Louie returns tonight at 10 p.m. on FX for its fourth season, and by all accounts it is still the same old hysterical, heartbreaking, critically-acclaimed Louie, even after a two-year break. But it's precisely that extended break between seasons that has us asking: when does Louie exist?
Louie is frequently described as a "semi-fictional" and sort-of autobiographical show about Louis CK. It's Louie's life, set in the recent past. When describing the show versus life dichotomy, CK said, "The good times that I'm living started about three years ago ... If you pit those years against 43 years of struggle, you still have plenty to draw from." He gets the material for his show from what his life used to be.
Logic would follow, then, that the show will catch up to real-life eventually, right? When does Louie the character become Louis CK, the now super-famous, I-don't-need-traditional-distribution-models comedian? The way the show is going, through three seasons and into a fourth, the answer is maybe never. You'd think, given ordinary time and pacing, that a series that began four years ago would have at least caught up to the beginnings of CK's celebrity. There are certain hints at Louie's expanding fame in season four – in the third episode, for example, he's recognized while eating at a diner – but for the most part, Louie remains a far cry from Louis CK.
He can pull this off because the show's unique pacing (or lack thereof) leaves it immune to the constraints of timing and setting. Louie just sort of sits in the nebula of itself – Louie's life –without moving forward much at all. Characters come and go with little arc or routine. We haven't seen Pamela since the end of season two, and the only consistently recurring characters are Louie's two young daughters (whose ages are the biggest threat to Louie's stasis). When there are story arcs, they last for two or three episodes at a time, self-encapsulated, barely reverberating out to the rest of the series. The beginning of season four carries this same quality: injuries are sustained and trouble is incited, only to be forgotten by the next episode.
Which is why a two-year break has very little impact on the show's reality. Louie picks up, unheralded, on an ordinary day; the premiere episode tonight is simply titled "Back," the opening stand-up bit is about Louie aging "two years in like a minute." We're invited once again to view snapshots of Louie's primarily pre-fame life, untethered from any timeline or forward-moving plot structure. Or maybe it is moving forward at a glacial speed, the way a 5-second dream feels like an eternity.
On any other show, the lack of pacing would become frustrating or stagnant by a fourth season, but on Louie it's a feature. We're content to simply squat down in the mire of the show, soaking it all in, not worried about when we'll get out.