Do writers keep telling the same story until they get it right? In the past week, I’ve watched Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love and Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (pilot episode available for free streaming on HBO.com), and I met author Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom, Farther Away). Throw in the trailers for Judd Apatow’s new film, This is 40, billed as the “unofficial sequel to Knocked Up,” and Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, his sixth (?) film set in Brooklyn, in which he even reprises his role of Mookie from Do The Right Thing in 1989, and you’ve got some really interesting case studies for this theory.
In all of the examples above, I see so many common themes, characters and situations in these artists’ work that it’s difficult to deny that they may be just chipping away at the same block of stone, one iterationat a time. Maybe that’s okay, and they just get better at it, or maybe it’s a sign of creative stagnation? I think it depends on the subject and the work, but it’s definitely a topic worth discussing.
However, I’ve also just watched an advance screener of the first five episodes of season three of Louie (the TV series on the FX network that returns tonight at 10:30 pm in the U.S.) and it throws a wrench into this theory. Louis C.K. just may be the exception to the rule. Well, almost.
What makes Louie so unique right out of the box is that each episode is essentially its own quirky little short film. There’s no continuity or familiar plot structure to Louie, and very few recurring characters. There are often moments of “magic realism” or downright absurdity that are never called out. A woman jumps into a helicopter and flies off with no explanation…a man gets hit by a truck and his head pops off and rolls down the street…or perhaps the most nutso moment, when Louie convinces himself that he can afford a $14 million brownstone. And that’s the beauty of the show and what makes it utterly unique in television programming: there are no “rules” in Louie’s world, or even in the format of the show. Some episodes contain Louis C.K. stand-up material, some don’t. Many include dream sequences and flashbacks, but not all. Bottom line: you never know what you’re going to get.
That’s not to say there aren’t some common themes or similar devices spread throughout the episodes; every filmmaker has their stylistic signatures, and we still need for our protagonist to be consistent to some degree. They must feel real, even if we know their fictional universe is not.
Louie will never be unequivocally happy. He’ll never get his dream girl. He’ll never get into great shape. We know this. At least, we think we know this, but Louis C.K. has made it his mission with Louie to constantly disarm the audience.
(Small spoilers for Louie season three ahead.)
He’ll definitely have more dates from hell — in fact, in this season, just when you think Parker Posey makes for an awkward date, along comes Oscar-winner Melissa Leo to Godzilla-stomp any hope of romantic normalcy.
His daughters will always put him into awkward moral corners that inspire him to take chances, which, in most cases, lead to heartbreak and despair, but in the fantastic Afghanistan episode from Louie Season Two, their act of defiance (putting a baby chick in his suitcase) ends up saving lives and generating the type of moving, lyrical ending that is rare in television comedy.
Remember when Louie tried to hang out at a club with some younger guys, and ended up getting thrown out for appearing to be a creep of the highest order? Well, he tries again to keep up with a younger, cooler, better looking guy, this time in Miami, in an impressive episode shot on location in several different areas of the city. Alas, Louie is allowed to have some fun, but he can’t help but get his doughy frame squashed between South Beach and the Latin Quarter in the process.
With the third season of Louie debuting on FX tonight, Louie season two now available on dvd and blu-ray, and Louis C.K. making the rounds on talk shows and all over YouTube, now is your time to check him out, if you haven’t already. He’s also breaking ground with direct-sales to his fans, by offering low-cost, no-fee downloads and concert tickets on his personal website.
Louie is an acquired taste. It may seem odd at first, but stick with it. It will never be a huge ratings smash like Sons of Anarchy or The Walking Dead, but it continues to build a following because Louis C.K. insists on writing fresh stories and challenging the audience to think differently about the sitcom format. I like how FX airs the show late (the first season was aired at 11 P.M.), because this is a show for adults, and it’s refreshing to see a show that has a dark sensibility but doesn’t take itself seriously, and doesn’t depend on violence to advance the story.
I’ll have some interview clips up soon.
Good Luck and Happy Writing,
Related: Writing Comedy with Louis C.K.
Related: Chris Parnell on screenwriting
Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay offers the secrets to mastering the structure and principles used by 95% of commercial movies so that you can learn to write a GREAT screenplay to BLOW AWAY THE READER!