At their best and luckiest, television shows can do something that other most other art forms cannot: allow us to spend hours, days, weeks, months, sometimes years with our favourite characters, watching them grow, learning intricacies and patterns about them and the show itself that we often don’t even know about the people in our real lives. Television has the luxury of time. We learn shows rather quickly, we fall into the unique rhythms and patterns of these shows, we know how they should look and sound and feel and over time this solidifies and crystallizes our viewing experience. We find friends with these characters, we know their worlds, we begin to understand what makes them tick.
What’s fascinating to me, then, fiercely loving shows as I do, is how often my favourite episodes of a television show are ones that subvert the very norms that the show has set up. For me, these episodes, even if they don’t change the course of the show forever, are thrilling. Episodes like, “Life of Brian” and “Weekend” from the first and only season of My So-Called Life, where Brian Krakow’s and Danielle Chase’s voice overs replace Angela Chase’s usual voice-over, respectively. (An aside here about My So-Called Life: I can’t think of another show that made as many bold moves in its first season as this show, not only with the two episodes just mentioned but also the much maligned Christmas and Halloween episodes. Usually a show waits until much later in its run to do things like this show did. For these reasons and countless others, it is, in my hazy recollections, probably the first show that taught me that TV could and should be art). Or, “Hush” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a silent horror story, told without any dialogue and, because we always need to be symmetric, “Once More with Feeling” told entirely in song. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, “22 Short Films About Springfield” from The Simpsons, where instead of the usual sitcom A and B plot about a couple of characters with secondary characters thrown in where needed, we move wildly throughout the town, checking in on a plethora of the characters that we know from past episodes and some characters that we’ve never before met. Sometimes, these shifts in tone or genre are momentary, or only part of a larger episode. See, for example, the wonderful song and dance routine by Bert Cooper in the recent half-season finale of Mad Men. This use of a brief tonal shift is more filmic in its application.
These episodes shift our understanding to something slightly off-kilter, or genre-bending, or to a shifted perspective of the one we are used to. What these kinds of episodes do best is re-focus the audience’s expectations and often double-down our focus on something that the show is especially interested in. Consider the episode, “The Body” in season five of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, to my mind the best in the entire series. At this point in the series’ run we are very accustomed to death on the show. Buffy has killed countless vampires; death is a constant underlying theme and fear. We know that, aside from our untouchable main characters, the threat of death exists for the peripheral ones. But nothing prepares the audience for the death of Buffy’s mom, Joyce, not at the hands of an attacking zombie or robot or vampire but instead because of a brain aneurysm. What plays out in the episode is the best, most artful depiction of the immediate aftermath of death that I have ever seen on television or film for that matter. The episode is without score and the silence focuses us to the banality of the aftermath, the way time moves on in a way that is nonsensical, impossible to those grieving. It’s not a comic book death, there are no battle sequences, the lone fight in episode happens in the hospital, with a naked vampire. Even that moment is brutal, realistic and fraught. It takes the real-world, for lack of a better word, death to reframe the entire show. To make it more serious, more adult. To allow us to understand that death, most of the time, is final.
More currently, in this vein, we can look at a recent episode of Louie. It seems strange to talk about audience expectations with a show like Louie. Louie is the brainchild of Louis CK and it really all amounts to the inner workings of his strange, hilarious, singular mind. Every episode is essentially a short film and the show is not bound to normal notions of continuity or, really, reality. Louie is free, unlike almost any other show that I can think of, to do whatever it wants. This season brought us a 6-episode feature film, “Elevator Part 1 – 6” (which worked better for others than it did for me. I was captivated at times and much less so at others and I never fully bought into the Louie’s whirlwind relationship with Amia, a romance that was cheapened by the Pamela storyline), and Louie’s black ex-wife played by a white woman in the lovely play-like flashback episode, “Elevator Part 4”.
The penultimate set of episodes gave us “In the Woods”. It is another flashback episode but plays like more an episode to another television show about this character, Louie, entirely (there are more than a few similarities to the Freaks and Geeks episode, “Carded and Discarded”), and it’s notable that there are no moments of Louie doing standup in the episode. The episode lives somewhere in the realm of comedy and drama – at one time it might have even been called a “dramedy” – and this world seems to be where the entire season has been living. But it also lives in a world of childhood, teenage and school-age nostalgia that I’m predisposed to love.
“In the Woods” is an episode where a thirteen-year-old Louie gets roughed up by bullies and buys pot from slackerly drug dealers. The episode feels like Louie’s life but it doesn’t always feel like Louie the show. And that’s a good thing because it allows the show to move in directions that it previously had not. Louie has always been a very adult show, even if adult Louie has behaved like a kid on more than one occasion. The show’s conversations and themes have always been a play on what it means to be an adult and what it means to be a man in this crazy world we live in. How men can be and are often taught to be dangerous, how fathers treat their daughters, how husbands treat their wives, how men behave when they are around women. And, of course, how Louie behaves sometimes reinforces what we know about men, in movies, on TV and in life, and sometimes subverts those notions (see the episode “So Did the Fat Lady” and his physical attack on possible love interest, Pamela, in “Pamela Part 1” for problematic examples of all of this stuff). Louie has never been a show about boys and the way they become men.
“In the Woods” is a two-part episode (this season the show has been airing in two-episode spurts, and this allows for, essentially, hour-long episodes like this one) where adult Louie sees his daughter, Lilly, smoke pot with a bunch of friends at a concert. This results in a flashback to when a thirteen-year-old Louie discovered pot with friends. In the lengthy flashback we learn that Louie grew up without a dad, just him and his mom. He’s a good kid, not popular but not some kind of freak that is shuttered away to an island in the cafeteria somewhere. Louie is kind and sensitive (as his teacher eventually calls him), funny and insular like most kids his age. He’s a good sport enough to fart in front of the class to demonstrate that you can indeed light a fart on fire. Louie connects with “The World’s Greatest Science Teacher” played by Skipp Sudduth (who I remember best as Sully from Third Watch but is tremendous here as the passionate, if a bit beleaguered, teacher). Louie at thirteen is a pretty normal kid – maybe even more normal than he is at 40.
But then the pot. Which, at first, sort of out of nowhere (as these things always seem to), comes from his friend, at a school dance, and they go smoke in the woods (hence the title) with the school’s bully. The pot eventually runs out and Louie knows someone who might be able to sell them more. This someone turns out to be a drug dealer named Jeff played by Jeremy Renner. Louie buys some pot from Jeff and notices the scale Jeff is using to weigh drugs is similar to the ones in his science class. Jeff mentions that maybe they could work out a deal if Louie could manage to steal some of the scales. And so, Louie goes back to school and hangs around the science classroom after everyone has left and steals a couple of scales. And so the pot is back in abundance but so is the guilt of having taken the scales. And Louie’s mom can tell that something is wrong, she goes through his bedroom to see if she can find any evidence of, well, something and she freaks out on him. And then, the principal rightly pins the crime on Louie and brings the science teacher in as well. But the science teacher sticks up for Louie, saying that it couldn’t have possibly been him, any number of the others kids, sure, but not Louie. And that’s it.
But there’s the guilt. Louie tries to get the scales back from Jeff which results in Jeff choking Louie against a wall and telling him that he’s not a little kid anymore, now he’s a criminal, now he’s a man. Louie doesn’t get the scales back but he does go to his teacher’s house to admit what he’s done. And he goes to counseling, too, where a young, hippy-ish man tells Louie that he started smoking pot because his parents got divorced and he was self-medicating. Louie doesn’t buy that as an answer. But the counselor also says that Louie’s mom loves him. And this does hold. So back in the present Louie tells Lilly that he loves her and that he’s here for her. And that’s all he can do.
What strikes me, more than the idea of father figures that this episode is clearly exploring, is not solely the decency of the adults in Louie’s life as a youngster, and really they are all decent, but also how these adults can be wrong and wrong-headed about what Louie is going through. What strikes is how our thirteen-year-old selves intersect with our adult selves. Maybe remembering what it is like to be thirteen is always the right answer – maybe because it allows the world to open up to you – to remember what life was like when you didn’t have any answers and had them all at the same time. Because, as we see, adults aren’t always right and Louie, himself as an adult, is often very, very wrong. Louie, as we’ve seen, has lived a life full of mistakes, this is just one in a long series of them. But the trick of the episode is that we see Louie make a mistake as a kid, one that allows him, maybe, to be a better adult, a better father, a better man, human being, etc. The trick of the episode is that we know there are more mistakes to come in the life of this kid. And the episode may not tell us anything especially new or bold or exciting. But it does remind us that adult Louie is often, this season anyway, kind of a dick. But, sometimes, he’s a good dad. Sometimes he’s a good kid.