'Louie' Season 4: Long hiatus has served Louis C.K. and the show well

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louie-season-4-model.jpgIt's been almost 19 months since we last saw "Louie," since its star and auteur Louis C.K. asked FX for a longer break between seasons to put together his one-man show. The extended hiatus may have been agonizing for fans of the show, but based on early episodes FX sent out for review, C.K. used his time very well.

Season 4 of "Louie" is still the same show its cult of fans have loved for the past three seasons. C.K. still mixes bits of stand-up comedy with stories that veer from hilariously filthy to melancholy to absurdist -- all of which happen, in fact, in the first of Monday's (May 5) two episodes. (FX is running "Louie" back-to-back for seven weeks, rather than stretching it out and trying to pair it with another half-hour.)

The logline for the premiere, "Back," is simply "Louie has a typical day," but that day incorporates a surreal opening, a great visual joke involving an old woman after Louie throws out his back and a poker game with his fellow comics (including Sarah Silverman and Jim Norton) that raises the crudeness bar to a dizzying height.

The second episode, "Model," may be even better: Louie's pal Jerry Seinfeld asks him to be a last-minute fill-in for a benefit in the Hamptons. It goes horribly, until Louie meets a woman ("Chuck's" Yvonne Strahovski, pulling double duty on Monday as she also stars in "24: Live Another Day"). True to the show's and C.K.'s sensibility, though, the evening doesn't go as he planned.

While these early episodes of Season 4 are mostly interested in the small stories "Louie" specializes in, they feel a little bit bigger. C.K. has done away with the opening credits in the first four episodes, allowing him to get that much more material in, and his skills as a director and editor have only grown -- a couple of nighttime shots in "Model" are beautifully lit and composed, and the vignette with the elderly woman in "Back" is proof of the Buster Keaton adage that comedy lives in the wide shot.

Part of why it feels like the scope has expanded may be the liberal sprinkling of guest stars: In addition to Seinfeld, Strahovski and his comic buddies, Charles Grodin and Victor Garber also appear in the first two episodes; Sarah Baker ("Go On") has a memorable turn next week. Otherwise, though, it's hard to put a finger on it: Maybe it's the long wait, maybe it's the cinematic look in places. "Louie" is still the same great, unpredictable show it has been, only moreso.

"Louie" premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT Monday on FX.
Photo/Video credit: FX