TV

Children of Louie: How Louis C.K. Inspired Your Favorite TV Shows

Emotional, personal, weird comedies are winning right now.

By Brenden Gallagher

Louie, the critically adored FX comedy, written, directed, and everything-elsed by Louis C.K. is on an indefinite hiatus, but it feels like he never left. C.K. is executive producing two shows premiering this fall, One Mississippi (starring and created by Tig Notaro) and Better Things (from Louie writer/producer Pamela Adlon). These shows join Baskets, starring Zach Galifianakis with C.K. as an executive producer, and Atlanta, a show that Louie has no part in, but clearly takes inspiration from Louie. Combined, these four series are ushering in a thoughtful, strange, and beautiful era in TV comedy using ideas road tested in Louie as a jumping off point.

Commentators have referred to Louie and these offspring as having an “indie movie” feel. That isn’t quite right. These shows function more like short films, taking daring stylistic and tonal risks from episode to episode, introducing concepts that may not exist next week. On Louie, this meant some episodes taking place in Louie’s childhood, scenes that use only gibberish dialogue, and episodes that dive in and out of a surreal dreamlike state. Louie’s style has been characterized by a lack of concrete style. One episode might be lyrical dreamscape and the next might feel like a neurotic indie comedy in which a stand-up act comes to life.

Of these four Louie-inspired shows, Atlanta has received the most critical acclaim and audience attention. Creator and star Donald Glover is a force in television and music, and he has used his newfound cache to craft something deeply personal and creative. Atlanta is a show about Black people that aims to be unlike any other show about Black people. It’s almost as if episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm were playing out outside of buildings where Empire is taking place. Rather than spending all of its energy on how to make it in the rap game, the show takes constant detours, examining what its like to cross paths with a Black police officer, to live up to a street image that is wholly constructed, and how to honor a discount at your favorite wing spot.

FX

If Atlanta hewed closely to Curb’s realism, it would still be a special show. The ease and depth with which the show looks at issues like police brutality, race relations, and sexuality is impressive. Borrowing from Louie’s playbook, the series offers moments of surrealism to punctuate the most profound moments. When Glover’s character Earn contemplates a difficult decision on a bus, a man in a suit offers him a sandwich in a scene straight out of David Lynch (Louis C.K. knows a thing or two about David Lynch). In the next episode, when two characters get hooked up with some chicken wings, they end up contemplating the cost and responsibilities of fame thanks to a cryptic, foreboding cashier. So far, the show is far less adventurous than Louie, but that’s okay. Rather than offering a different formal experience with each episode, Atlanta seems interested in integrating brief, penetrating moments of absurdity to punctuate the action.

FX

One Mississippi and Better Things don’t start out as strong as Atlanta, but they are no less interesting. One Mississippi follows Tig Notaro on a semi-autobiographical journey as she comes home to the South to see her dying mother while struggling with her own cancer recovery. This series is far more melancholy and muted than the other three, a tone that Louie strikes in its more earnest moments, like in controversial episodes co-starring Pamela Adlon. Notaro uses fleeting moments of surreality to reinforce the odd pain of loss. At one point, she fantasizes about triumphantly leaving the hospital pushing her mother’s corpse. In other moments, she hallucinates encounters with her dead mom. Rather than using these scenes to jar us, they actually complete the picture of grief that Notaro sketches out. One Mississippi borrows far more from Louie with its tone of Chekhovian sadness than with its rare dips into absurdity.

In Adlon’s Better Things, the experiment is totally formal. The pilot follows the single mother of three (Adlson also plays semi-autobiographical character) as she tries to balance her scattered, hectic life. “Sam” bounces from an audition for a network procedural to a conversation about buying weed for her daughter to a text exchange with an unavailable man to another conversation with her daughter who barges in on her when she’s about to masturbate. The spastic structure of the pilot is meant to mirror her harried lifestyle. You leave the pilot wondering what the rest of the show will be about, but even if you aren’t sure where it’s going to go, you can’t help but enjoy the fractured, hilarious ride.

FX

Of these four shows, we’ve had the most time with Baskets, the masterful series in which Zach Galifianakis plays Chip Baskets, an aspiring clown trained in the French tradition who moves home to Bakersfield to work as a rodeo clown and figure out what’s next. Oddly enough, Baskets is the most traditional of these four shows. Though Baskets is unafraid to dwell in long stretches of profound sadness, the melancholy and absurdity are woven into traditional sitcom story structure. That being said, the stories often wind into moments almost too surreal for description. Two of the best moments of the first season were Chip and his mother (an Emmy-worthy Louie Anderson) sharing Easter breakfast at a casino and another involving the rodeo boss (played with hilarious wisdom by Earnest Adams) trekking across the desert to reunite with his estranged son. Baskets doesn’t offer dream sequences and surreal metaphor. It doesn’t attempt to change the structure or shape of television as we know it. But, in a way, Baskets may be the most worthy heir to Louie, as the show relentlessly uncovers the absurdity of everyday life, from bulk containers of Costco cheeseballs to advertisements for online universities that don’t actually teach anything.

None of these four shows is as adventurous as Louie. At its best, Louie is as experimental as anything you would see in art school, as out there as the most esoteric work of David Lynch or John Waters. But these more conservative offspring are actually a testament to Louie’s impact. When Louie came out, it stood beside funny but conventional shows like The League and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Now, daring creators are taking Louie’s lessons and applying them to varying degrees in telling their own stories. Stories of hustling to make it, balancing motherhood and career, and mourning loss are nothing new. With Louie, C.K. showed a generation of television artists how the surreal and absurd aren’t just for art school, how the mixture of deep pain and belly laughs isn’t just for Sundance wannabees. Louis C.K. has laid out a blueprint for how television sitcoms can also be deeply moving, deeply challenging art.

So far we’ve seen at least four artists answer the call. Here’s hoping there are many more to come.