Episode 5 ends with a title card that reads “End of Act I”. From the first episode, it was apparent that Horace and Pete was a TV show meant to elicit the feel of a live theater performance. The lights come up on an empty set, and the audience is often placed in the vantage point of a theater house. Off the top of my head, there have only been a total of 3 set pieces, one of them a bench in a New York park. Not just any theater either, but Modern (capital M) theater. Miller and O’Neill seem to be Louis C.K.’s biggest influences when producing the script and feel of the show.
In the beginning, it didn’t feel like there was any predictable format to the show other than that, and 5 episodes in, it doesn’t feel like convention is something C.K. is after. The episodes vary in length. Episode 1 was over an hour, and Episodes 4 and 5 are each 30 minutes. The veneer of a plot, which centers around the decision to save or sell the bar, aptly named Horace and Pete, barely enters the field of action.
Instead, we’re given scenes of Horace, played by C.K., trying to reconcile with his daughter, bemoaning her willful habit of texting him whenever he calls. There’s a series of scenes with Pete having schizophrenic freak outs because he hasn’t had his medicine. Sylvie, their sister, berates her own daughter after a funeral. Uncle Pete (not to be confused with Pete) goes on many sexist and racist tirades. Horace has a sexual fantasy or two about his dead father’s lover. In an especially ballsy move by the show, Horace’s ex-wife is introduced at the beginning of Episode 3 and continues with a monologue about carrying on an affair with her new husband’s father for the next 20 minutes. And then there are just these lulls in the show to allow for the painful ennui of the barflies and barkeeps to wash over us. As outlandish and absurd as any of the scenarios above sound – and they are outlandish and absurd – that could appear in Louie, they’re taken at face value on Horace and Pete.
If Louie, C.K.s other highly successful TV program, is a comedy eclair with a drama filling, Horace and Pete is a heavy Black Forest cake of drama with chocolate shavings of comedy. And it’s all dark.
The show has plenty of philosophizing on life from all the characters, and it’s especially entertaining when the barflies or racist and sexist Uncle Pete, played by a disheveled Alan Alda. Uncle Pete, who seems to have no redeeming value on the show, gives us a beautiful and heartfelt speech on the wonders of making love to a woman…as opposed to giving or receiving oral sex to or from her. Leon, played by the morose and irreverent stand-up comedian Steven Wright wonders what it would be like if everyone in the world killed themselves at the same time. And it’s really funny. Then Horace tells his sister, “The only thing worse than living with somebody who doesn’t love you…is living with somebody who really loves you a lot.”
These contradictions litter the show, seem to be the central question holding up all the themes of old establishments in the face of modernity (Sylvie, who is the biggest proponent of selling the old and failing bar, informs Horace and Pete, that the air rights alone are worth $6 million dollars), face-to-face dialogue in the age of the digital, character versus plot, and theater in the age of television. Youth, middle age, old age. The old Brooklyn versus the up-and-coming Brooklyn. The show is a juxtaposition and jumble of so many of these elements and themes, and five episodes in, it covers a wide array of topics that just seem to be thrown into the mix over and over again. It could have been chaos, but there’s dramatic order in it all, at least by the end of Episode 5.
The assembled cast is amazing. Steve Buscemi plays his cousin, er, brother Pete, and Horace’s sister is played by Edie Falco (both prominent The Sopranos alumni). Jessica Lange plays Horace Sr.’s old lover; he died before the start of the show, and she just kept hanging around, a would-be glamour worn to keep the tragedy she’s mired in from touching her. Notable Louie alumni are the aforementioned Stephen Wright, Nick Di Paolo, and Marie Dizzia. Finally, the gold star goes to Alan Alda, who plays Uncle Pete. Ornery would be an understatement. The man is vile, and Alda plays him without pulling any punches.
The title song, written by Paul Simon, sounds like it could have been a continuation of the old Simon and Garfunkel song Old Friends/Bookends. He wistfully sings over the show credits, “I can’t complain about my problems/I’m ok the way things are/I pull my stool up to the bar/at Horace and Pete’s.” As Sylvie argues for selling the bar and damn the tradition of having Horace and Pete around – both the men and the bar – I can’t help but hear the lyrics to Old Friends: “Preserve your memories/they’re all that’s left of you.”
If all of this sounds way heavy for a show by Louis C.K., well it is heavy, and it’s designed to be that way. I didn’t know if I would like this show after two episodes, and I still don’t know that I really like the show. Part of my hesitation to allow myself to say I enjoy the show is just an expectation of what a Pig Newton (the name of C.K.’s production company) show is as written by the comedian Louis C.K.
At the same time, if you’ve watched all of Louie, you know that the man digs deep into the human experience. It’s just that now he has given himself a new vehicle with which to explore it without having to apologize with comedy. It’s an acquired taste, to be sure, and while I am still unsure, I’ve entered the bar, paid for all 5 episodes, and will likely be paying for the rest of the season…that is, Acts. And if you enter with something weighing heavily on your own heart, in the way that people enter middle age, you yourself may decide to go when you find out they only serve liquor unmixed or Budweiser beer; or, for better or worse, you may find yourself staying.