2012: The Year in TV Moments

Louie Wears a Dress
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Dec. 20 2012 2:02 PM

2012: The Year in TV Moments

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Louie wears a dress.

FX, June 26, 11:10 p.m. ET

Immediately following the creative high point of the best episode of the most brilliant show on television, Louis C.K. put on a dress. He—or, rather, his character, Louie, modeled so closely on C.K. that it can be difficult sometimes to puzzle out where one ends and the other begins—did so at the behest of a woman named Liz—though we did not know her name yet, and neither did Louie. Liz, played by Parker Posey, has just told Louie about her teenage experience recovering from chemo—and dealing with her mom. “I’d be puking and she’d be kneeling next to me on the bathroom floor sobbing,” she says, gesticulating and walking down a New York City street, a handheld camera following her wild motions as an eerie voice sings on the score. “I mean, I’m literally puking chemo vomit into a toilet and patting my poor mother on the back trying to comfort her.” She gives a short chuckle, and Louie eyes her as she walks ahead of him—troubled, but also fascinated, compelled. Which is how those of us who love the show felt too.

Then Liz dragged Louie into a vintage clothing store and insisted he put on a dress—specifically, a gold, sequined, one-strapped number. “Why?” Louie asks. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe it’s a test?” She pushes him into the changing room, and there, with the two of them squished into that claustrophobic setting, she asks if he likes her. When he says he does, she says, “Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to say a list of things you think might impress me? Or do you want to try this on and make me really like you, just for having the guts? Plus I think it’ll look pretty on you.” She promises she won’t laugh at him. He puts on the dress. She laughs.

Louie is not really a “comedy”—it’s definitely not a sitcom—and this scene wasn’t primarily funny. It was, in one moment, the visual embodiment—T.S. Eliot might have said “the objective correlative”—of C.K./Louie’s bewilderment about how he’s supposed to find love as a divorced, middle-aged father in 2012. Is love crazy or is it just Liz who’s crazy? If he does what she asks, is he being fun and open-minded or weak-willed and ridiculous? Does it make him a woman? Is that bad? The episode as a whole is, among other things, a critique of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope, and when Louie put on a dress, C.K. captured in one moment the confusion of being a man at this point and in this culture.

It’s hard to make art on television. Even the very best shows—like, say, Breaking Bad—tend to be beautifully realized examples of specific genres, hewing to conventions as often as they diverge from them. Are they art? Sure, but they’re not terribly wide-ranging. Which is why the oft-repeated claim that TV is now “better” than the movies is so off-base. There may be more sheer hours of quality television now than there are hours of quality Hollywood films. But at the movies we get everything from Moonrise Kingdom to Magic Mike to Holy Motors. That variety of genuine creative expression still cannot be found on the small screen.

But then there’s Louie, the free expression of a brilliant writer and performer unencumbered by network notes, unconcerned about ratings, unconstrained by conventions, generic or otherwise. After Louie puts on the dress, and Liz starts laughing, he congratulates her on getting one over on him. “No,” she says, “congratulations to you. Because you are officially great.” She’s right.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.