On January 30th, stand-up comic/actor/director/writer Louis CK surprised those subscribed to his mailing list with the debut episode of a brand new TV show. It was available to purchase on his website for $2, and it wasn’t just a pilot: there’s been an episode a week since. I would wait to write about it upon its final episode, but there’s been no indication how many there there will be and, most thrillingly, CK doesn’t seem to know either. Episode 5 ended with the caption “End of Act One” – but only God and Louis know what that means. Some episodes feel like beautifully crafted stand-alone plays, others like installments of a soap opera. Either way, free from the constraints of cable, CK has crafted one of the finest TV shows in some time, with a cast to rival any HBO production: and he did it alone.
It’s an unexpected step further in a direction few thought he’d have the space to go in. Viewers of CK’s phenomenal 22 minute comedy Louie on FX would already peg that as a rare exception to the rules of corporate television. The show could either be a comedy or a drama (often both); it paid no heed to continuity, it could feature three vignettes in one episode, or be part of a running story which would last for six. It was consistently one of the funniest and most affecting shows on television, but just as his networks and his peers with starting to latch onto the formula, with the likes of Maron and Aziz Anzari’s Masters of None, CK leapt ahead of the competition and into the online realm.
If Louie‘s fourth and fifth seasons weren’t quite of the quality of the show in its prime, then that seems in retrospect indicative of his struggle to stretch the format in the all the new directions his whim would take him in. Whilst Louie remained essential viewing, conventional continuity became commonplace and serialized episodes more frequent. Horace and Pete then is such a delight because it sees CK freed from any shackles: some episodes say all they need to in thirty minutes, some take seventy. Meanwhile it also evidences with aplomb that his writing has finally caught up with his creativity. While Louie was an unpredictable whirl of ideas, set across New York, wider America and into the Middle East and China – Horace and Pete is staged largely in two rooms of the eponymous bar in Brooklyn. It’s more like a Jack Osborne play than the sort of surrealist comedy he dabbled in on FX, and a damn fine one at that.
The series unfolds almost entirely in the bar and upstairs living area of said building, and follows Horace (played by CK) and his brother Pete (Steve Buscemi) as the two owners of the hundred year old business, which has been passed from one Horace and Pete to another for eight generations. On Louie, CK would sometimes flex his showbiz connections by bringing in the likes of Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Williams – but his appearances in a couple of Oscar nominated movies since may have helped him step things for his first true drama. Alan Alda (M*A*S*H, The West Wing) appears as the poisonous last bastion of the seventh generation Uncle Pete, while Edie Falco (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie) appears as his even more toxic sister Sylvia. Meanwhile the guest-cast is stellar: Rebecca Hall, Tom Noonan and Reg E. Cathey all appearing for short but striking scenes. The beautiful and haunting title and interlude music meanwhile is provided by Paul Simon.
Irrespective of the cast list though, the actors all completely vanish into their characters: and Horace and Pete is the best character drama we’ve seen since Breaking Bad. It’s driven predominantly by the same tension of new and old that forms its very existence: it’s pioneering in its means of distribution, but critic Matt Zoller Seitz couldn’t be more accurate in terming it “aggressively classical”. It’s filmed one shot at a time, adlibs and flubs are common, the set clunks and the audio quality dips in and out. It’s also incredibly literary in its approach. Not unlike Louie, but with more dedication, it lays out its table at the top of an episode and hopes to have thoroughly explores its themes by the end.
The first episode for example could have been a three-act production in it’s own right. CK throws the new and the old together: using Donald Trump’s position as frontrunner in the Republican candidacy race as the basis for a clash between liberal and a conservative drinkers, in which they extol the respective virtues of their ideologies. Its an interesting debate, but really just a precursor to an extended sequence in which Uncle Pete has to defend the somewhat archaic family traditions that sees the bar passed from one Horace and Pete to another, while Sylvia calls on Common Law to try and sell the business on. It’s a fascinating portrayal of some of the archaic beliefs being clung to by the eldest in society, but argues that some might hold values worth retaining. Pete finds the sweet spot right in the centre: “they beat their wives, and they raised their sons right… What kind of fathers were you two?”
The presence of paying customers in the bar does more than turn Horace and Pete into Cheers set in an alternate reality where everyone is suicidal though. In every episode beyond the first they are used as facilitators for political debate, and the nature of the show’s production results in the rather bewildering phenomenon of having characters in a drama discuss events you were only reading about a few days previously. SNL barely pulls that off. These are also the moments of greatest levity, and there are some brilliant one-liners in the show. Its literary nature by no means certifies poetic language though: not an episode goes by without an obscene reference to every orifice on offer, and there are more instances of the word ‘cunt’ than in Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Thick of It combined. They’re a consistently funny break from the dark shadow cast over the bar though, and by god the show needs them. Horace and Pete is incessantly bleak. Horace is an philandering father, Uncle Pete is a bigot, Pete is mentally unstable and reliant on expensive prescription drugs, Marsha is an alcoholic and in Episode 2 Sylvia gets cancer.
This perpetual gloom is easily the show’s greatest weakness, and sometimes threatens to consume it entirely. Sylvia’s whole cancer narrative seems pretty pointless, and it turns the character into someone who, at times, is genuinely hard to watch. Episode 6 gets particularly nasty, and Pete’s one spot of happiness in an online date he brings back to meet the family is thoroughly crushed by Sylvia’s tongue. It’s an off scene, which shows the potential folly of an experimental project such as this, and resulted in a sequence which was simply too cruel to enjoy.
The most experimental deviation though, an absolute highlight of Horace and Pete thus far, comes in Episode 3. It’s 45 minutes long, and consists of only one scene: an extended conversation between Horace and his ex wife Sarah (Laura Metcalf). It opens with one of the most captivating monologues I’ve ever witnessed: ten uncut minutes of her relaying the tale of a summer liaison to Horace off-screen before we know who she’s talking to, or even who she is. The whole episode is testament to the joys of Horace and Pete, a show which stands alone in its ability to fulfil a sole auteur’s creative whims on screen without dilution. The results are unique, often imperfect, and always deeply inspirational.
Theodore J. Inscoe.