Horace and Pete
Louie, the FX show that the comedian Louis C.K. wrote, directed, and starred in for five seasons, is credited with expanding the possibilities of the half-hour television comedy. Its first-person, expressionistic sensibility was something new for the sitcom when the show debuted in 2010. Another way to appreciate its cultural significance and its genius is to consider this: Louie may be the first sitcom featuring children that’s wholly inappropriate for children to watch. The show’s title character, based on C.K. himself, is a divorced stand-up comedian with shared custody of his two school-aged daughters, six and nine years old in the first season.
Louie is a rumpled, out-of-shape, unfashionably goateed white man who has not aged into comfortable success. On days when he has his kids, he picks them up from school, cooks their dinner, reminds them to do their homework, tucks them in at night, and brings them to school again the next morning. At forty-one, Louie is baffled by the shape his life is taking, especially by the fact that his divorce has conferred on him full parental authority every other week. The show is set to jazz, and the sweeping, wheeling camera and music are the chief instruments of comedy, along with C.K.’s reaction shots—wincing, dubious, resigned.
Louie takes fatherhood seriously. His own father, he tells a friend in one episode, was “not around,” and he wants to do it differently. But the show is always threatening to pull the rug out from under Louie’s great-dad conceit—not because he isn’t a good father, but because the value of his work is unknown and unknowable. The same social forces that have brought more men into the web of child care have also revealed that children do fine with all kinds of caretakers: grandparents, nannies, day care workers—pretty much any reliable, kind adult could perform any one of Louie’s tasks with no detriment to his daughters.
He cares for them in a state of contingency. Does it really matter that he cooks their meals from scratch? Do all these clocked hours make a difference in the end? And is he hiding behind the kids to avoid dealing with other parts of his life? “You’ve been a good father,” his ex-wife acknowledges, urging him to audition for a late-night show hosting spot he’s been shortlisted for. “But no one needs a father very much.” It’s a great bit of deadpan three seasons into a show that has made so much of Louie’s fatherhood. “Yes, you would be spending less time with the girls,” she goes on, exasperated, “but it’s because you’d have a job, Louie.”
No one can say for sure how much the girls need him, but there’s no question that he needs…
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