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The most controversial episode of Louis C.K.’s TV show now plays as a veiled confession

Separating art and artist is never easy. Louis C.K. makes it particularly difficult.

How do you watch art you love, made by an artist who has done terrible things?
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Louis C.K.’s new movie, I Love You, Daddy, is a baffling film, an apologia for bad behavior that refuses to apologize.

Now that its distributor, the Orchard, has pulled it from the release schedule, I may be one of the few people to ever see it, so let me tell you a little about it. It plays by the rules of C.K.’s previous work, in making his clueless dolt of a character the butt of nearly every joke and surrounding him with wiser women who know what’s up — especially when compared to the various male characters in the film, who range from men in their 60s who lust for teenagers to a loudmouthed comedy star who mimes masturbation when his friend is talking to an attractive woman on the phone.

It’s that last bit that has garnered plenty of attention in the wake of the November 9 New York Times story in which five women accuse C.K. of masturbating either in front of them or while on the phone with them, thus confirming long-whispered rumors in comedy circles. (Gawker was writing about said rumors in 2012.) C.K.’s seeming inability to not depict every single thought that floats through his brain onscreen collided with the Times article in a way that borders on the surreal.

But I Love You, Daddy isn’t anywhere near the first time C.K. has put onscreen a story that all but begs for some sort of deeper moral commentary — even something as basic as, “Things are complicated” — only for the comedian and filmmaker to back away from truly holding himself accountable. In light of the Times’s report, C.K.’s work seems, more than ever, to hold as its great theme, “I do these terrible things. Why? Well, never mind. Everybody’s got secrets.”

I’m not even talking about all the times C.K. has joked about masturbation, or all the times he’s dissected male-female power dynamics in ways that have played as amusingly insightful at the time and now have a layer of queasiness to them. I’m talking about one specific scene, in one specific episode of his FX show Louie, which first caused lots of critics (myself included) to wonder, “Hey, what’s this guy’s deal?” Louis C.K. wasn’t trying to hide anything from us. It was all right there in “Pamela, Part 1,” the 10th episode of the show’s fourth season.

“Pamela, Part 1” sparked a minor controversy in 2014

Louis C.K. always seemed playfully irritated by the success of his show.
Katy Winn/Getty Images

The episode, which aired in June 2014, was part of perhaps the weirdest season of Louie, in which the show semi-abandoned its “every episode is a standalone short film” format and instead told a long story about Louie falling in love with a European woman and then losing her when she has to return home. The end of the season, then, turned its attention to his ongoing will-they/won’t-they relationship with Pamela, played by C.K.’s longtime creative partner Pamela Adlon.

“Pamela, Part 1” features as its centerpiece a lengthy bit of standup from C.K. in which he talks about how casually the terrible behavior of men is coded into our culture. (Its most memorable joke discusses how we actually call an article of clothing a “wife beater.”) When recapping the episode at the time for the A.V. Club, I wrote that the standup sequence “seems carefully positioned to prove both Louie and Louis C.K.’s feminist bona fides before the scenes that close out the episode, where Louie chases then drags Pamela around his apartment trying to get a kiss.”

Yes, the main scene with Pamela in an episode named after her is all about Louie seeming as if he’s on the verge of raping her, then forcing her to kiss him against her will. (You can see that in an image below, though please scroll past if you don’t particularly care to see it.) At the time, the scene played as a low ebb for the character: He had lost a lover, and in the wake of his rejection, something playful with a longtime friend turned into something very, very scary remarkably quickly.

Louie FX (screencap via Hulu)

I read it as an attempt by C.K. to grapple with how easy it is for many men to suddenly turn a nice evening with a woman into a nightmare from which she can’t escape. Plenty of other critics did as well, but many women who wrote about the show found the sequence troubling at best, and deeply ill-conceived at worst. As far as TV critic arguments go, this was the biggest of June 2014, which is to say few people outside of TV critic circles paid attention to it.

Now, it’s hard to escape just how much the scene plays like it tiptoes up to the edge of a confession and then decides Louie is probably okay, because he and Pamela will surely end up together someday, and all he did was force her to kiss him. Oh, and it also plays as a confession because it opens like this:

Pamela’s saying this line.
FX (screencap via Hulu)

There’s no moral lesson even attempted here. Indeed, the next episode of the show is an hour-long tale of teenage Louie disappointing a beloved teacher, and the two-part finale — “Pamela, Parts 2 and 3” — largely sweeps the incident under the rug. It ends with Louie and Pamela not coupled up, but with the suggestion that they will probably head in that direction someday, the two sharing a bath together.

To be clear, I don’t think C.K. had to provide a moral here. One of the best things about Louie — and the many shows it inspired, including Adlon’s own Better Things, which was co-created by C.K. — is the way it can examine complications in everyday adult life, the ways that moments in relationships can play very differently for one person than for another, and so on. The problem wasn’t that the “Pamela” arc didn’t provide a simple moral; it was that C.K. seemed to brush up against a situation that made Louie look bad, then quickly shied away from that darkness.

In a world where I’m inclined to give C.K. the benefit of the doubt — as I was in 2014, when I was unaware of the rumors about C.K.’s masturbation — it’s easier to say that he’s examining male privilege, or the ways men blind themselves to the horrors they create, or whatever you want. But in a world where I’m not inclined to give C.K. the benefit of the doubt, one where more and more of his work seems like a barely disguised confession of things he knows are wrong but refuses to atone for, such a moment plays very differently.

What does it mean to separate art and artist? Not much of anything, really.

2017 Summer TCA Tour - Day 16
Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. discuss the second season of Better Things at the 2017 summer TCA press tour.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

It also does so when you think about how C.K. and Adlon have worked together since this episode. Better Things’ second season has been one of the best things on TV this year, and Adlon has directed every single one of its 10 episodes. But it’s hard to escape that C.K. has written or co-written every single episode.

And Adlon’s character in Better Things, Sam, has similarities to Pamela, beyond being played by the same actress. Both characters have to put up with endless amounts of shit from men their age who should know better (including unwelcome romantic advances). Both are presented as no-nonsense, tough-talking women who are forced to bear the burden of a world unfairly tilted toward men. And both are deeply moral characters, even when they do bad things. They can call out other characters when they do fucked-up things.

What’s more, C.K. casts Adlon in a very Pamela/Sam-esque role — the take-no-bullshit ex-girlfriend — in I Love You, Daddy. Here, she’s Maggie, who gets to deliver the closest thing the film has to a moral message, which is that C.K.’s character, Glen, needs to grow up so he can tell his daughter, China, who just turned 18, that it’s inappropriate for her to spend so much time with a lecherous older filmmaker, no matter how much she enjoys it. She’s still just a kid.

Sure, Adlon often plays this role in C.K.’s works because she’s really damn good at it, and I would never want to remove her creative contributions to Louie and her control over Better Things from the table. But even with all that aside, isn’t it a little discomfiting to think about how this deeply confessional scene in C.K.’s most personal, most groundbreaking series is all about how he’s trying to get the closest thing there is to a moral figure in his works to admit she should just shut up and enjoy it?

This is the tricky thing about separating art from artists. I still think Louie is a major, important TV show, one that has moments and episodes I’ve found breathtaking, and I’m grateful it existed if only so it could inspire other shows like Girls and Better Things and Atlanta and [insert low-key experimental dramedy of your choice here].

The revelations about C.K. don’t erase my affection for his TV show entirely, but they do complicate it substantially, and make it all but impossible to watch certain episodes — and maybe even the entire fourth season, which dances around issues of consent in a way that played as daring at the time and probably … wouldn’t now. But if I wasn’t going to separate the art from the artist in 2014, when I read the “Pamela, Part 1” scene in light of the gentle humanism that animated the show’s best episodes, I’m sure as hell not going to start doing it now that I’m aware it has much more horrible connotations.

“Separate the art from the artist” is often said by people who are in positions of privilege that allow them to overlook the ways an artist’s personality informs their work. I could pretend Louie plays exactly the same for me now, because I’m in less danger of having a man who could make or break my career abuse that power to sexually assault me. But to demand that art and artist be kept separate is a monstrous idea, one that celebrates artists at their best and then pretends they don’t have a worst.

You can love works of art by terrible people — indeed, if you’re going to consume pop culture, you almost have to. But even if you want to keep enjoying Louie in peace, at least acknowledge that the lines around these questions will be different for everyone. And with an artist like Louis C.K., who seems unable to stop himself from blurting out his every thought, the Venn diagram intersection between art and artist is very nearly a circle.

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