“The world is just too noisy and distracted to probably ultimately survive. Everyone needs to shut the fuck up. The answers are in the silence. Monks set themselves on fire to make this point. Just consider it.”
That quote by comedian and filmmaker Garry Shandling was offered as a curtain-closer after the ninth episode of Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete, a self-produced and self-distributed series offered for purchase at LouisCK.net. It was a tribute to Louis C.K.’s friend Shandling, who died on March 24, but it also sums up what makes the series so mesmerizing and important. (I’m using past tense here because the wrenching tenth episode, which went up this past weekend, seemed to end the story; more on that momentarily, in a spoiler-filled column that should only be read by those who are completely caught up.)
Horace and Pete was more comfortable with silence than any TV show made during my lifetime. Its style demanded that you experience drama in a way that’s anathema to the values of contemporary television. It was distinguished by its fascination with dreams of success and the hard reality of disappointment, its awareness that everyone is here on earth temporarily, muddling through en route to the same stark ending, and its generosity in acknowledging that every person is at once obliviously self-centered and damaged, and that the failure to recognize this is at the root of most arguments and grudges. All the qualities that make it so valuable and often powerful are enhanced by the look and feel of the show as well as its characters and story.
If C.K’s last series, the FX sitcom Louie, was stand-up comedy made cinematic, with the fragmentation and wild tonal shifts that comparison implies, then Horace and Pete is filmed theater of a type not seen on TV since the ’50s. As such, it forces your eyes, ears, and mind to operate in a very different way than most scripted television, which uses brisk cutting, constant scene changes, music-driven montages, and other forms of audiovisual stimuli to keep your attention from wandering. It is essentially a stage production. Each episode is broken into two to four scenes that play out in real time, seemingly without cuts to compact the time-frame. The action unfolds on a handful of sets — the titular bar, always, but sometimes the rooms upstairs belonging to the owners, a couple of cousins: the divorced and rather morose Horace (Louis C.K.) and the mentally ill Pete (Steve Buscemi). We might spend five or seven minutes staring at the park bench where Horace has a heart-to-heart with his estranged daughter, Alice (Aidy Bryant); or the kitchen of Horace’s apartment, where Horace has a dazzlingly intricate morning-after conversation with his new lover, Rhonda (Karen Pittman), who might be a trans woman; or the hospital room where Horace talks to Pete’s friend Tricia (Maria Dizzia) and where she seeks treatment when Pete goes off his meds and hits her.
The writing is hit-and-miss but always ambitious, imagined as a sort of profane, current-events-literate modern version of the kitchen-sink, late-’40s-to-early-’50s American thea-tah mode: The Glass Menagerie; Come Back, Little Sheba; Marty; Death of a Salesman. Too many conversations devolve into “fuck you” and “fuck you too,” and the bar-stool arguments about Donald Trump’s appeal or the Gawker–Hulk Hogan verdict can sometimes feel shoehorned in and not much more interesting than what you’d hear at a real bar when people have had one or two too many drinks. But this is a small price to pay for the show’s dramaturgical and cinematic audacity. Horace and Pete takes its tonal cues from Zen-patient filmmakers like Yasujirô Ozu, Jim Jarmusch, and Sofia Coppola — minimalists who always seem to have greater powers of concentration than anyone who’s watching their films.
It’s also respectful of the raggedness and spontaneity of life. Apparent mistakes are left in: an actor stammering through a monologue with many twists and turns; a character snagging her coat on a chair as she storms out of the bar. As in a three-camera sitcom, the camera stays on one side of the axis of action, as if to represent the vantage point of an unseen ticket buyer, but that’s where any comparison to the standard TV comedy ends. There is no studio audience or laugh track. There is no soundtrack music save for Paul Simon’s brief, haunting theme song, which plays as intro music, end-credits music, and in the middle, implying an “intermission.” And, in contrast to almost any bar you’ve visited, the boozy, self-pitying, sometimes hostile conversations at Horace and Pete’s unfold in spooky quiet: no Spotify playlist, no jukebox, nada, except when a patron played by Tom Noonan briefly plays on an unseen upright piano. You see patrons in the background “speaking” to each other, but there is no burble of background talk. The only audible talkers are the characters having the most important conversation of that moment, and when we leave them to eavesdrop on someone else (even if they’re a couple of stools away), we don’t hear that first conversation continuing. The show’s ethos could be summed up as Let’s slow everything down and concentrate on one thing at a time.
The “one thing” is the validity of personal emotion: We feel the way we feel about things, and it’s usually better for other people to try to understand why we’re feeling things and let us tell our story rather than try to delegitimize the feelings or suggest a “solution” that might not work for us. Horace and Pete’s characters are all storytellers of one kind or another, and the show lets them tell their stories at length, while the other characters listen; when they fail to listen, often because they’re not willing to pay attention to somebody else’s story because it’s preventing them from telling their own, they get cranky and start interrupting or nitpicking or trying to derail the story. And that’s how arguments break out, not just between major characters but one-scene cameo players, such as the journalist in a later episode who confessed she finally achieved her dream of working for The New Yorker but felt only disappointment, and her date, who grew increasingly frustrated at her failure to acknowledge the fact that his father was an astronaut and one of the few humans to have walked on the moon. The problem there, as is often increasingly the case in 21st-century life, is that they were never actually having a conversation: They were just delivering adjacent monologues broken up by the other person’s expressions of impatience.
No show of recent years has distributed so many great monologues so democratically among such a large cast of brilliant character actors. As Marsha, the former girlfriend of Horace’s recently deceased dad, Jessica Lange talks about the blessing and curse of being conventionally beautiful, and being treated as a sexual being by men from a very young age, and what that did to her self-image and her life choices. Horace’s sister Sylvia, who has cancer and is pressuring Horace to sell the bar while insisting it’s not just because she needed money for her treatment, is given several low-key conversations in which she talks about the way the disease has ravaged her body, how it has affected her sense of the present and future, and how important sex still is to her. (The introduction of her new lover, played by Reg E. Cathey, gave the show one of its best almost-wordless moments: Puttering about the morning-after in Horace and Sylvia’s kitchen, he realizes that Horace’s new lover is, like him, black, and laughs and laughs, until finally everyone else has to laugh, too.) As Pete’s elder uncle — who is really his father, and who is also named Pete, just as every owner is named either Horace or Pete — Alan Alda makes like a stereotypical Trump voter (or an Archie Bunker descendant), railing against minorities and gays and women, but also falling down a hole of nostalgia and remembering his brother or the younger Horace and Pete as kids.
The third episode opens with a monologue by Horace’s ex-wife, Sarah (Laurie Metcalf), whose life is in tatters after she had an affair with her new husband’s father and who has come to the bar seeking insight from Horace, whose own adultery broke up their marriage. It opens with a close-up of Metcalf and stays on that shot for nine and a half minutes before cutting to Horace, whose first onscreen line, hilariously, is “Why are you telling me this?” People talk and other people listen, except when they don’t listen, which is why the fuck-yous erupt. And then the conversation ends, the room noise fades out, the music comes up, and C.K. pulls way back and lets you take in the whole bar, the whole apartment, the whole whatever, and says, Look at these people. Look at this space. Really look at it. Really think about it. Think about yourself, about what you see in all these people, these spaces. The answers are in the silence.
In its tight, ten-episode run, Horace and Pete packed an astonishing, maybe cruel amount of suffering. The finale is the show in microcosm: fleeting moments of pleasure and joy sandwiched between sequences of mounting dread and misery and sometimes horror, the two modes alternating like sides of a coin flipped by a sadistic God. The cops warn Sylvia and Horace that the missing Pete was probably dead and should be thought of as such; Sylvia says she is leaving the bar to enjoy whatever is left of her life and entreats Horace to do the same. An applicant for the waitress job (Amy Sedaris) stops in, beguiles Horace with her chatterbox optimism (a Manic Pixie Dream Lady, maybe) and plays “America,” which seems to move him deeply. As he is about to settle on selling the bar after all, Pete arrives, skinny arms wrapped around himself in the manner of a straitjacket, hair wild, eyes glazed over, the prodigal son returned, an Easter miracle; then he takes a knife and stabs Horace, his brother, to death. His brother. This was a Dickensian universe, a John Irving universe, a universe like this one, only more heightened and mundane at the same time, oddly.
Nearly every important relationship on the series was profoundly damaged, even broken, and the question was not whether it could be repaired, but whether it was even worth the energy to try, considering how much pain these people habitually caused each other. The series opened with Horace in mourning for his father. Alda’s character died just when you were getting a chance to know him, and there was no buildup; it just happened. You found out about his demise when an episode cold-opened with mourners returning from his memorial service. The wake spiraled into an argument about whether to sell the bar, a money pit that was out-of-step with the times in all sorts of ways. Without putting too fine a point on it, the show intertwined the slow death of the preceding generation with the death of its (mostly white, straight, male, entitled) value system. For a while it was hard to say if this was by design or just the byproduct of how C.K.’s screenwriting brain works. It’s still hard to say because, however long in advance most of the story lines were written, they were pretty obviously revised quite heavily right up to the moment of every episode’s filming. Barflies argued about happenings in politics and entertainment (and even Louis C.K.’s instantly controversial Trump letter, presented on the show as the yammering of some big-mouthed celebrity) that had occurred mere days before the episode became available for download. This trick has rarely been attempted by shows in active production because it’s just too damned hard and too potentially messy (though a few other series, such as South Park and Steven Soderbergh’s political drama K Street, have tried something like it).
Either way, the tenth episode made it seem like the product of forethought. The first act was set in 1976 and visualized the family’s previous generation, with Buscemi playing Alda’s role, C.K. playing his character’s father, Falco playing Sylvia and Horace’s abused mother, who was essentially being held captive in the apartment over the bar where the family lived. Sylvia’s character was a bellwether of necessary change right from the start: Selling the bar became a stand-in for giving up the rotten values that the men in the family inherited (in somewhat watered-down form) from their forefathers. The show took advantage of self-distribution to say whatever the hell it wanted, and there were moments when the racial and sexual and homophobic slurs verged on eat-our-cake-and-have-it-too indulgence: We’re critiquing this mentality, which is finally starting to become socially unacceptable almost everywhere, but wow, isn’t it liberating and hilarious to hear people talk this way again?
But Sylvia, more so than any other major character, seemed to represent a rational, decent, realist-minded point-of-view. “Here he said what he felt,” Horace intoned at the elder Pete’s wake, fumbling to say something nice about a man who had spewed vitriol at friends, family, and strangers alike for probably seven decades. “Oh please,” Sylvia said. “Those are exactly the things that are always said at every asshole’s wake.” The 1970s flashback that opened the finale visualized horrors that Sylvia alluded to at the wake. She had chastised many of the other mourners for sentimentalizing a hateful man, and sentimentalizing a bar that represented the handing-down of rotten assumptions and values, a bar that was located in a building that had echoed with the cries of several generations of battered women. We heard those cries off-screen in episode ten, coming from behind closed doors and traveling down into the bar from upstairs. The few glimpses we got of onscreen physical violence and intimidation (Horace’s father daring young Horace to show him what a tough guy looks like; Horace catching Sylvia trying to sneak out and dragging her back into the bar by her hair) got the point across.
These scenes and others (in particular Horace’s off-screen beating of young Pete for obsessive-compulsive behavior he had no control over) made the ending seem almost like karmic payback for a family’s, a city’s, and a nation’s ongoing sins. Maybe the unhinged Pete thought his cousin/brother was the dad who beat him. Maybe the first act of the finale was a continuation of the hallucination that ended episode nine, in which old Pete appears posthumously to taunt Pete the younger. “What a goddamn shame the way you turned out!” old Pete tells his son/nephew, oblivious to the fact that he was as responsible as anyone for the boy turning out that way.
Patriarchy has failed everyone in this world, including white men. Society slowly destroys itself. Horace and Pete’s vision is wrenching despite its raggedy unevenness because it plays like a Cassandra-style warning of an implosion that has already begun and will only accelerate, and that may in the end be necessary for the country’s reformation and renewed vigor and sanity. You can see this idea teased out in an earlier conversation in the finale, a scene that merges the point-of-view of the Trump-defending barfly who half-jokingly suggests electing Trump to heal the hole in his heart, and the pianist who says, in effect, that only answer to all of this suffering is to love those who have caused you pain. What a goddamn shame how we turned out. Love thy neighbor.
Horace and Pete, louisck.net.
*A version of this article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.