John S: It’s really good that “Duckling,” came when it did, and not early in the season. If one of the first episodes of the season had been the story of how Louie’s daughter’s class duckling saved his life and brought peace and harmony to Afghanistan, I’m pretty sure I would have hated it. It would have seemed like the cheapest of emotional ploys, combining soldiers, children, and small animals—three of the most universally sympathetic classes—to tug on the heartstrings. As it was, that facile element of the story bothered me, preventing me from seeing this episode as the instant classic some certainly saw it as. But coming when it did, towards the end of an obviously stellar second season, I had more patience with some of the superficialities, and was able to see the things C.K. does uniquely well. It was largely the secondary characters who made “Duckling” a great episode (and not just the return of Dolores for a quick glare). Part of what makes Louie great is that, other than Louie himself occasionally, the characters never really apologize for who they are. Even when Louie is confronted with worldviews he doesn’t understand or cannot relate to, he never belittles them or reduces them to caricatures. But he also doesn’t put them on a pedestal. While watching this episode I was actually reminded of what David Foster Wallace said about Dostoevsky: “Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important… And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being.” I don’t mean to compare C.K. with Dostoevsky (though given the critical praise this season has received, I wouldn’t be that out of line), but the characters on Louie generally seem human no matter how diverse they are. Characters like Keni Thomas or the 19-year-old cheerleader, both of whom are from worlds Louie doesn’t fit into, are presented simply as what they are: Keni carries a gun and sings cloyingly patriotic songs, but his patriotism is sincere and he’s genuinely supportive when Louie is scared. The girl might get grossed out by Louie and not know why Steven Tyler is famous, but she still tells Louie that he’s a good dad. It’s things like this, and not pets in warzones, that makes the show great.
Josh: Like John, I have a natural skepticism towards heartwarming episodes like this, and I don’t excuse Louie just because it’s Louie. Nonetheless, there were elements of this episode that were particularly strong. The cinematography, as I’ve noted before, was fantastic. Having the camera angle behind Louie and the 19-year old cheerleader—seeing the cheerleader slightly in front of Louie without making any attempt to move into a better position for conversation—made the conversation painful to watch. Similarly, having the camera in back of Louie facing the audience during Louie’s first performance forces the audience to feel at least some of the angst that Louie’s feeling while performing. I liked that the first joke—about his gut—was a joke previously featured on Louie: this may seem like an odd thing to like, but I liked how it showed what, out of his repertoire, Louie thought would go over well with the soldiers and also how it was reflective of the shows realism: comedians repeat material. Jane’s repeated insistence early in the episode that they keep the duckling was reminiscent of “I’m boh-wud”: Louie’s kids may be the only kids on television that actually speak like real kids their age. Lastly, I was a big fan of Dolores’s quick glare.