28. "Bully," Louie (2010)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
I'm in my 40s, and I still get nightmares about being an adolescent — not being prepared for a test at school, getting "ditched" by other kids going somewhere fun, getting in trouble with my parents, and so on. When I wake up, there's a split second of relief that I'm not, in fact, about to get an "F" in French class. But then I think about my adult problems, and I wish that a bad report card were still my biggest worry in life.
Louie is all about this feeling. Each episode includes scenes of Louis C.K. doing his stand-up act, and this is from the third episode ("Dr. Ben/Nick"):
Louie: There's never going to be another year of my life that is better than the year before. That's never going to happen again! [...] Every day starts with, like, my eyes open and I reload the program of misery. I just open my eyes, remember who I am, what I'm like, and I go, "Ughhhh...."
This is not a show that could begin with "You're gonna make it after all" (which I just played to get myself off the floor after watching Louie).
First, 7-year-old Louie gets premature sex advice from his father ("wait until she is mad with desire, begging you to penetrate") and has to negotiate the horrors of sex-ed class in school. (The jazz soundtrack in these scenes made me think of this sequence in Annie Hall. I thought it featured a little boy saying, "I run a profitable truss company," but I just checked and was disappointed to learn he says "dress company." My line is better.)
Then comes the big scene in the episode — in which the adult Louie, out on a date, is threatened by a bunch of teens raising hell in a coffee shop. Suddenly he's back in high school, with a kid in an athletic jacket asking him, "What if I just decided to kick your ass right now? What would you do then?" And when Louie backs down, he's still in high school hell, with his date admitting that she's turned off by a guy who avoids a fight. "My chemistry is telling me that you're a loser," she says, something that probably wasn't covered in that sex-ed class.
The hero-as-reluctant fighter is an old sitcom trope, and I expected "Bully" to play out using one of the now-familiar twists. Maybe Louie goes after the punk and wins the day with a lucky punch (as Ralph Kramden does in "The Bensonhurst Bomber"). Or he overreacts and picks a fight with someone else, causing his date to drop him for being hot-tempered.
Instead, there's an amazing sequence in which Louie follows his tormentor home, taking the subway and then the ferry to Staten Island. Louie meets the kid's parents, and their behavior seems to explain how he ended up as a bully. (“Go back to New York, you Obama-loving faggot!” screams the mother.) It's a sick joke that could serve as the ending of many a contemporary sitcom, from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia to How I Met Your Mother. But, again, Louie keeps on going to a richer and more complicated ending.
• Is Louie a sitcom? Is it too dark and too unstructured to be on this list? I say it should be because it covers sitcom stories — that is, parables about how we should, and how we're expected to, behave in universal situations. (Having to decide whether to confront rowdy kids is a universal situation; being diagnosed with terminal cancer and cooking meth to provide for your family is not.) Louie also plays off sitcom story conventions, as shown in this episode.
Finally, if Louie C.K. wanted to tell stories like this in the 1970s, he probably wouldn't have any choice but to adapt them for a three-camera sitcom in the vein of All in the Family and Taxi (and he did try this with Lucky Louie on HBO). Louie is as much a part of the evolution of the sitcom as is Modern Family or Community.
• Louie is on Netflix and iTunes.