Surprising fans by dropping unannounced work has become de rigueur for pop musicians, but it is not yet something we expect from film directors and television creators. It may start to happen more often—in an age when its perfectly possible to shoot and edit a feature length film on your smartphone—but the sheer logistics of assembling a cast and film crew in secrecy would seem to make it daunting to mount a stealth production.
Leave it to Louis C.K., the most auteurist of TV auteurs, to pull it off. On the morning of January 30th, subscribers to C.K.'s website received an email entitled "A brand new thing from Louis C.K." The message read, in its entirety, as follows:
Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.
Go here to watch it.
We hope you like it.
That's it: there had been no advance buzz, no explanation, no press release, no sales pitch. There was no description, even, of what the hell kind of work Horace and Pete might be.
So the first thing to say is this: if you want to experience Horace and Pete the way it was—at least initially—intended to be seen, stop reading this review, go give Louis C.K. his well-deserved $5, and come back after you've watched the show. I'm not going to give away everything in this review, but its a strange situation to discuss a show in which even the cast list, even the genre, is something of a spoiler. And there's something to be said for just taking an artist you like on faith, and opening yourself to a work about which you know absolutely nothing. It's a rare experience these days, and I don't want to dissuade you from having it.
OK. Everybody good? Then let's proceed.
The first real surprise of Horace and Pete is that it's not a comedy, except perhaps in the loosest, darkest sense of the word. (I mean, The Merchant of Venice is technically a comedy, and we all remember what a laugh-fest that was.) Every season of C.K.'s TV show Louie has been pushing the definition of "comedy" a little further, as C.K. has seemed to feel less and less obligated to force humor into the different sorts of stories he wanted to tell. Here, he seems to feel no obligation whatsoever: there are fleeting moments of dark humor that arise organically, but Horace and Pete may represent its creator's desire to shed the appellation "comedian Louis C.K." once and for all. As a piece of filmed theater—which is what this most resembles—it is closer to Eugene O'Neill than Neil Simon.
The second surprise is the acting troupe that C.K. has assembled on the sly. Some of his regular comedian friends and Louie guest-stars are unsurprisingly present in (so far) minor roles, including Steven Wright, Nick Di Paolo, and Kurt Metzger. But the main roles are filled by an absolute dream team: joining C.K. himself for this experiment are Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Rebecca Hall, and Jessica Lange. (Try to imagine reading that cast list and not immediately assuming you were about to watch the next great American drama.) Rounding out the surprise A-listers, we even get a moody guitar soundtrack—and an original theme song—from Paul Simon.
What's really surprising about Horace and Pete, however, is how it is both so aggressively of its age and a stubborn throwback to another time. Its political and pop-culture markers are so contemporary that we suspect C.K. finished shooting it about 24 hours before he posted it. (There are references to the Iowa Caucus and the Super Bowl that can't be more than a week old.)
And this is possible because of production, publicity, and distribution models that are pure 21st century innovations. In our strange modern age, the workers and artists have control over the means of production, and C.K. has been embracing this technological Marxist paradise. (He produced and released his last few comedy albums and specials—and those of other comedians like Tig Notaro and Todd Barry—exclusively through his website.) C.K. already has an enviable production deal with the FX network—one that reportedly allows him considerable, almost unprecedented creative freedom on his series Louie—but he continues to explore alternative modes that remove every filter between himself and his audience. This is almost certainly a wave—if not the wave—of the future, and it seems like something to celebrate for anyone who likes their art straight-up, not watered down with studio interference and commercial concerns.
But, in its structure and aesthetics, Horace and Pete doesn't herald television's future so much as hark back to its distant past. It looks and plays like a lost Norman Lear sit-com from the 1970s, minus the live studio audience (and most of the jokes). And it's built like something from an even earlier day: the first Golden Age of Television, during the '40s and '50s, when writers like Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, and Rod Serling used this nascent medium to mount live productions of serious, ambitious dramas.
So there are generative tensions at the core of this show's very existence: tensions between past and present, between tradition and innovation, between purity and commercialism, between what was and what can be. And these themes are woven, as well, through every element of Horace and Pete's story.
C.K. and Steve Buscemi play the titular characters, brothers and co-owners of a 100-year-old bar in Brooklyn called "Horace and Pete's." They, however, are only the current Horace and Pete. (They are "the eighth of their names," as one would say on Game of Thrones—and that's another contemporary reference C.K. doesn't hesitate to make.) Ever since the bar was founded by brothers Horace and Pete Whittle in 1916, every generation of the family has had a male child of each name, and by mutual understanding those boys have inherited ownership of, and responsibility for, the family legacy. There is always a Horace, and always a Pete, running Horace and Pete's.
This conceit is one of the first clues that Horace and Pete—though decidedly not a comedy—has a little of C.K.'s absurdist heart pumping blood through what appears to be a very realistic series. It's a ridiculous idea, and several characters—most notably Horace's sister Sylvia (Edie Falco), who is suing the family for a share of the bar—point out that it's ridiculous.
The chief defender of this indefensible arrangement is Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), the previous reigning Pete. (He ran the bar for decades with Horace the Seventh, who passed away exactly one year before Horace and Pete opens.) As the Pete emeritus—the Dowager Pete?—he now serves as the bartender. He has very little respect—and no love—for his "pissant" nephews, but he is viciously adamant that they are the owners: because that's the way it's been done for a hundred years.
Uncle Pete is another element that suggests that part of C.K.'s enigmatic project might be to play with the tropes of TV history itself. The cranky, conservative older relative, Uncle Pete is a character familiar to many sitcoms: he is the one who would be described as "irascible" or "cantankerous," and would be used for rude comic relief and "edgy" political conflict. He is poured from the medium mold, of course, of Archie Bunker, still the TV gold standard of the funny, grumpy, lovable bigot.
Except there is nothing funny or lovable about Uncle Pete: he's an absolute nightmare. Sexist, racist, homophobic, and unapologetically hostile to pretty much everyone, he spews hatred and venom every time he opens his mouth. He is not an amusingly, endearingly cranky TV asshole: he's the real thing, the hateful older relative you dread seeing and secretly wish was dead already. (Watching liberal lion and lifelong feminist Alda play this character is one of the fascinations of Horace and Pete. Alda never allows Uncle Pete to become a caricature, nor brings a single moment of ironic self-consciousness to the role: he just embodies, bravely and compellingly, an absolute monster of a man.)
So there's a way in which Horace and Pete asks us to reexamine some of our notions about television itself, by stripping the comedy away from inherently comedic figures and situations. The usual cast of sitcom barflies is here—the regulars who occupy their usual stools and drink their usual drinks—but they, too, are mostly not funny. (OK, Steven Wright is always funny.) They are largely depressed, broken people, drinking their lives away in what seems to be the most miserable bar on Earth. This isn't Archie Bunker's Place or Cheers: this is the dark, unhappy bar you wander into by accident and feel sadder and more squalid for even having glimpsed.
(In one of the purest expressions of C.K.'s pitch-black comedic style, a little old man enters the bar about halfway through, interrupting a family fight with what sounds like it will be a touching story about how he met his wife there in the '50s. Again, this is the kind of storytelling trope that would normally punctuate a sit-com episode with a "sweet" moment, putting petty squabbles into compassionate perspective. Here, however, C.K. explodes that manipulative device by letting the old man's story get progressively sadder and more horrifying. It becomes not a touching or redemptive moment, but further proof that things were always miserable at Horace and Pete's.)
Our tendency to romanticize the past—whether it is the past of television or the past of America—seems to be one of the things under assault in Horace and Pete. Throughout the episode, several young people enter Horace and Pete's, and marvel at how it's "a real dive bar," the sort of authentically dank place they can hardly wait to tell their hipster friends about. But even those Uncle Pete doesn't chase immediately away will be unlikely to come back, for Horace and Pete's is not an eccentrically "old-timey" bar: it's a genuine place of anger, misery, and loneliness, where the worst aspects of 100 years of Americana have been collected and preserved as in amber.
"What time is it?" Horace asks, in the first line of the show, and it's a question that haunts the entire endeavor. It is 2016, but Horace and Pete's is so stuck in the past that they don't even serve mixed drinks. (Even a simple martini is too new-fangled for Uncle Pete, who also rails against cell phones, and unplugs the jukebox the moment he enters the bar.) And though the current Horace and Pete seem both kinder and more contemporary than Uncle Pete, we can see how they could one day become him: in their own, minor ways they are already slipping out of touch with the present, just as Uncle Pete must have done. (Horace resents his daughter's insistence on texting him, for example; Pete proudly says he ordered new coffee beans "from the computer.") They themselves seem stuck in this place, two lonely men anchored to a legacy they may have never really wanted, but never really questioned either. They are going through the motions because this is how it's done, because this is how it's always been done.
And what is the value in that? What is the value of romanticizing, honoring, and preserving the past? What is the point of perpetuating traditions that were fundamentally damaging? Those seem to be the questions Horace and Pete is asking. Certainly, they are the questions Sylvia, as the voice of reason and change, is asking. "How many wives have been beaten in this place?" she asks her uncle, angrily. "A hundred years of misery is enough, Pete! Misery is something you get past, not something you pass on to your children."
It is the synthesis of these questions for both America and its television art form that intrigues me about Horace and Pete. We live in a country that romanticizes its short and largely miserable history, where politicians like Donald Trump—also discussed here—are still scoring points by invoking some long lost dream of an America where things were better. But that vision is a lie, one that glosses over the inherent horrors of our past and idealizes fundamentally fucked up social norms. And it is a lie that TV and movies have been complicit in telling, and selling: entertainment has given us sanitized versions of the past, ones that made us feel that nothing would ever be as good again. (Ironically, this was an intended theme of All in the Family itself: its opening theme song "Those Were the Days" was intended to be ironic, just as Archie Bunker was intended, by Norman Lear, to be hated. But Archie's pathetic longing for the past—and his rancid bigotry and sexism—resonated with middle America, and turned him into one of the most beloved characters in TV history.) Horace and Pete—cutting-edge in its production methods, contemporary in its themes, and intentionally old-fashioned in its format—seems to want us to grapple with—and reconsider—our longing for the past of both America and television.
Nostalgia can be poisonous; traditions can be harmful; longing for the way things used to be can be both backwards and a betrayal of progress. As dark and depressing as Horace and Pete is at times, there could be a fundamentally optimistic belief at its heart. It might be saying that, if we could let go of the past, we'd realize we're living in a Golden Age now.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Normally, I begin my reviews of a new show by saying "Welcome to my ongoing coverage of X." But at this point it is entirely unclear what "ongoing" looks like for Horace and Pete. Louis C.K. called it "Episode One," which suggests there will be more, but we don't yet know how many more there will be, or when they might drop. (It's unlikely we will know, until they appear.) All I can say is this: In Louie I Trust. Horace and Pete is not easy going, but it is a stunning piece of work, featuring a fantastic cast, and dealing with worthy themes. I'm along for the ride, and down for whatever C.K. wants to give me.
[EDIT: Since I posted this review, Louis C.K. has sent out another email, assuring us that the next episode will appear this Saturday. He's also lowering the price to $2 for Episode 2, and $3 for future installments. I'm planning to review them, hopefully within a day or two of the release date.]
- One bit of speculation: there is a throwaway line in which Sylvia's attorney Randall—who is gay, and being abused for his sexuality by Uncle Pete—implies that Horace might be gay. ("At least I don't have to put up with it every day like he does," the lawyer says, gesturing to Horace.) And the episode ends with Horace breaking up with his live-in girlfriend Rachel (Rebecca Hall), after we've seen him just barely enduring her affection. Is Horace gay, and beginning to peek out of the closet? If so, this means the episode actually ends on a thinly upbeat note: the suggestion that it is possible to break free of the constrictions and prejudices of the past and move forward.
- I have probably made Horace and Pete sound depressing, and I would be doing you a disservice if I didn't. But there are a number of quiet notes that inject hope, and even grace, into the proceedings. Buscemi's fundamentally decent character has several of these moments, and the general affection between the three siblings—even in their feud—is touching. There is real humor and human connection happening between customers at the bar, including a remarkable scene of political reconciliation brokered by a peacemaking patron. And there are blink-and-you-miss-it gestures of startling humanity, even from Uncle Pete. (As Randall is leaving the bar, Uncle Pete briefly shakes his hand. Randall may be a "fag," and he may be trying to take away Pete's bar and legacy, but Randall likes whiskey, and that warrants a handshake from Uncle Pete. It ain't much, but—in Horace and Pete—a fleeting gesture like that may be what hope looks like.)