THE SHOW "Louie"

WHEN |WHERE 10:30 p.m. Thursday on FX

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The fifth season of FX's signature comedy -- or drama? -- begins with a potluck supper. Louie (Louis C.K.) asks Marina (Judy Gold) what he should bring, then makes an unexpected detour en route. The April 16 episode, "A La Carte," refers to several things -- including open mic night at the comedy club, where Louie counsels a would-be comic. In "Cop Story" (April 23), Louie meets an old acquaintance (played by Michael Rapaport). "Bobby's Place" (April 30) refers to the apartment of Louie's brother, Bobby (Robert Kelly), who is proud of his sibling's accomplishments. Louie also has a chance encounter at a bus stop, which has unintended consequences.

MY SAY The tragicomic life of Louie, which unfolds in a tragicomic universe of his own tragicomic making, seemed about ready to unfold in a new and unexpected place by the end of the fourth season. "I . . . love . . . you," he told girlfriend Pamela (Pamela Adlon) haltingly but clearly, just so there would be no misunderstanding of declaration or intent. But he was met with a blank stare, then a gag reflex -- "Eewww," she said, recoiling.

So much for love. Louie ended the season right where he usually seems to end up -- kicked back to life's curb -- and as it happens, that's where he begins the fifth season, too. "I feel like I'm not good anymore at navigating between the good and bad times," he tells his therapist (played by David Little). "I just don't know how to live a life anymore. It's scary." Cut to therapist, whose eyes begin to cross, then glaze. The eyelids flutter. The only thing missing is a ragged snore.

But the joke isn't in the sleeping therapist but in the words. Since when was Louie good at "navigating" between good and bad times? (And what "good times" would those be exactly?) "Louie" isn't about a life well lived or the possibility of happiness, and certainly not about love, but whatever lies at their polar extremes. For the show's namesake, it's a blind grope down a dark and perilous street -- not just a metaphoric one, either -- where a pratfall is inevitable, or a chance encounter with the deranged almost predestined. You may cringe instead of laugh (or at its best, both) when that moment arrives, as it must, but "Louie" has never been about comfort zones, yours or his. If the first four episodes are representative, that's not about to change either.

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Nevertheless, tragedy is hard, comedy harder, while mixing both together seamlessly is just about impossible week after week. That "Louie" usually succeeds is a minor miracle. That it doesn't always is inevitable. Thursday's opener, "Potluck," has a funny twist but ends up in a strange, bitter place -- even by "Louie" standards. "A La Carte" marks the return of Pamela -- Adlon's character was a fourth season standout. Meanwhile, "Bobby's Place" features some cosplay (for Louie and Pamela) which does lead to new and unexpected places.Louie's brother also offers some tips in frugality, as a setup for a brilliant scene.

Best is "Cop Story," a sharply observed dramedy that brings out the humanity in Louie, and serves as a reminder that those chance encounters with the deranged don't always have to end badly (but bizarrely. Especially that).

BOTTOM LINE Uneven start, gets better.