FX

Is Louie a comedy? The Emmy-nominated series on FX has consistently been one of the best on television since it debuted in 2010, and the opening episodes of its fifth season (premiering Thursday at 10:30 p.m.) should provoke many a laugh. But even as his eponymous show has aged, Louis C.K. has never opted for the easy joke and has instead consistently explored the limits of how dramatic a half-hour comedy is allowed to be. This season trends back toward the absurd humor of the show’s earlier days, but retains last year’s melancholy spirit.

Louis C.K. is an energetic and commanding presence on stage, and remains the undisputed king of stand-up comedy, but on screen he’s always funniest as a sad sack, mumbling quietly as his children pester him, or shyly enduring taunts from his single-parent friend Pamela (played by Pamela Adlon), who doesn't let up her tormenting this season even though she and Louie have become romantically involved. As the show has evolved, its star has visibly grown as an actor: The last two years depended heavily on his ability to pull off more emotional material. He’s even developed as a physical comedian: Some of the funniest moments in the fifth season come from him stumbling silently around and reacting with horror or confusion at whatever strange situation he finds himself in next.

This is something of a turnaround from the show’s fourth season, which audaciously pursued several, multi-episode plot arcs that plumbed Louie’s past and present, including a six-part saga titled “Elevator,” in which Louie fell for a Hungarian woman in his building who doesn’t speak his language. It was tragic, without melodrama; funny, but lacking in belly laughs. Following this grand arc came a look at Louie’s childhood involvement with a local criminal (played by Jeremy Renner) and then his romantic overtures to Pamela, which took three episodes for her to accept.

In its early seasons, Louie interspersed stand-up segments with brief tragi-comic adventures and had little patience for continuity—the only constants were his two cherubic daughters, and other characters who'd change as the story required (his mother was an annoying harridan one week, a saintly young woman the next). Now, C.K. is holding on to longer plot arcs and finds pathos in his relationship with Pamela, the foul-mouthed yin to his dawdling yang.

One scene beautifully illuminates the strange relationship between C.K. the comedian and Louie the character—after vainly trying to define his relationship with Pamela at a dinner (she's much more mercurial about the future), the typically pathetic Louie marches onstage and launches into a standup routine, confidently fleshing out his issues with the way the world works. Prior seasons would draw loose connections between the actor’s comedy bits and the plots around them, but this scene goes deeper, explicitly showing how comedy is the only way he really knows how to fearlessly communicate with the world.

Communication has always been a major theme of the show—think of Louie finding himself in China at the end of the third season, or his frustrated efforts to communicate his feelings to his Hungarian paramour. Much like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which feel like spiritual forebears for Louie, C.K. is always a character trying to figure out why the world works the way it does. The major difference is that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David would loudly communicate their frustration with social obligations and the way they think things should be, while C.K. just ambles along helplessly, baffled as to why he’s getting such a raw deal.

In the opening episode, “Potluck,” Louie decides to make more of an effort to be involved at his daughters’ school and attend a potluck dinner for parents; of course, this ends up with him going to the wrong apartment and bringing a plate of lovingly prepared fried chicken to a cheerful cult meeting. By the time he’s realized his error, the chicken is gone, and he makes his way to the actual PTA meeting with a bucket of KFC. The world, it seems, will never let Louie succeed, but more than that, he can’t even find a way to explain himself and the many twists of fate that plague him. When an angry mother greets him at the door and yanks the chicken out of his hands, all Louie can do is gape like a goldfish—one of the funniest moments of the episode.

Yes, there's certainly comedy at work on Louie—but it's almost all of the silent-film variety. Outside of C.K.’s standup, there’s barely a one-liner or catty rejoinder to be heard, but there are all kinds of strange, sad, surreal situations and moments of brilliant tragic clowning from the show’s star. The small but loyal audience that keeps Louie alive on FX every year should know to not go into its fifth season expecting the kinds of outrageous, immediate humor typical of the format; but still, they should expect to laugh. If approached in the right frame of mind, Louie still remains, as its fifth season proves, one of the funniest, smartest pieces of television on the air.

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