In this fourth season of Louie, public school has been a lurking undercurrent, popping up in time for momentary diatribes and flashback settings. The real Louis CK isn’t afraid to voice his own opinions on public education – so what’s his show trying to say?
We've seen New York City's public schools in Louie before – his school-age daughters make it kind of unavoidable – but their prevalence in season four has been purposeful, if not higher-profile. One of the standout jokes from the premiere is Lilly writing a letter to AIDS as a farcical but well-intentioned homework assignment.
School serves as a specific plot mechanism starting in "Elevator Part 2," when Louie has to retrieve Jane from school because she's been sent home for the day for tearing a teacher's skirt off after being reprimanded on the playground. More than that particular instance, though, Jane is having issues with school in general:
I don't want to go to school ... It's not good. They don't know anything ... The teachers are stupid, the kids are stupid ... Christopher Columbus was a murderer, they want me to draw a picture of him smiling, they don't know how numbers work are they want me to do it all wrong, the kids are just mean babies ... The teachers don't know anything, they're mean and tired and they're stupid and they just say what's in the book, because they don't know, you see, they don't answer any real questions ... like why is there even an America?
Coming from ten-year-old Jane, the rant runs close to the wild ramblings of a kid who's simply angry she got yelled at. But there's something behind what she's saying: "they don't know how numbers work" is a direct shot at the common core math CK so notably trashed on Twitter, and "they're mean and tired and they're stupid and they just say what's in the book" feels more like a stinging critique of a dilapidated system, written by CK and delivered by a ten year old.
But immediately following Jane's thorough trashing of her public school, Louie mounts an adamant defense of the institution.
"Public school is the real world, and they have real problems and they learn to deal with them in the real world," he tells his ex-wife after she mentions private school, defending public school as a necessary component of growing up. Janet makes it personal – "You grew up working class and you have a chip on your shoulder about people who can send their kids to private school" – and Louie, vomiting words, reluctantly agrees. For him, public school is an integral, defining part of identity. There are private school kids, and there are public school kids. Attending one or the other makes a difference.
And then there's the school setting of the flashback from "In The Woods." Louie's middle school isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for public schools: it's the kind of place where kids set off M-80s in the bathroom, where students skip out to buy weed in a drug dealer's living room, where students get walked out in handcuffs, where science class is driven by one student's obsession with farts. The school itself is the catalyst for the rest of the flashback's story: an unsupervised Louie starts smoking pot in the woods behind the school after ditching a dance. Basically, it's a place for riff-raff, the way most public schools are.
But just as with Jane's rant, CK doesn't let the school portrayal in "In The Woods" go uncontested: Mr. Hoffman is a lone bright spot as a committed teacher with a vested interest in his students, particularly Louie (only in public school could you become a teacher's favorite by farting in front of the class). Though he may very well be tired, he's the opposite of the "mean and tired" teachers of which Jane complains. The most emotionally devastating moment of "In The Woods" comes when young Louie confesses to Mr. Hoffman and leaves without forgiveness. Even in a public school like Louie's, there's someone to let down. "In The Woods" gives us a look at the exact thing Louie was talking about with Janet: real problems, in the real world, with real consequences. It's imperfect, but necessary.
Which follows with the rest of Louie. The public schools CK presents are deeply flawed, and that's the point – it's weird to think of Louie as political, but the show's schools are CK's attempt at an accurate portrayal of a system he clearly has some issues with, but believes are important and worthwhile enough to warrant defense. Public schools are both the cause of problems and their necessary solution. And as with everything on Louie, CK refuses to let us have it one way or the other.