Last night’s “Louie” featured Sarah Baker in what should be a star-making turn. As Vanessa, a smart, sunny waitress who spends the episode wooing Louie, Baker is wry and endearing—until the episode’s last few minutes, when she suddenly turns exasperated and heart-rending, in a seven-minute monologue that functions as a cri de coeur on behalf of fat women everywhere. “You can talk into the microphone and say you can't get a date, you're overweight. It's adorable,” she tells Louie. “But if I say it, they call the suicide hotline on me. … What do you think is going to happen? You think your dick is going to fall off if you hold hands with a fat girl?” The speech has already landed her on the front page of The New York Times’ arts section, and all the praise headed Baker’s way is entirely deserved—it’s an astonishing, seemingly out-of-nowhere performance. (She was previously known only for a supporting role in a failed NBC sitcom.) But the heavy-handed monologue also feeds into all of Louis C.K.’s worst creative impulses, letting him remain a pliable sad-sack who needs women to enlighten him.
“Anyway, I do love women. Very much,” were Louie’s first words in this episode, titled “So Does the Fat Lady.” And, sure, Louie does love women, but mostly they terrify him, and not without reason. In the last few seasons, he keeps meeting women who are wildly aggressive, unpredictable, unstable: Melissa Leo’s gruff Laurie, who violently sexually assaults him; Delores, a deranged parent from Louie’s kids’ school who offers no-strings-attached sex and then insists he buy her blueberries and cries while he uncomfortably spanks her. (Later, she takes him along on a deeply unpleasant trip to Ikea.) In the season one finale, he meets Eunice, who drags him to New Jersey (!) to have a threesome with F. Murray Abraham. And then, of course, there was Parker Posey’s Liz, the irresistible manic pixie who was actually, frighteningly manic and gave last season its tragic heart. Some of these episodes are among the series' best: raw and complicated, like an open wound. After a while, though, there are diminishing returns.
When women aren’t unstable kooks dragging Louie along on some adventure, they have a different role: teaching him life’s lessons. Tarese, the black supermarket checkout girl who berates him after he creepily follows her home in the first season, tells him, “Well guess what, you don’t get everything you want. Not all the time.” In the second season, he sleeps with Joan Rivers after she reminds him he needs to get over himself and pay his comedy dues. Gaby Hoffman’s April, who has to break up with herself on his behalf, confronts him about his cowardice:
Do you realize you might be wasting four years of both of our lives because you can't just say 'Bye, see ya' right now, because in this second, that feels weird? … You could save yourself another divorce, and years of false living, if you could just be a man in this one moment and say to me, 'April, thank you for helping me,' y'know? 'Have a good one—see you sometime.'
And sometimes a woman gets to fill both roles. Chloe Sevigny, playing a quirky bookseller who took him around New York on a detective hunt for Parker Posey’s character, pleasures herself in a cafe and then gives him the best piece of advice he’s ever received: “You can’t just go through life and hope that love is just going to flow into you like plankton into a fucking whale’s mouth.”
Last week, “Louie” featured the first type in Yvonne Strahovski’s gorgeous model, who tickles Louie until he accidentally elbows her in the face. Last night’s episode felt like a mirror image of that one, with Louie pursued by a woman who isn’t wildly out of his league, who can make him laugh without resorting to tickling. Vanessa is aggressive, but charmingly so as she unabashedly flirts. "Are you scared that I'm asking you out? Because I am,” she says. Despite her persistence and his general bad luck with the opposite sex, Louie doesn’t bite, and even if you don’t know the episode’s title, it’s not difficult to guess the reason.
Eventually, though, he asks her to coffee—platonically—and they wander through New York talking about dating and his daughters and her first period like they’re in a Before Sunrise remake. Then they hit a snag when she casually refers to herself as a “fat girl,” and Louie awkwardly, bumblingly insists that she’s not fat. The camera stops suddenly and swerves around them, settling on Baker’s face as it falls. “You know what the meanest thing you can say to a fat girl is?” she asks him “You’re not fat.” The next seven minutes are one long, uninterrupted take as she wearily explains to Louie about body-image and double standards and what it’s like to date in New York as a fat women in her thirties.
While it’s emotional and bracingly honest, the speech—despite the star turn by Baker—falls flat, weighed down by its earnestness. It’s meant to be sincere, but it comes off as condescending in a show written by a comic who speaks so bluntly about his own relationship to his body.1 C.K. gives Vanessa the microphone, but he never really lets it become her story, instead reducing the character to the lecture she can offer. It’s well-meaning, but it’s not nearly as interesting or thoughtful as what results when Louie clashes with a Parker Posey or a Melissa Leo, the crazy, abrasive women who want more than just to hold a nice guy’s hand.
There’s some brave material here, and I have to credit Louis C.K. for broaching the topic. But instead of working through uncomfortable and difficult ideas, as his best episodes do, here C.K. pulls his punches and just offers a lesson to his less-enlightened fictional self, one more chapter in The Education of Louie. It’s the most conventional part of a deeply unconventional show, oddly reminiscent of a traditional sitcom dynamic, where the sensible woman keeps the befuddled guy in check, “Home Improvement”-style. At the episode’s end, Louie gets to be the good guy that Vanessa keeps insisting he is, as he grabs her hand in a grand gesture of sorts. She smiles, he smiles, and they slowly walk away, hand-in-hand. It’s lovely to watch, but a little too easy.
That’s the subject of my favorite scene in this episode, as he and his brother do what they call a Bang Bang: stuffing their faces with one huge meal and then heading to another restaurant to eat another. The first meal, at an Indian restaurant, is filmed gorgeously, as the camera closes in on the food arriving at the table. Then the jaunty soundtrack ends as soon as they arrive at the diner, and we cut immediately to the end of their meal. First the joy; then the shame.