Søren Kierkegaard famously observed that life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards; the same can be said of series television. With the medium's shift toward long-form storytelling—and in reaction to the proliferation of instant recaps—the creative minds behind many of TV's most prestigious shows have increasingly argued that passing judgment on a single episode or even a partial season is like reviewing the first four-fifths of a novel. As “The Wire”'s David Simon put it, "it doesn't mean anything until there's a beginning, a middle and an end."
Louis C.K.'s “Louie” is not a show that has concerned itself overmuch with serialized stories. The second episode of its current season, "Model," ended with the version of himself that C.K. plays on the show, facing a lifetime of ruinous financial restitution for inadvertently punching a wealthy astronaut's daughter; the next week, he was back on stage at the Comedy Cellar, his existence no more or less tenuous than it had been before. But after three standalone episodes, “Louie” dived into the deep end with a six-part story called "Elevator," whose final segment aired Monday night. Although "Louie"'s fourth season is still a work in progress, "Elevator" is a substantial accomplishment that merits consideration on its own terms.
C.K. took a year off between “Louie”'s third and fourth seasons, and he returned with his energy renewed and his ambitions enlarged. He no longer seems to be thinking in terms of episodes, or even multi-part arcs, but about the season as a whole. The breaks between airings, especially the week between "The Model" and "So Did the Fat Lady," seem as calculated as the choices he makes on screen. Had they been broadcast on the same night, "The Model" and "So Did the Fat Lady" would have been seen as a matched pair, considered only as mirror images and never in their own right.
"Elevator," however, demands to be seen as a whole, and not just because of its "Part 1–6" subtitles. It's longer than either of the two feature films C.K. directed—Pootie Tang (2001), which was recut by the studio without his involvement, and Tomorrow Night (1998), a surreal black comedy that languished in obscurity until he released it on his website earlier this year—and more thematically coherent than either.
"Elevator" essentially tells two interwoven stories. In one strand, Louie comes to the rescue of Ivanka (Ellen Burstyn), an elderly Hungarian woman who is trapped in his building's elevator, and meets her niece, Amia (Ezster Balint). He falls for Amia, despite the fact that neither speaks the other's language. In the other strand, he's faced with the responsibilities of fatherhood, especially caring for his younger daughter, Jane (Ursula Parker). In "Elevator's" first segment, Jane steps off a subway train just as the doors close, forcing her father and her older sister into a panic. When she's confronted with her actions, she explains she thought the whole thing was simply a dream.
That dream-like sentiment is echoed by "Elevator's" last scene, in which Louie and Amia, who've fumbled their way into a romantic relationship in spite of the language barrier, finally communicate through the intermediary of a bilingual waiter. Although her dedication to her son means she must return to Hungary, just as Louie's attachment to his daughters keeps him close to home, she thanks him for the "beautiful and unexpected adventure" of a relationship they both entered knowing that it would end, if not quite embracing the fact.
"Elevator" deliberately leaves Amia’s dialogue it un-subtitled. It's a measure of both C.K.'s direction and Balint's performance that few of the lines—when you look at Slate's translation—are a surprise. We get Amia's drift even if we don't understand her words. At the end of "Elevator”'s fifth part, after a conversation composed entirely of variations on the word "Bye," they finally consummate their relationship Their nonverbal communication stands in pointed contrast to Louie's relationship with his ex-wife (Susan Kelechi Watson), which is strained by Jane's disciplinary problems at school. In "Elevator (Part 4)," he steps away from a couples-counseling session to stick his head out the window and scream, returning to the therapy-in-progress without missing a beat.
Perhaps, as Louie's daughter forecast in its first segment, "Elevator" is a dream, although not the kind where Louie wakes up to discover Patrick Duffy is still alive. It's a dream in the way a honeymoon or a sabbatical is a dream, one whose foreordained finality gives you permission to depart from your ordinary life, with the bittersweet comfort of knowing you'll eventually come back to earth. Louie couldn't be married to Amia or raise a child with her without speaking her language, but for the space of a few weeks, they can be something to each other. It could never last, but it doesn't have to. She's his Magyar Pixie Dream Girl, a half-blank screen on which he can project his fantasies of a sweetly romantic, and largely chaste, idyll, one without the complications that inevitably cloud Louie's other relationships.
Louie's life, a tangle of career anxieties, romantic failings, and the mixture of intense love and blind rage that is parenting, is pointedly contrasted in "Elevator" to the idealized existence of his fellow comedian Todd Barry, a single 49-year-old who knows all the angles: which waitress will give him a free donut at breakfast; how to dupe a club owner into picking him up at the bus station so he can save on travel expenses. It's that tangle that pulls Louie away from a critical conversation with Amia to rescue his family from hurricane Jasmine Forsythe's wrath in "Elevator"'s climactic segment. The dream can't last; "Elevator”'s lyrical conclusion was followed immediately by "Pamela (Part 1)," in which he attempted to rape an unrequited love who came back into his life. (We'll have to wait two weeks to see how that plays out, since C.K. has dropped another two-part story in the middle of "Pamela”'s three episodes.) Taken on its own, "Elevator" is one of the most beguiling things C.K. has ever done, but it's planted in the middle of a season in which he's disfigured one woman and tried to rape another. Even him being a nice guy can't last.
C.K. is straying from his comfort zone, and he knows it; in one of the season's first scenes, his building's superintendent upbraids Louie for telling a complicated joke: "Why you gotta clutter it up? I mean, aren't you a comedian?" "Elevator" answers that question with the improviser’s credo, "Yes, and ..." C.K. can be hilarious, but he's trying to be more. He's gone entire episodes without even attempting a joke, which is both a bold move and an indulgent one. Drawing heavily on Woody Allen's style, right down to his preference for long takes and a jazz score, he's forging ahead with a show unlike anything else on television—or, for that matter, in movie theaters. "Elevator" is too choppy to work as a movie; if anything, C.K. emphasizes the commercial breaks, using them to punctuate what feels less like a series of TV episodes than a string of short films. But the chances are that "Elevator" will stand as a landmark all the same, a determined step in television's transition from a mass-produced, studio-driven commodity to an individual, idiosyncratic art. That's a dream worth holding on to.