In the first scene of Louie’s fifth season, Louie (Louis C.K.) muses onstage at the Comedy Cellar about life on other planets. There’s no happy ending to a scenario in which humans find aliens, he says. Plus, the aliens are probably “way ahead of us,” which would make Earth look bad anyway. As Louis puts it: “We’re gonna be the South America planet of some America planet.”
A fear of getting left behind—or worse, becoming obsolete—lurks throughout the first four episodes of this new, eight-episode season, which premieres Thursday night on FX. It’s present in Louie’s interactions with his sort-of girlfriend Pamela (Pamela Adlon), whom he’s desperate to hold on to; it’s there in the Comedy Cellar, in the form of a young, talentless comic who gets a big break; and it’s there when some whippersnapper millennial flat-out tells Louie, “We’re the future and you don’t belong in it.”
Neuroses, romantic anxieties, and the first-world miseries of a middle-aged single dad’s life take center stage again, even as Louie berates himself for continually being such a whiner. (He calls himself a “boring asshole” in one epiphany.) Reality still diverges into fantasy in those surreal vignettes the show is famous for.
But most importantly, the show is terribly funny this season. Louie is back at the top of its game.
C.K., who still writes and directs every episode, has apparently become aware of some of last season's biggest perceived missteps, when he ditched the theme song (and much of the comedy, some would argue) and delved deep into his character’s most self-indulgent tendencies. Season 4 took the show’s half-hour form and morphed it into whatever C.K. needed it to be: a six-part “romance” with a Hungarian woman who barely spoke English, a 90-minute movie about himself discovering pot as a kid, or a three-part love story that ended with him and Pamela happily sharing a candlelit bath, despite the rapey overtones of a scene just weeks before in which Louie terrorizes Pamela around his apartment and forces her to kiss him. By the end of the season, the show’s tone had become muddled and uncomfortable—not unlike the endless slew of Louie think pieces that followed.
In Season 5, C.K. actively makes fun of what didn’t work last season. At one point, as he’s about to launch into another “Into the Woods”-esque flashback episode, Pamela cuts him off, crying, “I don’t wanna hear this, please! It sounds long.” Even Louie’s therapist can’t stay interested in his existential moping. And while Louie’s interactions with women are still bumbling, awkward spectacles, they’ve gone back to what they accomplish best: Confronting us with our own biases and making us laugh, cringe, and think. (In a delicious scene from the fourth episode, C.K. also offers his answer to the Internet furor that surrounded Pamela’s almost-rape last season. It is gruesome and weird and perfect.)
Louie will always defy easy explanation, which is part of our ongoing fascination with the show. As Adlon told Vulture last year, “one thing that motivates Louis and drives him is characters that don’t explain why they do what they do.” We might never know exactly why Pamela is so guarded, why the lesbian mom-to-be in tonight’s premiere is so angry, or exactly what C.K. wants us to glean from all this. But the spectacle is so jarring, so familiar and revealing, that we can't help but keep watching. Just keep Adlon's warning in mind throughout: “You don’t get a neat little button at the end of it.”