Bleak as it is, part of the thrill of Horace and Pete lies in its rule-breaking originality and the high-wire insistence on following its own vision.
By Matt Hanson
Unless you aren’t already one of Louis CK’s many fans, and even if you are one already, you might have easily missed Horace and Pete, his new web series available for download on LouisCK.net. The multi-talented comedian released news of the first episode with a laconic email to his fan club without even a whiff of marketing or promotion to frame the show for mass consumption. This is an admirable and gutsy move, considering the ten-episode show was entirely self-funded and available for purchase for a few dollars an episode. Bypassing the meddling of networks, advertising, and promotional hype for the sake of complete creative freedom, Louis reportedly went into deep debt to finance each of the ten episodes himself.
His gamble paid off — not only will he evidently make his money back, but the series finds the comedian taking dramatic inspiration from the likes of Eugene O’Neil and Mike Leigh, making an engrossing, bleak, occasionally surreal and often poignant tragicomedy which harkens back to the days when theater inspired television. Horace and Pete‘s humor stays in the self-lacerating vein of Louis’s standup, but its risky exploration of anguish, both personal and social, is what takes center stage. Perhaps the lack of having to please a network or appeal to mainstream tastes has liberated Louis’s art-house side.
The cast, all of whom were sworn to secrecy about the parts written specifically for them, is superb. The awkward, sensitive Horace (Louis) and his mentally disturbed brother Pete (Steve Buscemi) represent the eighth generation of a family whose identically named ancestors founded a rundown bar in Brooklyn a hundred years ago. Serving only hard liquor and Budweiser, the drinks have been watered down for years with no complaint from the sizzled clientele.
Alan Alda is remarkable as Uncle Pete, a sour, misanthropic old coot who tends bar, supplying small, surprising flashes of vulnerability and sincerity. Jessica Lange is the faded sexpot who apparently lives on free shots of whiskey doled out by Uncle Pete. Edie Falco is Sylvia, the wary sister coming off a personal trauma who just wants to sell off the gloomy place and start a new life.
The show’s themes come straight out of the O’Neill/Miller wing of the theatre — fathers and sons in conflict, the difficultly of intimacy, love-starved generations misunderstanding each other. Some people reveal their inner psychic wounds by flirting, others lash out. The bottom line is an Iceman Cometh expression of loneliness and loyalty. There is a nagging sense of belatedness; the good old days are long gone, but they couldn’t have been all that much to begin with, considering how they led to the present.
As the series unfolds, the bar becomes a space for raunchily real exchanges, a place where interesting combinations of odd and tragic characters come to mingle, argue, and reflect on their various existential plights. A cloud of unspecified guilt and glimmering angst hangs over the windowless rooms; the intimacy of Horace and Pete‘s realism brings the viewer closer to the souls of these broken, struggling, everyday people.
Many of the regulars at Horace and Pete’s are comedians in real life, such as Nick DiPaolo and Steven Wright, who are perfect stoic old timers whose occasional insights pack a punch. The many cameos are always interesting, with a notable example of transcendence coming in a brilliantly improvised turn by Amy Sedaris as a kooky potential waitress in the perkiest one-sided job interview of all time. Paul Simon’s specially created theme song is lovely and haunting, and the Simon & Garfunkel song “America” is used at a key point in the story to poignant effect.
As a comedian and on his FX show, Louis has never been one to shy away from generally taboo subject matter. One of the reasons he is so well respected as a comic is because he is able to lead his audiences to places they aren’t used to going, a subtle skill at addressing murky issues. There is also a kind of political daring to the rawness of the show’s language.
Everything comes up, at one point or another, at Horace and Pete’s. Characters from all walks of life speak frankly about all manner of touchy issues — sex, violence, race, money, and mental illness — in unexpected and refreshingly un-PC ways. Horace and Pete is set in the near-present, with a radio ominously informing us that Donald Trump is a prominent presence in the Iowa Caucus. One wild-eyed barfly opines that America should elect Trump because he will bring the whole system crashing down, and only then will we finally get the apocalypse we’ve all been waiting for.
Horace and Pete works uses its muted visual palette to its advantage, avoiding pretension or tedium by focusing on the rhythms of conversation and builds suspense with each unexpected revelation and plot twist One episode is daring enough to introduce a character who is never seen again, consisting of an almost half-hour monologue which at times recalls a homelier version of Bibi Andersson’s erotic reminiscence in Persona. I willfully turned off my air conditioner during a heat wave so as not to miss any of the enigmatic, often poetic dialogue.
Bleak as it is, part of the thrill of Horace and Pete lies in its rule-breaking originality and the high-wire insistence on following its own vision. Louis has said that he is more proud of this show than anything else he’s done. Word has it that the show has been submitted for Emmy consideration, which would be a wonderfully legitimizing step forward for the kind of completely self-funded web series Louis is pioneering. The question becomes whether or not the mainstream will begin to pay attention to the rawness and honesty on display, leading to more pithy experiments like this, or will Horace and Pete’s bracing shot of nihilism be too hard to swallow?
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.