Last night's viewing: Louie, Fox; The Following, Sky Atlantic

 

For most British viewers, Louie’s reputation will have long preceded the thing itself. It runs something like this: groundbreaking low-budget comedy, impeccably free of interference from the suits and trading on the poor schlub candour of its online begetter – Louis CK, a comedian of cult standing.

Louie likes jazz and there was a sense that what you got in these shows was as free-form, as daring, and as prone to culs-de-sac as a jazz improvisation. It may be a bit of a disappointment, then, to find that the first episode of a show that has now reached its third series in the States looks at first a good deal more conventional than you might expect. Bear with it. It really isn’t.

A lot of comedians have done routines about the aggravation of modern packaging, for instance, one of the stand-up sequences that interrupt the dramatised passages in the comedy. In Louie’s case, he was describing the difficulty the small children at his daughters’ school have in opening milk cartons, one of the things he helps them with when he volunteers as a lunch supervisor. Not all comedians would pay off as Louie does, though. “I’m not better at it...” he  explains. “I just cope with the stress better than they do.  I don’t cry like a little bitch because I can’t open my milk.”

And although the core material of this first episode, a chaotic school trip and a disastrous blind date, are hardly groundbreaking as situations, Louie’s treatment of them is never quite what you might expect. You get boilerplate stuff, like Louie’s panicked explanation to his date of why he’s wearing a suit (he stammers out that he’s just come from his father’s  funeral and then has to back-pedal furiously). But you also get fine visual comedy, such as the reflexive pasted-on grin Louie adopts whenever his date looks at him, and sudden sideways darts into something far more surreal. The date ends with Louie’s hapless partner literally being helivaced out, as if she’s escaping from Saigon. It obeys no standard playbook of comic construction, but it works.

Episode two, which goes out next Tuesday, is probably a better representative of just how far Louie is prepared to bend the sitcom format. Built around a poker session with friends, it mostly consists of heterosexual speculation about gay sex (one of the players is gay and stoically prepared to answer dumb questions). It’s a scabrously funny sequence that manages simultaneously to be honest about straight men’s prejudices and offer an example of what mutual tolerance might look like. It concludes with a kind of mea culpa, in which Louie is gently taken to task for his use of the word faggot in his stand-up routines, a thoughtful, even moving moment that somehow doesn’t end up feeling like a grandstanding of superior conscience.

The Following was created by Kevin Williamson, who knowingly guyed the conventions of the  horror film in the Scream movies. Here, he’s produced something ripe for undermining parody but forgotten to add the face-saving wink. Kevin Bacon plays a damaged FBI man hauled out of retirement after his biggest catch, a serial-killing English professor obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, escapes from prison. James Purefoy is the psychopathic genius, bent on continuing what he likes to describe as  his “art works” with the help of a troop of serial-killer  wannabes that he’s groomed over the internet.

And it’s blood-boltered trash from start to finish. The investigators are those over-excitable types who no sooner have an intuition about a lead than they’re running out of the door to leap into their SUVs, yelling urgently as they go. And Bacon’s character is one of those moody types who expresses his frustration with standard procedure by throwing furniture around the place. Several victims are found with their eyes pulled out. They may have been watching The Following.

 

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