21st-Century TV Artist Louis C.K. Aims High With the Aggressively Classical, Mostly Good Horace and Pete

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From left: Steve Buscemi, Louis C.K., and Edie Falco in Horace and Pete. Photo: Louis CK

It’s fitting and funny that Louis C.K.’s formal experiments would ultimately take him back in time 60 years, to the age of televised theater: Studio One, Playhouse 90, and the like. Over five seasons, he exhausted most, if not all, of the possibilities of his experimental comedy Louie — including multi-episode arcs that were basically feature films broken into pieces, two of which cast other actors as his same-named alter ego. Now he’s made a series that’s as aggressively classical as a 21st-century TV artist can get.  

Horace and Pete, the “surprise” series C.K. released last week through his website, is old-school, save for its political and cultural references (super-recent) and its language (profane, of course — this is Louis C.K.). Were it not for C.K.’s roving, zooming camera and the brown-orange sets that echo stagey 1970s sitcoms like All in the Family, Horace and Pete could be performed in a community theater, for an audience seated on folding metal chairs. There’s even an “intermission” in the middle of each episode, and entry and exit music by Paul Simon.

The first two installments take place in and above a Brooklyn bar, Horace and Pete’s, built in 1916 and named after several generations’ worth of owners, brothers, or cousins, all named Horace or Pete. C.K. plays the latest Horace, Horace Whittell VII, a 49-year-old, confrontation-averse zhlub who’s not dissimilar from the character C.K. plays on Louie. Horace’s dad died a while ago, and it’s not easy for him to bear the weight of family tradition; he has the laid-back gravity of an experienced boss but is easily flustered. Steve Buscemi plays the current Pete, Horace’s cousin, who needs expensive meds to stave off psychotic outbursts. Alan Alda plays another Pete, Horace VII’s uncle, a racist, sexist, homophobic old bastard. He wants the bar to stay in the hands of a Horace or a Pete indefinitely, because that’s how things have always been done.

These three men — Horace VII, Pete, and Uncle Pete — are at the center of most of the show’s big scenes. That they’re all guys locked into a century-old patriarchal succession turns out to be important. The show is “about” a lot of things, but a big one is the idea of tradition being nurtured for tribal reasons (continuity for continuity’s sake) rather than because it’s really the best way to do things. The bar is a microcosm of white ethnic Brooklyn, which in turn is a microcosm of America, with its class and racial and gender wars and old-guard pushback.

The show’s women challenge the men’s assumptions, their life choices, their mentalities. Horace’s estranged daughter, Alice (Aidy Bryant), admits she’s only started hanging around because she wants to condition herself to tolerate her father again. Pete the younger is a human train wreck; he’s gone off his meds due to an insurance issue and is spacing out his remaining medication. It soon becomes clear that if he wasn’t pressured to enter the family business, because that’s what men do, he might have run the other way. When Horace’s sister Sylvia shows up with her attorney and tries to take control of the bar, C.K. turns one of the series’ recurring subtexts into text: Do you just keep doing things as they’ve always been done, come hell or high water, or do you face reality and start doing them differently? Sylvia is right to insist that Uncle Pete’s yammering about tradition means nothing in the face of common law, which entitles her to some say in the direction of the business that her brother and his cousin have driven almost into the ground. She also has no tolerance for Uncle Pete’s nostalgic veneration of generations of Whittell men. “How many women have been beaten in this place?” she demands. Horace’s girlfriend, Rachel, is kind and sweet and supportive, but Horace still kicks her out of their shared apartment above the bar, supposedly to make space for his economically distressed daughter, but more likely because he’s a self-loathing man who can’t accept love. Horace’s father’s last girlfriend, the curvy, whiskey-voiced Marsha (Jessica Lange), believes she’s entitled to a piece of the bar, and Horace is inclined to grant it to her. But she struggles to be accepted because she’s an older woman in a male-dominated bar who has the temerity to carry herself like a brassy, still-sexual dame rather than the pie-baking earth mother so many of these guys seem to crave.

Class comes into play here, too. The Archie Bunker–style, working-class Anglo demographic represented by the Whittells has been pounded into dust. Places like Horace and Pete’s are increasingly viewed as irrelevant remnants of an earlier time, ill suited to modern New York, a claustrophobic open-air strip mall of cell-phone stores, Chipotles, Chase branches, and Starbuckses. Uncle Pete and Horace VII agree on little, but they’re united on the necessity of charging millennial patrons who’ve “discovered” the bar $4.50 for a glass of Bud instead of the $3 they charge regulars. A 20-something gay, Jewish patron at first assumes he’s being discriminated against by homophobic anti-Semites, then realizes he’s being asked to pay a “douche tax” because he and his pals visit dive bars to drink “ironically,” and ponies up.

As is so often the case on Louie, many of the exchanges revolve around the language, specifically the meanings that speakers attach to whatever they’ve just said and the secret agendas that the listener accuses them of harboring. The pilot’s very first scene finds Horace gingerly informing Pete that he left a pile of rags on the bar after closing time, which isn’t usually his style; Pete grouses that he’d much rather Horace tell him he did a shitty job of closing than imply he’s better than that. Every five minutes there’s an exchange like this. As on Louie, C.K.’s characters seem incapable of looking at sentences as arrangements of subjects, verbs, and objects that mean certain basic things. Instead, they go looking for secondary meanings, hurtful schemes, disguised motives, even when they’d be better off just processing the information. This, of course, makes it harder to discuss the Big Issues affecting the family, the family business, and the country. Everyone’s parsing each other’s motivations and raging against the dying of the light and assuming the worst about everyone and everything. A defeatist shroud hangs over Horace and Pete. Most of the regular customers (including Steven Wright, who barely speaks, and Kurt Metzger, who never shuts up) are alcoholics; Uncle Pete claims the drinks are watered down for the patrons’ own good. Metzger’s character makes a nihilistic pitch on Trump’s behalf: “If we vote for him, that just means we want to go down. So let us go down.”

It’s possible that future episodes might take us to some other location (the second episode included a brief scene on a park bench), but would we notice? The whole thing feels like a rebuke to the idea that TV should be as cinematic as possible — a notion that C.K.’s own Louie embraced by weaving in and out of real and figurative storytelling, fracturing time, and generally not giving a damn about continuity. This new show flaunts its theatricality, not just by staging scenes of five to ten minutes in length within a single confined space, but by cutting it together so that it feels continuous even if it was shot in pieces. The mercilessly unfolding, irrefutable fact of time is a much stronger presence here than in any other current TV series. You can almost hear the clock ticking on these characters’ lives.

Every installment of the series is written and directed by Louis C.K. This is not an unambiguously good thing. In fact, not since season two of True Detective have I seen a stronger argument in favor of writers rooms. This is not to say the show is uninteresting, much less terrible. It’s good most of the time, sometimes it’s excellent, and it’s fascinating even when it’s not working. C.K. is an intelligent filmmaker, an intriguing actor, and a writer who’s surprising and daring even when he’s not putting his ideas across as well as you might want. But the magnitude of what he’s attempting here often defeats him because it’s too big for anybody not named Orson Welles or Jackie Gleason, and because he’s working in a format that usually contains the implied promise of a strong narrative but seems constitutionally averse to telling stories with traditional beginnings, middles, and ends, much less gracefully structured setups and payoffs. Here and there it seems as though C.K. wants to be the great American storyteller without being weighed down by the responsibility of having to tell a story. The combination of a hermetically sealed setting and no-fuss filmmaking is spot-on, but scene for scene, the show’s scripts are a mess — as lumpy as a typical half-hour of Louie, but without the insurance policy of knowing you’re watching a filmmaking laboratory where the point is to throw stuff at the wall and see if it sticks. (Though apparently this show, too, is a kind of lab; the dialogue about the presidential primary in the pilot suggests it was filmed days before it was released on C.K.’s site.)

The result is a show that looks and moves like a tight one-act play adapted by people with film sense (some parts evoke John Frankenheimer’s 1973 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, likewise set in a New York dive bar) but that’s yoked to scripts that feel not-quite-there even when they’re sinking roots into your imagination. The actors are terrific — especially Alda, whose sneering, hateful character would be insufferable if not played by an actor who seems ecstatically committed to each syllable. But they all struggle at times with half-baked notions, poorly shaped confrontations that end with people screaming whatever they want or mean at top volume, and dialogue that ranges from Arthur Miller–esque (“Please let me use you so that I don’t die,” Sylvia beseeches Horace) to sub–Married With Children (“Don’t forget to bring your fat daughter some elephant food”). Too much of the show may remind you of the experience of being trapped in a bar with shrill drunks who aren’t anywhere near as fascinating as they seem to think.

Still, the series lingers in the mind. With its hurts and silences, its yellow-brown lighting and oak-and-sawdust textures, and its sense of impending doom, it is unlike anything else that calls itself American television. And there’s something inspirational about ordering this Eisenhower-era kitchen-sink stage play for 2016 on your phone or laptop, sitting through an hour of profane, masochistic psychodrama, then getting an email with the subject header, “Louis C.K. has charged you $5.” What gall, and bravo.