If there’s any show that can be said to symbolize our present “golden era” of TV, it’s Horace and Pete, the comedian Louis C.K.’s new series set in a Brooklyn bar. C.K. unveiled the 10th and final episode this weekend. This is is an odd thing to say when you consider the fact that C.K. released the series via his website without the need of a network, and that Horace and Pete feels more like a docudrama or an episodic piece of theater than anything I’ve ever witnessed on a small screen.
Nevertheless, here are three reasons why Horace and Pete is brilliant:
1. It tells a story that feels old and new all at once.
I read a tongue-in-cheek elevator pitch-style description of the show in The New Yorker which I thought was right on the nose when it said Horace and Pete was “Cheers meets The Iceman Cometh.” And with its story about a group of blood relations destined to repeat their cycle of woes into perpetuity, a tragic hero who ultimately falls despite striving to do the right thing (C.K.’s role as bar co-owner Horace), and “chorus” of barflies, the series veers into the terrain of Greek tragedy.
Yet at the same time, the plot bubbles and spews with today’s headlines; Donald Trump’s campaign is an intermittent discussion point throughout. And it grapples in an explosive but still non-heavy-handed way with the issues of our time.
One of the most thoughtful scenes, for example, presents a side of transgender politics I’ve never given much thought to before: the question of whether it’s ethical for a transgender person to keep silent about their former gender identity to a person they’re sleeping with. Horace, who’s resolutely straight, has a happy one-night stand with a beautiful alcoholic. In the morning over eggs and coffee — well, Horace has coffee; his date Rhonda (played by Karen Pittman) asks for something a little stronger and her gracious host obliges — the conversation takes a left turn when Horace finds out Rhonda used to be a guy. At least, the possibility of a sex change is strongly inferred, though never explicitly stated. As non-judgmental as Horace is about people who make a habit of drinking whiskey before breakfast, he gets flustered and accusatory at the thought he’s somehow been “duped” into a “homosexual” encounter. Fascinating stuff.
2. It refuses to conform to tried-and-tested formats.
The series exists in a liminal space at the intersection of TV, theater, documentary and feature film and strikes an unusual balance between the structural and content mores of these formats. Louis C.K. has created what feels like an entirely fresh way to tell a story by carefully weaving together elements from different traditions.
The series has the cuts and close-ups of a TV serial. It brings in the actualities of the documentary format. And it has the epic, sweeping quality of a movie. The theatricality of the series is what interests me the most though, like C.K.’s penchant for splicing the action with long monologues. My favorite of these is a bonkers-foulmouthed explanation of the famous Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah told by Kurt Metzger playing one of the bar’s regular customers.
There’s even an intermission to break up the longer episodes and the entire cast takes a bow at the end of the final show.
Oh, and even though Horace and Pete is the work of one of the funniest comedians around today, there are few opportunities for laughter. Unless you count comedy in the sense of the great cosmic joke of which all humankind is a part. C.K. knows all about that, and with this series captures its essence in a bottle.
3. It features some of the most prescient writing and best performances I’ve ever seen in any format. Period.
What’s masterful about Horace and Pete is the casting and the writing. It seems like the two are so closely intertwined (viz Metzger’s Sodom monologue mentioned above, which, judging by the reactions of the other cast members in the scene, strikes me as having been partly or fully improvised) that I need to tackle them both at once.
The blend of standup comedians and dramatic actors is an unusual and powerful one. And each performer brings pathos, shadows and moments of levity to his or her role. I cannot speak highly enough of C.K., Steve Buscemi, and Edie Falco as the bar-owning brothers and their sister. Here we have a trio who show us plenty of fallibility and ugliness while at the same commanding our respect.
And how tightly wound and carefully controlled the writing feels: C.K. reveals dramatic information to us incrementally, doling out hard-to-digest news about the family’s troubled past in lean teaspoonfuls of strong medicine. Yet despite the economy of the dramaturgy, abetted by the claustrophobic indoor setting of the Brooklyn bar with its flat lighting and ugly furniture, C.K. somehow makes his drama feel airy and spacious.
Witness the final episode, which begins suddenly and without explanation in 1976. Here, the principal performers whom we’ve grown to know and love in the present-day setting — C. K., Buscemi, Falco — play their forebears. The scenes are without a doubt the nastiest and most suffocating of the whole series. But then we jump forward to 2016, to find Amy Sedaris, in the role of a sweetly unhinged wannabe bartender, lightening things up. When she skips over to the bar’s old jukebox and puts Simon and Garfunkel’s famous song “America,” about a journey to find meaning in a country that’s lost its way, it’s as if a feather duster had temporarily fluffed away all the creepy-crawlies from a cobwebby corner.
Speaking of which, Paul Simon’s ghostly little theme song for the series, with its sparsely-chorded guitar riff and far-off lament of a vocal line, captures the “high lonesome sound” of the great roots musicians that have been singing about this country’s dashed hopes and failures since the dawn of the Republic. The tune, together with this formidable series, leaves us feeling emotionally drained yet strangely complete.