Let’s get this out of the way: I love Louis CK. I’ve watched (and enjoyed) all of his stand up concert films and every episode of his FX series, Louie. Louis CK’s humor appeals to me because it makes me squirm: it makes me examine the terrible parts of myself and question my belief systems. He does what, in my opinion, all great comedy should do: “it walks the line between hilarity and horror; make me laugh when my first instinct is to cry.” (yes, I just quoted myself; don’t judge me). A great example of how Louis CK achieves this fine balance of horror, humor and humility can be found in the lengthy stand-up segment of last night’s episode, “Pamela Part I,” a bit which I first saw back in March, when he delivered it as part of his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live. It’s a great bit, reeling us in with the funny, then surprising and shaming us, then finally, making us laugh. For example, CK talks about how the Bible refers to God as “our Father” and as male, even though it would make more sense for God, if s/he truly exists, to be a female:
The point is: Women birthed us, women raised us. So why aren’t they running things? I think I know why. I think it’s because, millions of years ago, women were in charge, and they were mean, they were horrible! They made us walk around naked, and then they’d laugh at you and flick your penis when you walk by… They were AWFUL! But what could you do? It’s your Mom and her friends, like what could you possibly do about it? And then one guy punched his mom, and we’re like: “We can hit them!” And then we did the whole thing.
After hearing this bit I actually turned to my husband and said “I should show this to my students to explain the concept of patriarchy!” Louis CK has that kind of effect on me. For this reason I’m willing to give Louis CK the benefit of the doubt when he takes a risk in his comedy. True, Louie has been an uneven series; for example “The Elevator,” a 6-episode story arc focusing on Louie’s chaste courtship of Amia (Eszter Balint), a Hungarian woman temporarily staying in Louie’s apartment building, was not always successful (in my humble opinion). For example, it’s hard to understand why two fortysomething adults would hang out with each for hours on end without being able to communicate (Louie doesn’t speak any Hungarian, Amia doesn’t speak any English) and without having sex. No sex? No conversation? What were they doing all month? However, I forgave this unbelievable communication gap (have these two never heard of Google Translate? It’s free, Louie!) because it paid off very well in “The Elevator, Part 6,” when Amia takes Louie to a Hungarian restaurant and begs a waiter to translate her love letter into English.
During the six episodes of “The Elevator” we only heard Louie’s point-of-view. He tells his friends, and anyone who will listen, that he loves Amia, despite the communication gap (and only knowing her for one month). But we never hear Amia’s (English) words. So when the waiter sits down at Louie and Amia’s table, puts on his spectacles, and begins reading “Dear Louie…” I was almost as excited as Louie was to hear what she has to say. As the waiter reads Amia’s words, my eyes stay fixed on Louie, who is (charmingly) both embarrassed and delighted by the sudden rush of emotions he can now attribute to his love object. A month of unsaid thoughts and desires come pouring out of the waiter’s mouth until Louie grips his hand and asks him to stop. It’s too much at once; Louie can’t take it all in. He’s not accustomed to women reciprocating his desires. The revelation is bittersweet, of course, because Amia will soon return to Hungary permanently, to be with her son and friends and life. Their love is doomed.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that this touching love scene was preceded by Louie venturing out into the wilds of Brooklyn in the middle of a hurricane to rescue his ex-wife and two daughters from their slowly-flooding apartment building. Why did these three women need rescuing? As Louie’s ex-wife (Kelechi Watson) says, more than once, her husband is out of town! Yes, when her man is out of town, Janet, a normally resourceful, independent woman, turns into a wailing mess of panic and throws her arms around her ex-husband and sobs in relief when he shows up to save her and her daughters. This scene was so over-the-top in terms of its macho, hero-complex pacing that I almost expected it all to be just a fantasy in Louie’s head, an attempt to make up for the deflating experience of finally getting to screw the woman he loves (or at least lusts after) and then having her run off into the rain, muttering in Hungarian. Placing Amia’s love letter scene directly after Louie’s heroic rescue of his (all-female) family makes it feel too much like a “reward,” as something he earned for “manning up.” But maybe that was the point? Was Louis CK trying to demonstrate how his character has such a lowly sense of self that he can only be loved and receive love after performing an over-the-top rescue mission of three helpless women? Is this perhaps a commentary on the character’s deep neuroses? Maybe. Maybe.
I’m willing to forgive the masculinist fantasies at the heart of “Elevator, Part 6,” however I am far more ambivalent about the key scene in “Pamela, Part I” in which Louie appears to/tries to rape his friend/crush, Pamela (Pamela Adlon). Recall that Pamela is Louie’s longtime love interest who repeatedly shot down his attempts to romance her. Let’s revisit the speech Louie makes to Pamela back in season 2:
Pamela, I’m in love with you. Yeah, it’s that bad. You’re so beautiful to me. Shut up! Lemme tell you. Let me. Every time I look at your face or even remember it, it wrecks me – and the way you are with me – and you’re just fun and you shit all over me and you make fun of me and you’re real. I don’t have enough time in any day to think about you enough. I feel like I’m going to live a thousand years cause that’s how long it’s gonna take me to have one thought about you which is that I’m crazy about you, Pamela. I don’t wanna be with anybody else. I don’t. I really don’t. I don’t think about women anymore. I think about you. I had a dream the other night that you and I were on a train. We were on this train and you were holding my hand. That’s the whole dream. You were holding my hand and I felt you holding my hand. I woke up and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t real. I’m sick in love with you, Pamela. It’s like a condition. It’s like polio. I feel like I’m gonna die if I can’t be with you. And I can’t be with you. So I’m gonna die – and I don’t care cause I was brought into existence to know you and that’s enough. The idea that you would want me back it’s like greedy.
Amazing shit, right? But Pamela isn’t into it. She only likes Louie as a friend so she gets on a plane and moves, permanently, to Paris. That is, until she returns in “Elevator Part 3,” contrite, hoping that she and Louie can “pursue something, a girl/guy kissing thing.” Pamela doesn’t sound convinced, even as she tries to convince Louie, and he gently turns her down because he has fallen for Amia.
But in “Pamela Part 1” Louie is heartbroken (“walking poetry,” according to the pragmatic Dr. Bigelow [Charles Grodin], resident sage of Louie) and decides to give Pamela a call. Like any self-respecting person, Pamela sees the rebound for what it is, and Louie doesn’t deny it. Still, Louie attempts romance once again one night, after Pamela babysat his daughters. In a scene which echoes the first time Louie and Amia kiss (and later, make love), Louie awkwardly leans in to kiss Pamela. After she ducks his mouth, he tries again. And again. And AGAIN. He grabs and pulls at her. He drags her small frame from room to room. He reminds her that she wanted to do some “girl/guy kissing stuff,” but Pamela isn’t having it. Is it because she can’t bring herself to admit that she’s attracted to Louie? Or is it because she would really like to be attracted to a “nice guy” like Louie but just…isn’t?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Pamela did or did not “truly” want in that moment. What matters is what her mouth was saying and her body was doing — both were communicating, quite clearly, no. Old Louie would have given up after the first pass. Like a turtle retreating into his shell, it takes little for old Louie to disengage. But new Louie, the Louie who can single-handedly rescue three women from a Brooklyn apartment, who won over the recalcitrant Hungarian, doesn’t retreat. He is clearly frustrated by Pamela’s hot/cold routine. He believes that if he can just fuck her, or just kiss her, then she’ll know, unequivocally, that she is, in fact, attracted to him. Louie is large man, tall and broad, and Pamela is small. After a lengthy struggle, Pamela finally frees herself and screams “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid. God! You can’t even rape well!” After he secures a psuedo-kiss from Pamela (still under duress), she escapes his apartment and we see Louie’s expression: it is not one of shame but triumph.
Throughout this entire ordeal I was horrified, not because I haven’t seen this scene before — the trope of the woman who resists and resists and resists until finally, she collapses in a man’s arms, is a tried and true cliche — but because I didn’t expect to see it in an episode of Louie. Now I’ve read several recaps of this episode that point to Louie’s lengthy bit about patriarchal oppression (quoted above) being strategically placed before this scene. In other words, because Louis CK was aware that this scene was “rapey,” it’s okay. It’s honest and real. It’s about how date rape happens. It’s about how all men are just a little bit rapey. Maybe. Maybe. But coming in the wake of the University of California Santa Barbara shootings less than 2 weeks ago, in which a young, troubled man murdered seven humans because he was tired of “not getting the girl,” this episode felt like salt rubbed in a very raw wound.
In his (mostly) thoughtful reflections on this episode for the AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff writes:
The thing it does more bracingly than any episode of TV I’ve seen is place us in the point-of-view of a man who would force himself—no matter how mildly—on a woman and have us see how easily that could slip over into being any man if the circumstances were right, if his feelings were hurt just so or if she lashed out at him while crying on their bathroom floor. To be a man is to remember constantly, daily, that you are, on average, bigger than the average-sized member of half the population, that your mere presence can be scary or threatening to them, especially in the wrong circumstances, and that it is up to you to be on guard against that happening, no matter how unfair that might seem.
But here’s the thing: I’m tired of trying to understand the man’s point of view in this situation. I don’t want to know anymore about the PUAHaters and their hurt feelings. I don’t want to hear about how men think about sex all the time (newsflash: SO DO WOMEN). I don’t care what led up to Louie’s attempted rape of Pamela. I don’t care about his low self esteem or hurt feelings. I don’t want to sympathize with this point of view anymore. Louis CK and other well-meaning men want to tell us how hard it is to be a big strong horny man who just wants that cocktease to finally…give…in. But damn, Louis CK, I’m just not here for that.
I know lots of men who would rather die than force themselves on a woman. I know lots of men who are not in the least bit rapey. I know lots of men who can control themselves. So let’s do ourselves a favor: let’s stop pretending like rape is a man’s default setting when a woman says no because it’s not. I want think pieces about men who don’t rape women. I want to see entire episodes of television in which a man does not rape a woman, or attempt to rape a woman. I would like a rape-free TV this summer.
But, as Louis CK says, “…we’re like’ We can hit them!’ And then we did the whole thing.”
Around this time of year, every newspaper, magazine, and blog offers up some form of the “Best Of” list, chronicling the best films, television series (or episodes), music, books, Broadway shows, trends, etc. of the previous year. Obviously, ranking the year’s best of anything is subjective and also impossible (after all, only an individual who was watched every television episode that aired in 2012 could state, definitively, which were in the top 5). And yet, such lists are so alluring. As a working mom, who reads, watches and listens to only a fraction of what I would like to read, watch and listen to, these “Best Of” lists take an unwieldy set of pop culture possibilities and whittles it down to a manageable chunk. These lists tell me “These are the only films from 2012 that you need to watch.” Then I take a deep breath and load up my Netflix queue.
You might thinking to yourself “Why would I read a ‘Best Of’ list compiled by a woman who has just admitted that she relies on other people’s ‘Best Of’ lists to tell her what pop culture was worthwhile from the previous year?” Excellent question. Why are you reading this? Don’t you have something better to do? No? Well then settle in, friend. I have some completely subjective selections for you based on an unrepresentative sampling of the year’s popular culture. I think you’ve made the right choice.
So without further ado, I present Part I of my “Best of 2012” list:
Best Television Series
2012 was an excellent year for television. I loved watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lose the final pieces of his soul on Breaking Bad. The last shot of the Girls season finale, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself on Coney Island (after passing out in the subway and getting her purse stolen) and slowly stuffs her face with cake, was the perfect end to a first season filled with uncomfortable, body-focused stories and imagery. The look on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) face when he sees his daughter wearing fishnets and go-go boots or the scene in which Henry (Christopher Stanley) feeds his newly-plump wife (aka, “Fat Betty”) some steak at the kitchen table in the middle of the night were two highlights of the Mad Men season. I also loved watching all or most of the 2012 seasons of Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Happy Endings, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23, Parenthood, Teen Mom, and Game of Thrones. No, I don’t watch Homeland, The Good Wife, or Justified. I’m sure I would like all three, but right now I don’t have room for them in my TV diet. Like I said, “best of” lists are subjective. Let’s move on.
Dog smoking cigarette = win
While I loved all of the aforementioned programs and could make a “Best” case for many of them, my choice for “best” television series of 2012 goes to the FX series, Wilfred, because it is, simply put, the most bizarre show I have ever watched, with the exception of (of course) Twin Peaks.
“Can you hear it?” “No, ma’am, I cannot.”
The pilot episode of Wilfred opens with Ryan (Elijah Woods) trying and failing to commit suicide. We eventually find out that Ryan used to be a successful lawyer, working in his father’s firm, but when we meet him he is unemployed and estranged from his father (the reasons for this are only explained in the second season). Ryan’s attempts to end his life are finally interrupted by his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), who wants him to watch her dog, Wilfred. Ryan is surprised to discover that Wilfred appears to him as a large, vulgar, Australian pothead (Jason Gann) wearing a very unconvincing dog costume. And the kicker is: Ryan is the only one who sees Wilfred in this way. This may seem like a gimmicky basis for a show, but it is also the source of some of the show’s greatest gags: one minute Wilfred is lecturing Ryan on ethics and the next he is chasing and maiming pelicans on the beach (“It’s a pelican !!! IT’S A PELICAN!!!..It was a pelican!!!”):
In a lukewarm review of pilot, Todd VanDerWerff explains “the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak.” But Wilfred isn’t just shots of Jason Gann humping or chatting up his life partner, Bear, who is a large stuffed bear. The reason I love the show is because it so deftly shifts from bleakness to laugh-out-loud comedy. I often read about how shows like Louie and Girls are changing the rules of the sitcom by offering up tragic moments (like when Louie’s love interest dies in front of him on Christmas Day) in between low-brow body humor and Seinnfeld-ian levels of navel-gazing. But Wilfred takes those devices to another level. In Wilfred, despair and laughter are produced by the same cue — what is light quickly becomes dark, and vice versa.This is because the series is structured around the tension between two realities: either Ryan is a lonely, depressed, schizophrenic who uses an imaginary friend to work through his life’s problems or he is a lonely, depressed but otherwise sane man who happens to see his neighbor’s dog in human form because that is something that happens in this world. Therefore almost every scene on the series can be read in two ways.
Each episode is named after a particular lesson or virtue that Ryan needs to learn, such as “Letting Go,” “Avoidance,” and “Honesty.” Wilfred teaches these lessons to an unwilling Ryan , usually embroiling him in interpersonal conflicts that force the passive man to say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Although Ryan’s suicide attempt from the pilot is barely acknowledged, the series is clearly about teaching Ryan how to “live” (and live) in the world again. Of course, every “lesson” Wilfred teaches Ryan serves Wilfred’s interests in some way. We feel good when Ryan learns to stand up for himself or to reconnect with his institutionalized mother (played by an excellently loopy Mary Steenburgen), but we are always left wondering: is Wilfred helping Ryan to live or is he destroying Ryan’s life, piece by piece? And if Ryan is simply imagining Wilfred, then is Ryan using this dog-shaped delusion as an excuse to destroy his own life? Is he committing suicide, just at an incredibly slow rate?
Wilfred dances in between these many possibilities. Its genius lies in convincing the viewer to believe one scenario and then upending that belief with a single line or image. For example, after Ryan finally gives up on the possibility of romance with Jenna, he begins dating a co-worker named Amanda (Allison Mack). Amanda seems perfect — she’s funny, quirky, and clearly besotted with Ryan. It seems that perhaps Ryan will finally be able to have a loving intimate relationship after past traumas had made this kind of human connection difficult for him. But in “Truth,” Wilfred tries to convince Ryan that he should not move in with Amanda because he is still too mentally unstable. Ryan believes that Wilfred, as usual, is just looking out for his own self interests — if Amanda moves in, Wilfred will lose his best friend. Who will take him for walks or smoke pot with him? As they have this argument, an earthquake traps Ryan and Wilfred in the basement (of course). Bruce (Dwight Yoakam), the only other human who can see Wilfred (and thus the only plot point in the series that lends credence to the theory that Ryan might not crazy), appears to rescue the duo, promising to reveal the “truth” about Amanda that is concealed in a suitcase. This truth will prove why Wilfred is right.
But first, Ryan and Bruce must engage in a game of “Calvinball,” which involves pillow fights and “truth or dare.” The game is deliriously surreal, like so much in the series. When Ryan finally “wins ” the game and is granted access to the magical suitcase, he doesn’t discover anything about Amanda. Instead he finds a timer that tells him that he has spent 12 hours in his basement playing a bizarre game orchestrated by his neighbor’s dog. In other words, Wilfred was right — Ryan should not move in with Amanda.
Ryan is such a likable character (he is kind, empathetic and selfless to a fault) and we want him to be happy. But when we see the timer, the audience realizes — at the same moment that Ryan does — that he is crazy … but wait, is he? Or is this just what Wilfred wants Ryan to think in order to maintain the status quo? Isn’t it suspicious that everything that ends up “being for the best” also happens to serve Wilfred’s interests? These uncertainties are what drive the series and which make this show more than a collection of pooping on the lawn jokes (though I am 100% for a show that is nothing more than pooping on the lawn jokes).
And if that doesn’t interest you, Wilfred is worth watching for its “couch scenes” alone. Incidentally, as I was writing this post I found out that these short scenes, appearing at the end of show (after the main story has been resolved), are called “tags,” or “codas” (thank you Twitter):
Learning is fun!
The tags in Wilfred almost always take place on the couch in Ryan’s basement and feature Ryan and Wilfred engaged in a banal task, like playing a board game or having an inane conversation. They’re always fabulous:
And if that doesn’t interest you? Well, there are loads of other shows to watch. I hear The Good Wife is awesome, so maybe you should watch that instead?
I will be posting my “Best Meme,” “Best Film,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” picks over the course of the next few weeks. Stay tuned! If you dare!