies so heavily on parenting for its comedy finally explains what makes parenting so difficult, beyond a routine about how tough it is to raise girls — because Louie is terrified his daughters will make his same mistakes. This episode fulfilled a promise I didn’t even know “Louie” had made: that eventually we’d get more insight into what, besides responsibility and love, shapes his relationship with his daughters. It’s a poignant moment when, after one more meal with Lilly, Louie simply hugs her, without telling her any of what he’s shared with us.