Regular airtime: Sundays, 10:30pm ET (HBO)
Cast: Louis C.K., Pamela S. Aldon, Kelly Gould, Laura Kightlinger, Jim Norton, Jerry Minor, Kim Hawthorne
PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor
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Family F***ing Affair
At first, it just seems gimmicky. Lucky Louie is a sitcom with cursing. Not just any hardcore cursing, repetitive, rhythmic, longshoreman-style language. At times, the show feels groundbreaking, an honest look at how people really communicate. At others, it’s more like The Honeymooners with naughty words in place of Ed Norton’s “Hey there, Ralphie boy!”
The premise is barebones: Louis (Louis C.K.) and his wife Kim (Pamela S. Adlon, who voices Bobby on King of the Hill) live a decidedly lower middle-class life with their daughter Lucy (Kelly Gould). He works at a muffler store and sort of plays at being Mr. Mom, while Kim has a career. As they interact with their collection of friends (including comedians Laura Kightlinger and Jim Norton), they share the usual litany of modern complaints—no money, no hope, no sex. The difference is in the dialogue. Along with the irony that suffices for humor today, we get a startling selection of “f,” “c,” and “p” bombs.
This verbal daring suggests the show’s ambition, to be the three-camera equivalent of Richard Pryor’s act. While his riffs reflected a society in turmoil, offering a voice of rude reason and leaving an important legacy, Lucky Louie will never be important, period. It doesn’t make use of the power of profanity, but only exploits its shock value.
The pilot episode has an African American couple, Walter (Jerry Minor) and Ellen (Kim Hawthorne), moving into the building. When Louie invites them to his four-year-old daughter’s birthday party, their gift, a black Barbie, horrifies Lucy. Convinced that she’s upset because of the doll’s skin color, Louie tries repeatedly to make up to the neighbors for the incident. Yet every attempt, from a casual conversation to an invitation to dinner, ends up backfiring.
If these misunderstandings were all there was to this minor plot point, we’d argue that Lucky Louie was merely treading typical TV ground. We don’t like race getting mixed up in our merriment, and tend to champion shows where minorities mingle (Seinfeld) but remain peripheral to plots. Here, Louie and Walter have a startling final confrontation which points to the series’ potential. Desperate to get in the black neighbors’ good graces, Louie invites them to a barbeque. After the initial banter, Walter makes it very clear that he personally just doesn’t like Louie. That’s all right, the host says. They don’t have to be friends. But Louie is concerned that his daughter doesn’t have the “proper perspective” on the ethnic makeup of society. He wants to broaden her horizons before she grows up narrow-minded and intolerant.
It’s a moment as startling as the swearing. To hear two adult males address a subject as touchy as race honestly is highly unusual. So is their agreement to fake a friendship for Lucy’s sake. In fact, when Lucky Louie avoids the forced funny business, it’s incredibly cutting and astute. Yet when the comedy creeps over into the smarmy or the crass (as when Louie eats birthday cake out of the garbage can), it exposes the entire enterprise as a publicity stunt.
One example is a conversation Louie has with his muffler shop buddies. In an incredibly silly monologue, Rich (Norton) argues that women once ruled the earth, until men suppressed them and rewrote the history books to wipe out any signs of the females’ more civilized reign. While his views on paternalism as a true political agenda are funny, the rest of the bit is stupid, just mean-spirited misogyny.
In an equally inane sequence, Tina (Kightlinger) schools Kim on the fine art of seduction. Holding a rather large piece of raw meat in her hands, she proceeds to slap and tickle the roast while spewing a collection of crude come-ons. Perhaps if there was a point beyond exploring the explicit, we’d find it satirically satisfying.
Yet Lucky Louie can’t seem to stray beyond its obsession with sex. It’s the focus of the pilot, as well as the 18 June installment, where Louie seeks satisfaction tips from the more skilled Walter (Louie and Kim can hear their neighbors through the walls). In what appears to be an uncomfortable running gag, Louie loves masturbating in the kitchen closet. When he’s caught by his wife, he argues for this “magic time” between a man and his member. As a subtext, such frank depiction of sexual issues is intriguing. But Lucky Louie‘s preoccupation with the prurient threatens to turn a promising spin on the sitcom into a one-note novelty.
In fact, an effective combination of bluntness and bravery is on display during the very first scene in the very first show. As Louie feeds Lucy her morning meal, he is inundated with a litany of classic “Why?” questions. When he tries to answer each and every inquiry in a truthful manner, she paints him further and further into a corner. At last, Louie snaps, “Because God is dead and we’re all alone.” Satisfied, the child shuts up. It’s a wonderful sequence, smart and sharply written. It doesn’t require cursing to make its point, or nonstop references to penises and vaginas to foster its delights.
Lucky Louie‘s novel nastiness pushes it past the standard stale half-hour comedy. And because most people speak in a less than mature, measured manner, the series hits an intriguing note of everyday authenticity. Once it finds a way to balance out the foul with the funny, it could become the television benchmark it believes it is.
Lucky Louie - Smoking and Family