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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Does Louis C.K.'s Casting Gamble Pay Off? @louisck

Susan Kelechi Watson as the former Mrs. C.K.
  • FX
  • Susan Kelechi Watson as the former Mrs. C.K.

For the first two seasons of Louis CK's cult hit sit-com "Louie," the comic-turned-auteur has created an off-kilter and slightly surreal world where a date-gone-bad ends with his companion fleeing via helicopter, where a homeless man on a park bench is kidnapped by Men In Black, and replaced with a duplicate, or where an insane bum runs headlong into traffic and is decapitated.

On the whole, CK's Manhattan city-scape is less confrontational than Larry David's L.A. battlefield in "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Whereas David finds himself throwing gasoline onto fires, escalating each episode into an ever more hostile comic climax, CK is a put-upon foil making his way through a shifting, uncertain, whimsical, and sometimes absurdist Manhattan landscape like a fusion of Woody Allen's mystical Oedipus Wrecks, Alice, and Curse of the Jade Scorpion crossed with the structured choreography of a Hal Hartley film...with an occasional stick-up or mugging.

CK's world is unique, and decidedly awkward.

It is uncomfortable and unpredictable.

In the season three premiere of "Louie," the comic introduces a character heretofore only mentioned, inferred or implied: the ex-wife. After two seasons off screen—just was we began to figure this was going to be a Vera Peterson thing—in typical CK fashion, he both underplays the moment, and punctuates it with a double-take by casting African American actress Susan Kelechi Watson as the mother of his girls.

In the Vulture Blog recap of the episode, Zach Dionne reflects on the big moment:

The elephant in the corner of this season premiere is the expertly underplayed reveal that innumerable sitcoms would hype for weeks or build into their whole premise (looking at you, "How I Met Your Mother"): Louie's ex-wife, Janet, is black. The mother of his milk-pale, straw-blonde daughters — who coincidentally also bear minimal resemblance to Louie — is a powerful, gorgeous African-American woman (Susan Kelechi Watson) effortlessly capable of detonating Louie's masculinity.

It's a joy imagining the amount of head-scratching this brief scene induced. C.K. has pointedly avoided depicting his ex-wife on Louie thus far, giving her a dimmer presence than Charlie Brown's teacher. (Ditto in his stand-up; the man who once riffed at length about his wife giving him the Saddest Handjob in America has been completely zipper-lipped on the woman's existence since their 2008 divorce. Probably for the best.) C.K. knows your curiosity, and this is his solution. There's no lingering, only a simple this is happening, accept it or don't approach.

C.K. told Jimmy Kimmel he chose Watson because "she was good enough to play the person, and I didn't care."

In Alison Willmore's IndieWire interview with C.K., the comic explained the casting decision thus:

To me, the racial thing is like — when people probably first see her, their brains do a little bit of DNA map and go "I'm not sure I get how that would happen," and then I think with my show most people, they go "Oh, all right, just go ahead." And then they watch the scene. The thing that's important is what's getting said.

I think that her performances are really compelling and I like what that character brings out in the stories and in me on the show. To me that trumped whatever... logistical notion. She's really direct and very self-possessed. She's got a great demeanor for somebody who's moved on in life. That's what she feels like to me. She's moved on in life and she's on a good new chapter. She looks like she's in a better new chapter than me, as far as us having shared a chapter earlier. I think that's a good contrast.

The tradition of color-blind casting on stage is well established.

When we attend a play, we enter the theatre with a collective understanding that what we are about to see if an act of make-believe. As an audience, we agree to overlook the artifice by accepting that the illusions presented on stage are (to some extent) "reality."

While audiences bring some of this "suspension of disbelief" to TV and film, these media are so deeply grounded in the tangible that audiences expect a higher degree of social reality. Even as we watch works of fiction, or as laws of physics are broken with abandon, we expect works to be rooted by familiar trappings and social norms.

Like it or not, the race or the gender or the sexual orientation of a character matters in film and television because, in most cases, these factors bring specific signifiers with them. In "Star Trek," you can no more ignore Uhura's blackness as you can Mario Balotelli's on the Italian squad at the Euro Cup.

Michael Harris and Dennis Haysbert are Brothers
  • SUTURE
  • Michael Harris and Dennis Haysbert are Brothers

In some cases, like Kenneth Branaugh's Much Ado About Nothing, where Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington play feuding brothers, the color-blind casting is as an extension of the theatrical experience. In a film like Suture, the racial difference of the two leads, also brothers—one looking to steal the identity of the other—physically underscores the metaphorical difference between them. Then there are films like Todd Solondz' Palindromes where the main character is played by a variety of actors and actresses, or Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, where Bob Dylan is played alternately by Cate Blancett and Jokerman/Batman duo of Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, among a host others. In these cases, the stunt casting foregrounds the amorphous nature of the subjects themselves.

In "Louie," the casting decision could be a distraction. (I can't help but wonder about the state of C.K.'s relationship with his real-life ex. Dionne is clearly onto something when he notes that C.K.'s wife was fair game when they were married, post divorce, she is no longer fodder for his routines. He appears to be pulling punches, or at the very least, respecting her wishes, and treading lightly around the topic of the divorce. Incidentally, in the show's pilot, we witnessed the signing of the divorce papers, and only the wife's hand wass shown—and she was white in that sequence.)

By casting against type, CK is saying, "See, this is not my life. It's fiction." At the same time, he's adding another layer to his psyche, and reminding us that "Louie" is Louis' world.

We're just visiting.

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