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What Happened to the Weird 'Louie' of Last Season?

KC Bailey/FX

Last October, shortly after an expletive-laden rant against ISIS fighters (“Oh, fuck you, ISIS. Sincerely please fuck each other in the mouth with forks.”), Louis C.K. deleted his Twitter account. He hasn’t publicly discussed why; he was an intermittent Twitter user to begin with and some of his most praised comedy routines are about the pernicious effects of technology and social media. (Not to mention that, unlike less famous comics, he doesn’t need the publicity.) Though C.K. had never tweeted anything remotely as dumb or troubling as the Trevor Noah “jokes” that created a kerfuffle last week, I have to imagine he was relieved to have already unplugged. The overwhelming message from comics these days has been that Twitter is where comedians go to get in trouble. And if the first four episodes of the new season of “Louie” are any indication, C.K. has lost his appetite for controversy.

“Louie,” which starts its fifth season Thursday night on FX, is still funny, sad, and ungainly. But it’s massively scaled down from last year’s messily ambitious season. (That’s true literally—seven episodes versus last season’s fourteen.) Last year, “Louie” offered two serialized narratives, a 90-minute film about Louie’s childhood in which C.K. barely appeared, and episodes that took place largely in Hungarian.

It was made-for-thinkpiece television, with C.K. diving right into the Problematic. In the second episode, Louie punched a skinny young model in the face. In the third, an overweight woman gave an impassioned—and, in my mind, condescending—speech about how hard it is to date as a fat girl. Then there was an attempted rape, or something that looked like it, including the unforgettable line, “You can’t even rape well.” By the end of the season, critics were asking if C.K. was trolling the Internet, or if “the Internet has a ‘Louie’ Problem.” Did the character have a problem with consent? Was the show condoning Louie’s actions? 

While the show had been provocative before—the first season included an extended discourse on the word “faggot”—it relied on the audience to extend him the benefit of the doubt, and for the most part, we did. That’s Louie. He’s a good guy, he’s a single dad, he’s the self-aware white guy who “gets” race. We can trust him. C.K. had taken two years off to create the season, and he may not have realized the ways that the Internet of 2014 differed from the internet of 2012, how the economy of instant opinions had metastasized. The whole experience was troubling and thought-provoking and kind of exhausting. 

Certainly C.K. seemed exhausted when he promised industry reporters in January that the upcoming episodes would be more “laugh-centric funny than season four.” The sign that we should expect something different of “Louie” this season comes within the first few minutes: a New York subway station, a slice of pizza, familiar jazz. The opening credits, which went missing last season, have returned. The show has gone back to something resembling an actual TV show— something simpler, more straightforwardly funny.   

At times, “Louie” seems to be self-consciously apologizing for the excesses of last season. Instead of Louie as a potentially threatening, lumbering man, he’s a wuss, berated and domineered by strong women. His sort-of-girlfriend Pamela (Pamela Adlon) sets the terms of their relationship. A bulky lesbian suggests he cut off his dick and eat it. In the fourth episode, a small blonde woman actually beats Louie up. Aggressive women are everywhere, and there is Louie, standing by and reassuring them that he poses no threat. The idea that this man might be dangerous is like a bad dream. 

In January, C.K. released a new comedy special, accompanying it with a long, wistful note to fans explaining why he chose to film at a comedy club, not an arena. It’s a long ode to the glory days of comedy clubs, where comics can gather and “say wicked, crazy, silly, wrongful, delightful, upside-down, careless, offensive, disgusting, whimsical things.” The letter is full of nostalgia for a time when he was under less scrutiny, when it was easier for him to go up on stage and bomb, and then move on. No one would remember that misguided comment or offensive joke. Season five of “Louie” is his new experiment in moving on.