It makes sense that Jerry Seinfeld would appear on tonight's episode of “Louie.” “Seinfeld” was famously upheld as a television show about "nothing" – a particular kind of nothing taking place in an unglamorous New York City. “Louie” also appears to the casual observer to be a show about nothing – just a "mid-level" New York comic stumbling into mundanely traumatic situations on a day-to-day basis. But as tonight’s season 4 premiere of “Louie” proves, maintaining the illusion of pointlessness in a TV show is harder than it looks.
The episode opens with a relatable but hardly tragic scenario that occurs almost entirely in Louie’s head and proceeds to mostly re-familiarize us with the minutia and persistent travails of the curmudgeonly comic’s life – i.e., his kids, his doomed outlook. It then takes a moment to revel in some standard comedian crotch-gazing that pushes the idea behind "Seinfeld’s" notorious “Master of My Domain” episode farther into dark and sticky blue than a network sitcom ever could have. There’s some good, off-color riffing, some decent Sarah Silverman lewdness – Hey, know your audience! – some sex store shopping, and a droll, almost mystical cameo from Charles Grodin, nearly unrecognizable in his old age but still funny as hell. The episode’s title, “Back,” is revealed to be a sly wink and the whole mess culminates in a gag that anyone familiar with sex toys will have sensed reverberating about halfway through.
But big fans of the show will not be fooled by this mostly funny, very dirty, sort of misleading overture. Louie has a sneaky way of forcing his seemingly slight episodes to Mean Something. We have the Melissa Leo episode in season 3 or the one where Louie visits the troops seared into our gray matter. We have the Parker Posey episode, which felt like a real riff on mental illness. It’s hard to say what “Louie” is actually about in any broad sense. Like "Seinfeld," it's about connecting us to our least appealing feelings and thoughts. Both shows depict shocking, embarrassing, or even appalling male behavior and then, deftly, challenge us to accept that, yes, we might have behaved the same way under such ludicrous circumstances. Watching “Louie” with another person can be like a staring contest, except everyone is looking at the screen and trying not to flinch. Who knows, it may have even been Louis C.K., once a writer for Chris Rock, who helped pen Rock’s devastating O.J. Simpson riff that hinged on the refrain, “I’m not saying he should have killed her, but I understand.”
You may have already heard or read rumors about the more shocking content in store for season 4. In the first four episodes, expect the kind of tonal shifts that distinguish “Louie” from traditional, more consistent half-hour comedies, even the single-camera ones. Louis C.K. uses his parental struggles and, more so, his pathetic quest for sex and affection as a jumping-off point for meditations and ruminations on loneliness, body image and more. There are moments designed to provoke extreme reactions, some crude, some sweet, some heartbreaking. There are moments when you will feel like only “Louie’s” sensibility could pull off this particularly prickly gag. There are others wherein you will feel manipulated and, therefore, less entertained. There are times where you will feel that Louie is, perhaps, out of his depth or flogging a cause a tad too vigorously. But it is unlikely that, overall, you will feel anything resembling nothing.