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The description of Thursday night's second-season finale of "Louie" reads simply, "Louie has a pretty bad time in general."
That just about sums up every installment of "Louie" – the only common major element in an at-times brilliant show that's proven wildly unpredictable from episode to episode, making the promotional blurb writers’ job a difficult one.
Comedian Louis CK's "pretty bad time” has yielded television's most oddly compelling ostensible sitcom – a semi-depressive's serio-comic slog through life as a forty-something divorced dad, set to an often-somber jazz soundtrack.
While radical shifts in tone punctuated the first season, CK shed even more TV conventions in the latest collection of episodes, going free-form with varying degrees of success as he delved into darker and more ambiguous territory (a suicidal friend, a pretty abstinence spokeswoman who turns out to be a lot more than a sound bite-spouting cartoon). The show hasn't been as consistently laugh-out-loud funny this season. But it's definitely been more intriguing, even in its most unsatisfying, disturbing moments (his sex-only relationship with an unhinged mom made for cringe-worthy awkwardness, and the death of a madman who tried to push Louie in front of a car remains haunting).
Even the surreal, whimsical moments wielded a more unsettling edge this time around. Last year, a young woman escaped a date with Louie by fleeing in a helicopter. This year, Louie watched as two thugs jumped out of car to pull a homeless man off a street corner – only to replace him with another drifter.
Fellow comedians showed up to play decidedly unfunny roles, with show business survivor Joan Rivers snapping Louie out of a self-pitying funk with some tough words and an unlikely roll in the hay. Louie and Dane Cook quarreled over real-life allegations of joke stealing and definitions of success in an uncomfortable scene that felt unscripted and perhaps a bit insider-ish. Bob Saget made a cameo as a sitcom sellout, satirizing his seemingly unshakable "Full House" image.
But if anything defined the label-defying show this season, it was Louie trying to protect his young daughters from the world he’s down on – whether the threat came from a once-beloved, ancient grand aunt who turned out to be a racist in her final breaths, or a couple of costumed goons menacing the family on Halloween.
In the end, Louie’s younger TV daughter saves him – perhaps his life and maybe a piece of his soul – in the most ambitious installment of the season, an hour-long episode about his USO tour of Afghanistan. The plot, which hinges on the Disney-esque device of a stowaway duckling, seems as out of place on the program as angst-ridden Louie does in a literal war zone.
But the corny climax, in which a potentially deadly standoff is broken by unexpected levity – an appearance by fowl Louie’s daughter hid in his bag – offers the only unabashed moment of optimism we've seen over the last 25 episodes. The conventional sappy ending to an unconventional story may be the biggest surprise we'll ever get from CK.
The duckling episode aired a couple weeks after FX announced "Louie" will be back for a third season, which leaves us feeling pretty good about a guy thrives on feeling bad.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.