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Charlie and Louie: The Agony and Ecstasy
June 26, 2012  | By Eric Gould

Call it a tale of two men behaving badly. Both can be brash. But on one hand there is wit, ingenuity and depth. And on the other, there isn't. You can witness the stark contrast this Thursday, June 28 at 9 p.m. ET, when FX premieres the new Charlie Sheen Anger Management — the same night Louis C.K.'s Louie returns (at 10:30 p.m. ET) for its third season.

The opening minute of Sheen's new vehicle is the height of the show — and maybe the series. A cold open finds Sheen staring directly into the camera and ranting, "You can't fire me, I quit! Think you can replace me with some other guy??! Go ahead. It won't be the same. You think I'm losing. But I'm not! I'm…"  The camera then pulls back to find Sheen in an office, socking a punching doll and "winning," of course. He's a therapist, a former ball-player who's career was cut short by a self-inflicted injury that occurred during an angry outburst. He's showing a group enrolled in a court-ordered anger management course how to vent their anger in the proper, constructive way.

So, the joke is on us: Sheen's perfectly fine, with no similarity to the enfant terrible Charlie Harper character from his former Two and a Half Men sitcom, or worse yet, the real Charlie Sheen. He's the sane one here, helping others out of what are generally Charlie Sheen problems.

From that opening scene it's generally downhill, or no better than level flat for the vanilla sitcom. Sheen's Anger Management character, Charlie Goodson, supports a friendly ex-wife, and a loving daughter who thinks he's a dork and won't clean up her room. He has a complicated friend-with-benefits relationship with another therapist (Selma Blair) from whom he's also seeking treatment. (He wants therapy, get it?) But that situation quickly turns inappropriate, and a little creepy, since she won't be intimate with him while she's treating him professionally, and the jokes about sleeping with your therapist start rolling in fast and furious.

Granted, there are some good zingers in Anger Management, and — shocker! — Sheen seems downright human. But there's not much here you haven't already seen (or risqué jokes that you haven't already groaned over) on his former show.

Right after Wilfred comes the return of Louie, a show that is everything Anger Management isn't: improvisational, full of real emotional risk, and a vehicle that fully explores the power of the half-hour format.

That the typical half-hour show runs 22 minutes with commercial breaks is one of the more interesting aspects of the Louie story. Twenty-two minutes is barely enough time to build a cohesive, credible narrative, and, for the most part, Louie doesn't attempt it. Like the improv jazz that plays for most of the show's soundtrack, the show is a patchwork quilt of monologues from C.K.'s standup performances, woven off-the-cuff from everyday situations. The odd, surreal non sequiturs are Louis C.K.'s alone. The beauty and ingenuity is in the editing and how the whole thing is stitched together.

One can't help but wonder if C.K. can out-Seinfeld the Seinfeld series by producing his own show about nothing, using small situations to put the Louie character under a microscope. This year, we'll see a girlfriend who assumes she knows what Louie is thinking by the look on his face. We'll see Louie's kids take him for granted. He'll ride a motorcycle. He'll travel to Miami, where everyone is beautiful and he is pasty white and lumpy. Early in the season, there's a startling date with a hard-talking, hard-drinking Melissa Leo, known for The Fighter and Homicide: Life on the Street. 

But the can't-miss show is the two-part episode "Daddy's Girlfriend," on July 19 and 26. It co-stars Parker Posey as a bookshop clerk whom Louie wants to ask out on a date. How he ends up asking, and the utterly strange and fascinating evening they share walking through nighttime New York, may be some of the best work Louis C.K. has done to date.

That date night is typical of Louie's world. It's a grainy, meandering, hand-held camera trek through Louie's New York, complete with Russian delis, second-hand clothing stores and basement bars. It's a benign place, but filled with real-feeling vérité. There's always a turn coming — usually a brilliant one we haven't anticipated.

We're going places with him — physically and intellectually — that studio sitcoms like Anger Management are unwilling to go (or, more likely, incapable of going).

There aren't many tidy resolutions with Louie, and fewer learning moments. Louie's episodes are more like Raymond Carver's short stories: the good times aren't very good, and down notes aren't catastrophes.

With Louie, life is simply the space between disappointment and unbearable — in other words, it's a clever depiction of typical daily life. With Anger Management, it's not life at all, just bad behavior reheated in the writer's room microwave.
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