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In the recent third season finale of "Louie," a high-pressure system of emotional storm clouds envelops star Louis C.K. – or at least the TV version of him.
He's drained after failing in his smart-human-trick bid to replace David Letterman. He's depressed at the prospect of ringing in the New Year without his daughters. A chance encounter with the woman he's been searching for since their one nearly over-the-edge date ends in her sad, sudden death.
Louie needs to escape, and on a whim heads for China, inspired by a classic children’s book about Ping, a duckling lost on the Yangtze River. The season ends with Louie eating and laughing with a peasant family, language no barrier to the simple joy they're sharing.
It turns out Louis C.K. needs to get away in real life, too: The comic announced this week that he plans to take a year off from his FX show. It's a deserved respite for C.K. And as much as we'll miss the show, his decision also marks a lucky break for fans who, hopefully, will see “Louie” boosted by the creative battery recharge.
The latest at-times brilliant season of “Louie” pulled off the unlikely feat of besting C.K.’s first two impressive outings. More significantly, he sealed his spot among select shows – among them "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" – that successfully transcend formulaic TV, expanding the storytelling possibilities of a medium often too friendly to repetitive, mindless and exploitative junk.
"The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" became known for relatively short seasons and long hiatuses for various reasons, including keeping up the quality. As we've noted, the British model of short seasons and long breaks in-between has yielded satisfying payoffs for everything from "Fawlty Towers" to the original version of "The Office" to "Doctor Who" to "Sherlock."
Producing innovative comedy, to our mind, is even more difficult than turning out top-notch drama. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement bowed out of the quirky, music-video-heavy "Flight of the Conchords" after two seasons and less than two dozen episodes. Dave Chappelle, who put on one of the funniest and most daring sketch shows in TV history, literally fled after two-plus seasons amid the pressure to keep topping himself.
"Louie" is another labor-intensive enterprise – written and directed by C.K., who has appeared in nearly every scene of the 39 episodes over the last three years. The program, an anti-sitcom sitcom with often-wild shifts in tone, has proven a platform for C.K.’s growing ambitions, giving us an hour-long show set in Afghanistan in Season 2 and the most recent season's great three-episode Letterman arc.
C.K., whose TV and standup persona is a balding, flabby ball of post-40 angst and insecurity, must be feeling appropriately confident enough in his creative muscle to know that his fans won’t desert him. He also benefits from the support of FX, which gives him great leeway. C.K. mused about mounting a six-episode story line when he returns sometime in the spring of 2014, about a year and a half after his Season 3 capper.
In the meantime, there will be plenty of Louie, if not “Louie.” C.K.’s standup career goes on and he’s set to appear in a new movie by his prolific comic role model, Woody Allen, whose “Annie Hall” ends with an old joke about a man whose brother thinks he's a chicken. The man doesn’t turn in his sibling because, “I need the eggs.”
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.