It takes a lot to start a new wave of television. You have to be expressive, influential, and most importantly, hold meaning and relevance for those watching. Our most recent wave of great TV has been the “golden age” of cable dramas with antiheroes at their forefront. However, the age of the antihero is over. Or at least is getting there. Instead of clinging to the past, it’s time for TV to move forward. And it already has.
FX’s Louie has sparked the next wave of great television. This might sound like a surprise because based on its description alone (Louis C.K. plays a fictional version of himself in this series that follows the comedian through the lows of being an awkward single dad in New York.), Louie sounds like a “normal” show. And it is! Louis C.K. is an ordinary everyman telling everyday stories in ways that are unusual for television. Because, at its core, Louie isn’t about plot, characters, or even being funny, but is instead about the nature of being human.
Humanity is an incredibly hard thing to explore in any medium, but Louie does it with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Through its transformative ways of storytelling, Louie strips down everything we know about regular storytelling, and offers a revealing look at what it’s like to be human. In Louie you can find the raw truths about life, the bizarre experiences of being human, our fears of rejection, humiliation, and loneliness, what personal victories, fulfillment, and self-discovery feel like, and what human connection really is. All of this in one 21 minute episode of television.
That’s the thing about Louie. One five-minute segment can be the most loving and profound scene you’ve seen all year, and the next as strange as a David Lynch film. Louie has been transcending normal storytelling for years in a very low-key way. The show takes its time to explore the small ideas that really matter, and the end result is unbelievably meaningful television. This is our new wave of great television: Low Key-TV.
The most obvious example of Louie’s influence on TV is HBO’s new era of dramedies. Picking up Girls and having Lena Dunham in a creatively auteur-ish position (she writes most episodes but has a writing staff, also directs occasionally) was an obvious response to Louis C.K.’s creative control over Louie (he writes and directs every episode, has edited most, and sits in with the musicians). Each episode of Enlightened, HBO’s best (albeit cancelled) dramedy was written by creator Mike White. And HBO’s new dramedies, the so-so Getting On and the wonderful Looking, are creator driven shows that have distinct visions. More importantly, each of these shows embody Louie’s low-key type of storytelling. They all tell small stories that end up having big impact emotionally, and are all incredibly resonant.
But low-key TV isn’t just half hour shows. Orange is the New Black takes a step back in every episode to examine how humanity binds each character together in their community. Sundance’s first original series Rectify is a thoughtful examination of how we view our lives and why they matter to us. And Showtime’s Masters of Sex is, ironically, the most intimate show on TV outside of Louie, telling very small stories.
However, the argument can be made that low-key storytelling has been present in television for years. Mad Men has always been a short story show disguised as an anti-hero one. Showtime’s network defining dramedies have always been blurring the lines of genre and storytelling. Even Freaks and Geeks employed a certain type of storytelling that was small, yet emotionally rich.
Still, this type of storytelling has been crystalized by Louie. It’s the main reason Louie’s the most ambitious and distinctive show on TV. You won’t find any other show on television that devotes 21 minutes to a conversation between two friends, with one who says he’s going to kill himself. There will never be a show that has its protagonist unknowingly bring a duckling into Afghanistan. Or any other episode that details a man’s escape from depression which ends with him connecting with a random family in China.
Thanks to Louie’s sheer ambition and expressiveness we have our next great wave of television. And hopefully we’ll be able to feel thankful for years to come.