Thursday, August 17, 2006

TV REVIEW: Lucky Louie (HBO)

Videotaped before a live audience, Lucky Louie starring comedian Louis C.K. is a sitcom that views itself as the heir to such blue collar classics as The Honeymooners and All in the Family. The series concerns a working class American family run by hapless Louie, living in a tiny, rundown apartment building in an urban setting. The primary sets on this HBO series include a dilapidated hallway (with dents and paint scrapes...), a kitchen, and a tiny bedroom. If the Kramdens were around in the 21st century, this would no doubt be their environs.

Louis is a dopey, overweight working class joe raising his smart-alecky daughter, Lucy (Gould) and engaged in a constant state of war with his wife, a nurse named Kim (Adlon). Louie doesn’t understand Kim, and so his friends at the muffler shop where he works, including Mike (Hagerty), are around to offer sage advice about women. Tina (Kightlinger) is Kim’s friend, performing essentially the same function, only in reverse. The next-door neighbors are Walter (Minor) and Ellen (Hawthorne), a well-to-do, snobby African-American couple. Walter and Ellen wear nicer clothes and own nicer furniture...which raises the practical question of why they’re living in the same rundown urban building with Louie’s one-the-edge-of-poverty family.

In the course of the series, Louie forsakes frequent masturbation sessions when Kim wants more intercourse...a ruse, in fact, for her to become pregnant again (“Pilot”). Another episode, “Kim’s O” revolves around Louie’s wife experiencing her first real orgasm at age thirty-seven...after seven years of marriage! Other plots revolve around other domestic issues, and occasionally, ones involving modern city life, like “A Mugging Story,” wherein Kim goes ballistic after losing her pocket book in a duel with a teenage mugger.

Lucky Louie comes straight from the mind of C.K., who has honed this working-class material for years. “When I started writing this stuff, I didn’t know it would be successful,” he told reporter Ed Condran, for The New York Daily News. “When I said that ‘I now understand why babies get thrown in the garbage,’ I was surprised that Middle America got it. Soccer moms in Cincinnati told me how hilarious the ‘baby in the garbage’ joke was to them.”

Which brings up why many are of two minds about Lucky Louie. The kind of meanspirited humor of “babies thrown in the garbage” is part of the problem with the series. Although Lucky Louie attempts to shatter sitcom conventions by featuring close-up simulated sex (“Kim’s O”), full-frontal nudity (“A Mugging Story”) and scatological language (the word “fuck” is deployed on a regular basis...), the underlying tenor of the series is crass and crude, and rather unpleasant. Married life is depicted ruthlessly, which is an interesting perspective to be sure, yet the characters are all despicable and selfish. Nor do they express themselves cleverly, because swearing is a crutch for bad writers. Why turn a smart phrase when someone can just say "shit" or "fuck?" All these blue collar blues more aptly makes Lucky Louie an heir to Married with Children rather than All in the Family or The Honeymooners.

Also, Norman Lear's classic All in the Family revolved around blue collar people confronting issues such as racism, sexual harassment, rape, menopause. There’s no overarching social value or message in Lucky Louie, as the characters don’t engage the outside world in any meaningful way and remain stubbornly stupid and fail to grow through the run of the first episodes. Archie Bunker was a bigot and ignorant, but in some senses, he grew over the years on the series. By contrast, Louie is a dolt who remains forever a dolt. His character is constantly re-booted to the lowest setting of "stupid" at the beginning of each new misadventure.

However, despite such reservations it is impossible not to appreciate the audacity of Lucky Louie. It doesn’t buy into Hollywood myths about America, and that in itself is refreshing...even liberating. The American dream of prosperity has never looked so unattainable on a TV show...or at least not in a very, very long time, as Neil Swidey writes in The Boston Globe: “Lots of sitcom sets looked this working-class in the ‘70s, in the era of Good Times, before we were all asked to swallow the notion that coffee-house waitresses could afford spacious Greenwich Village apartments with skyline views.”

2 comments:

  1. Joey Bishop Jr.11:45 AM

    Like the man once said, "Never work blue, kid! You only work blue when ya got nuttin' else!"

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  2. i've been a big c.k. fan for awhile. he is one of the most clever and brilliant standups around, and has been for a decade or so.

    he also wrote and directed "pootie tang", a sneaky, absurd, constantly inventive comic masterpiece that has widely been misunderstood as being ironic.

    "lucky louie" at first dissapointed me. it still does, really, as it doesn't really touch his work in stand-up, film, and as head writer for "the chris rock show". but rewatching episodes on vhs, i have caught a lot of wonderful things that stay funny. i just wish it wasn't so bound to replicating the formula of 70s socially aware sitcoms.

    in any case, i've decided the very beginning of the series is a minor comic gem. this is where louie follows his curious daughter's refrain of "why?" to its cosmic conclusion.

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