With ‘Horace and Pete’, Louis C.K. Succeeded with His Most Ambitious Project Yet

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There are two important things to know before committing to the 10-episode run of Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete: It’s not a comedy, and it’s better for it.

Yes, the nine or so hours that comprise the web series are dotted with occasional laughs. But you won’t find the steady undercurrent of humor that drives Louie, much less the comedic pulse of C.K.’s standup. Horace and Pete is a drama. In fact, that’s true in both tone and type; it’s closer in kinship to a 1950s televised play than to anything you’d find on basic cable. It even has occasional intermissions.

That choice, that sense that we’re witnessing a stage show with an audience of one, creates not comedy but something much more valuable: Intimacy. Along with the potent performances from the likes of Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, and a host of other capital-A Actors, you’d have to really work to watch Horace and Pete at an ironic remove. These people are so deep in the muck they forget how daylight feels. An uncomfortably close, unwavering camera makes sure you’re in it, too.

And what muck it is! C.K. and Buscemi play the Horace and Pete of the title, brothers and proprietors of a century-old Brooklyn bar (also called Horace and Pete) that has been passed down, fathers to sons (okay, yes, all named Horace and Pete), for generations. This is not a happy bar, and these are not happy families. Horace is a divorced father with no relationship to speak of with his kids. Pete takes medication to ward off psychotic episodes. Uncle Pete (Alda) mans the bar alongside them, quicker with a slur than with a beer. The regulars, including comedians Steven Wright, Kurt Metzger, and Nick DiPaolo, treat Horace and Pete’s like their own personal purgatory.

That the bar is so old lends it a timelessness that gets to the heart of what Horace and Pete is really about. Tradition carries weight, regardless of its worth. Unburdening yourself of it comes with a cost.

In this case, that tradition isn’t just a dive bar’s naming construct, or of watering down drinks. It’s what we assume to be an unbroken hundred-year cycle of abusive relationships, and of spite, and of living down to the lowest expectations.

Only one person who seem to realize this, or at least to openly acknowledge it. Sylvia, Horace and Pete’s sister, played powerfully by Edie Falco, is suing for the right to sell the bar — the air rights alone, she says, are worth millions. She calls out the place for what it is, a “cancer on the family.” In case that metaphor doesn’t connect, she’s also fighting real cancer of her own.

The fate of the bar and the lives it ensnares gives the show just enough narrative thrust to keep things moving, and provide its unsettling conclusion (no spoilers here, but suffice to say that no one gets out easy). It’s not a sprint, though; there’s plenty of meandering along the way. For all the hopelessness and gloom, Louis C.K. manages to take the scenic route.

In fact, the bulk of the show comprises a series of vignettes, most of which take place at the bar, that range anywhere from a few minutes to an entire (extraordinary) episode. In its third installment, Horace and Pete pauses its exploration of generational ties to give Laurie Metcalf, as Horace’s ex-wife, a full forty-five minute monologue. The camera stays framed on her face, a shot punctuated sparingly with a few reactions from Horace. It’s a story about an affair, but more importantly — thematically, anyway — it’s a story about the inability to escape who you are. As the rest of the series bears out, nobody can.

Other interludes play more as springboards for Louis C.K. to riff as a writer. Abortion! Race! Online dating! Transsexuality! These sections sometimes feature characters we know, sometimes a few we don’t. They feel like cousins not to Louie but to its predecessor, the single-season HBO series Lucky Louie, in that it wants to ape authenticity by tossing in the word “cunt” (and worse) more than you’d normally hear in a scripted piece. Which is fine! These tangents are always engaging, they just telegraph a sense of “Now Is When We Talk About…” etc.

Some of them also seem placed as deliberate reminders that the show takes place in the present tense. There’s plenty of Trump talk here, and Clinton’s email scandal, and even the Gawker-Hulk Hogan trial verdict, which was delivered well after the series began airing. These are also amusing, but more interesting as a reminder that without that forced topicality, the events of Horace and Pete could be happening any time over the last several decades.

Which, of course, they have. Different Horaces, different Petes, same result. Until the gut-kick finale, which illustrates both how that cycle has perpetuated, and the exacting price of breaking it.

As a viewer, it’s a commitment to get there; the whole series costs $31, with episodes varying in length from 30 minutes to just over an hour. And it’s not flawless. Some of the performances feel wooden, some of the detours can drag. It’s worth it, though. Horace and Pete may be about timelessness and tradition, but as a creative exercise it’s entirely refreshing and new. It’s uncomfortable, it’s crude, it’s quiet, it’s erratically paced. Above all, though, it’s engaging. It makes you care.

So no, this isn’t a comedy, and it’s not quite a drama either. It doesn’t conform to any established genre, really. It’s not a play, or a cable show, or a Netflix original, or even a conventional web series. It’s both something different, and something more. Horace and Pete is a show about trying to become something better than what came before you. It’s also pulled off that very trick itself.

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