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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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FX’s “Louie” Returns Just As Funny, Smart As Ever

Did the wait for new "Louie," which hasn’t been on the air in almost two years, set the bar too high for the show’s return next week on FX? Since the last episode of season three, Louis C.K. has become more popular than ever, riding a wave of Emmy nominations for that brilliant season to a fantastic HBO stand-up special to roles in "Blue Jasmine" and "American Hustle." Absence always leads to concern. Would new "Louie" meet a high bar of expectation that has gained even more altitude in memory? Absolutely. There’s no more confident, daring comedy on TV. The first four episodes of season four of "Louie," all written and directed by Louie, are envelope-pushing, potentially offensive, totally bizarre, and even touching over just the course of a few minutes. What stuns me still about "Louie" is the complete unpredictability of it all as all four episodes defy TV comedy’s habit of going from point A to point B by taking viewers on another trip altogether.

As so much of the success of "Louie" is dependent on the surprise of his "punchlines," I’ll tread very lightly in terms of spoilers. If you think I'm giving away too much below, trust me, I'm not. The first episode, "Back," is the most obscene thing I’ve ever seen on television in terms of dialogue. Most of the episode centers on a poker game with Louie, Jim Norton, Sarah Silverman, Nick DiPaolo, and others, in which they discuss their masturbation habits, leading to a trip to a sex store and a back injury. Charles Grodin pops up in one scene, in keeping with Louie’s fantastic choices for supporting co-stars.

The second episode of the first night (the show will air with back-to-back installments every Monday), "Model," is a comic masterpiece, and, no, I don’t use that word lightly. It starts with Louie being asked to open for Jerry Seinfeld at a benefit in the Hamptons and goes, well, I wouldn’t dare say where it goes but this is a prime example of Louie’s ability to take a left turn when you expect him to go right. I love how tonally different the first two episodes of the new season feel. The premiere, as it often has been in the past (remember the season premiere that basically was just a set-up for a fart joke?), is a test. Are you with me? Can you handle talk of dildos and masturbation? If you make it through that raunchy humor, Louie has something totally different to show you.

The next week features a pair of episodes that’s not quite as strong as 4.2 but still in the top tier of TV comedy. "So Did the Fat Lady" opens with a hysterical sequence with Bobby Kelly in which the two overweight comedians decide to pull one more "Bang-Bang" before going on a diet. No, I won’t tell you what that is. And, then, yet again, Louie curves the pitch. The plot turns into a story about how society reflects weight differently for men than it does for women. There’s a lengthy argument scene that goes on a beat or two too long but it’s yet another satisfying example of the unpredictability of Louie’s comedy and his willingness to get relatively dramatic without feeling false. The final episode sent for press guest stars the great Ellen Burstyn as a woman who gets stuck in the elevator in Louie’s building.

Even some of the best comedies currently on TV have a relative predictability in their structure. As smart as they are, an episode of "Parks and Recreation" or "Veep" has a familiar foundation to what came before in the history of the series. "Louie" has done a lot for cable comedy and received a degree of critical and commercial attention that I think even he never expected but what this critic who watches hundreds of hours of TV comedy a year admires most about the best comedy on TV is that I can never guess the punchline.

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