The Best Show on Television

As anyone who follows me on social media knows, I’m pretty obsessed with Game of Thrones. Since I’ve never written about the show on this blog, and since its epic fourth season just ended, I figured now’s the time.

I discovered Thrones near the end of its first season. I was house-sitting for my friends Dan and Gen, who in addition to having a ridiculously awesome apartment in North Beach, are the only people I know who actually have an HBO subscription instead of stealing it with someone else’s HBO GO password. I spent the first few nights of my week at their house going to my favorite North Beach bars (Hello Vesuvio! Pleased to see ya, Kennedy’s!), but eventually I needed a night in, and I said, what the hell, I’ll give this show people have been talking about a shot. I went through a phase in my youth where I was really into sci-fi and fantasy stuff (loved Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings and various other lesser-known things), but I’d never gone down the George R.R. Martin rabbit hole.

I spent most of the first few episodes alternating between saying “What the fuck is going on?” and “Woah, nice cans,” but the show did just enough to keep my semi-binge going. And then they went and killed what had seemed to be the show’s main character, and  certainly its most famous actor.

But ... wait ... they killed him? Awesome!

But … wait … they killed him? Awesome!

I was hooked. I’ve binge-watched the show every chance I got ever since (I watched Season 3, after the fact, in two days). Despite my persistent struggle in trying to keep characters and events straight, I loved everything about it (well, except maybe the Theon subplot—does anyone care about Theon, or Reek, or whatever the hell his name is now?): the quiet dignity and ultimate suckerhood of the Starks; the epic Blackwater battle; the demon smoke baby; the boobs; the dragons; and the deliciously hateful Lannisters; most of all, I love Tyrion, that drunken, whoring, hilarious dwarf, who I like to think I would behave identically to if I were a noble-born, three-foot-tall fantasy novel character (uh, let’s just move on).

As great as the show was up to this point, Season 4 took it to ridiculous new heights. From the moment of Joffrey’s death richly deserved death in episode 2, the screws kept gettting wound tighter. (Aside: I really need a copy editor for this post, because I’m probably going to spell every single character’s name wrong.) There was the fantastic sham trial of Tyrion for regicide, which ends with a scene that will surely get Peter Dinklage an Emmy nomination. (How the hell do voters choose between him and Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective”!?!? Wait, it’s the Emmys, they’ll find a way to screw it up.) It’s so good you should just watch it.

Then there was the thrilling scene when Prince Oberyn, who was newly introduced this season and quickly became everyone’s co-favorite character (with Tyrion) for his wit, verve, and licentiousness, agreed to fight for Tyrion in his trial by combat. It’s so good you should watch it as well.

Of course, we know how that ended: with one of the most disturbing onscreen deaths in memory, as Oberyn, so near victory, spiked the ball on the one-yard-line, taunting the Mountain and Tywin Lannister and getting his head popped like a zit. I will not make you watch that scene. To be honest, I walked away from the TV that night feeling less invested in the show. If they’re just gonna kill all the likable characters, I thought, what’s the point of watching?

The last two episodes, though, redeemed it for me. First there was the epic “The Watchers on the Wall,” an hour which Vulture guesstimated to cost around $12 million to film and which saw Jon Snow lead his men to victory—at the cost of the woman he loved.

Oh, so heroic!

Oh, so heroic!

And then in the final episode, we got the comeuppance we’d all been set up to hope for: Tyrion’s revenge against his father, and Tywin shot dead with a crossbow on the shitter (on Father’s Day, no less!).

I’ve only touched on the major plot points. There was so much other awesomeness going on, it’d take forever to write about. The point is, Game of Thrones is incredible, and it just finished it’s best season yet. Yep, the best show on television had its season finale this week.

Only, the best show on television isn’t Game of Thrones.

Aw yeah, I flipped the script on y'all right there

Aw yeah, I flipped the script on y’all right there

Look, I know. You can’t compare a fantasy series that costs a gazillion dollars and is on such an epic scale that it has no equivalent in the history of television with the meandering mind of a schlubby New York City comic making a show that isn’t even a comedy. They have nothing in common.

But if you want to talk about a truly affecting show, a show that touches on the way we live our lives, a show that is just so fucking well-written it hurts, well, that conversation begins and ends with Louie.

This season (also the fourth, and doesn’t that seem to be when most shows peak?) began as many Louie seasons have before, with quick, funny vignettes like a hilarious poker game conversation about masturbation (thank God for Sarah Silverman) and a gag about garbagemen in the morning that I guarantee killed everyone who’s ever lived in New York.

But Louis C.K. quickly headed for much more poignant material. There was the now-famous episode in which Louie goes on a kinda-sorta-not-really-a-date outing with a bigger girl, played by Sarah Baker, who delivers a devastating, one-shot monologue about what dating is like for a fat girl.

Louis C.K. got a lot of shit from people for writing this, which I just don’t understand at all. I thought it was the single most brutally honest, emotionally devastating scene I’ve ever seen on television. While I was watching it, I was horrified, but I couldn’t stop thinking holy fucking shit this is amazing. I’ll be honest, the line about how good-looking guys will flirt with fat girls, but less-attractive guys won’t because it threatens their status really fucked with me. As I said to a friend after watching the episode, that’s what good writing does: It makes you empathize with a character, and at the same time it makes you take a hard look at how you act in your own life.

Not that Louie was done. What followed were several different series of linked episodes in which Louie took a show that had been a flash fiction collection and turned it into an epic Russian novel. It began with a six-part episode (basically a full-length movie) in which Louie dates a Hungarian woman who doesn’t speak a word of English. There are so many beautiful moments in these episodes: her strange yet somehow sexy drug store pantomime of taking a shower to tell Louie she needs a hair dryer; the moment with the violins:

And then of course, there’s the breakup scene, when Amia takes Louie to a Hungarian restaurant, where she convinces a waiter to read her goodbye letter to him (she returns to her life in Hungary, where she has a son). And throughout these episodes there is also woven Louie’s quarrels with his ex-wife (including a flashback when we see why they didn’t get divorced much sooner) and his struggles with his younger daughter, Jane.

After this came a two-part episode (also basically a full-length movie) in which Louie catches his older daughter, Lilly, smoking a joint, sending him into an extended flashback about his own past with drugs: In the eighth grade he started smoking weed, which led him into a sinister relationship with a suburban basement drug dealer (played brilliantly by Jeremy Renner), led him to curse out his absentee father (a scene that explains in part a previous episode in which he had panic attacks about seeing his dad), and led him to betray the kind science teacher who saved his ass and was the closest thing he had to a father figure. Louie’s confession to that teacher (for stealing metric scales) reads pretty clearly to me as the character’s first act of manhood (hence the “say goodbye to your childhood” line he delivers to Lilly). The most haunting moment, and the most relevant to the theme of this season, though, is when Louie’s mother screams at him for being a drugged-out zombie, for not speaking to her in months, and Louie walks out, unable to respond.

And then, finally, there’s the return of Pamela. Played by the wonderful Pamela Adlon (who is also hilarious as Marcie, aka “Cokey Smurf” on Californication), Pamela is Louie’s first true love on the show, the one who inspired perhaps the show’s first transcendent moment, way back in Season 1, when Louie confessed his unrequited love for her.

Pamela returns toward the end of this season to tell Louie she might actually want him back; she might consider a “boy-girl” sort of thing. He balks at first, then pursues it in an awkward way (I’m still uncomfortable with the “you can’t even rape well” scene, which got glossed over as the plotline moved along—Louie‘s not perfect), then finally gets her to go on a date with him—a date that he absolutely fucking kills it on. This eventually leads to the final scene of the season, when Louie again tells her he loves her. She can’t return the words, and he storms out, only to have her coax him back upstairs, where she’s sitting in a bathtub (a reference to a hilarious blown-opportunity scene in season 1). We see Louie at his most vulnerable here—he’s scared to take off his shirt in front of her, something I can relate to as a one-time fat kid—and in the bathtub they exchange remembrances of their childhood first kisses: Louie was punked by a popular girl; Pamela never actually kissed anyone, and instead kicked a kid’s ass in the lunch line.

Who says there are no second chances in life?

Who says there are no second chances in life?

That scene, in which Pamela tells Louie that she can’t give him the mushy stuff he necessarily wants, but that she wants to be with him anyway, is what Louis C.K. spent the whole fourth season building toward. In each episode, Louie struggles to communicate with women: he can barely talk to his ex-wife, he can’t talk to Amia at all, he struggles with his kids, he becomes a zombie to his mother, he punches a model for tickling him. And yet here, in the final episode, he’s able to have a heart-to-heart with Pamela. He never actually says yes to her question of if what she’s offering is enough, but I think it’s implied that he will.

During the “Watchers on the Wall” episode of Game of Thrones, (which came immediately after Oberyn was so brutally dispatched) I commented that the battle scenes on the show are so tense because you really don’t know if the characters you’re rooting for (in this case Jon Snow) are going to survive. I experienced that same sort of dread, but much more powerfully, during the last episode of Louie. He’s had the rug pulled out from under him so many times, and I was terrified that he would have his heart broken again.

When Tyrion kills Tywin and escapes at the end of the final Thrones episode, it gave us something to cheer for—a bad guy got his comeuppance, and a good guy got to live. But for me, the level of gratification was nowhere near what I felt watching Louie sit in a bathtub and stare into Pamela’s eyes. Very few of us want to shoot our father with a crossbow. All of us hope for that bathtub moment, whether we admit it or not. Thrones is a great show, but it’s not real. Nothing on TV is more real than Louie. And nothing is better.

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