Horace & Pete’s – Episodes 1 to 5

Old “Friends”

horace and pete

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.

Horace and Pete Episodes for Purchase

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Book Shoppers Anonymous: “Time Enough at Last”

Something has been happening in my apartment. I have a new roommate. Boy, do I get rankled all the time for want of some alone time. It’s not just the apartment, though. It’s this entire city, it’s the world. He’s just stepped out, and now I have some time to listen to my own thoughts, to read, to write, to walk around the apartment naked. Most of all, though, I tell myself that if only I had more time to myself in the apartment, that I’d read more.

For those of you who know me, I play a lot of video games, and I may have even mentioned that up until a month or so ago, I hadn’t been reading much. So for those of you reading this, you might know, too, that by me saying that I’d read more if only I had more space and more time, is really just me rationalizing my own selfishness.

If we travel back in time to this summer when I wrote my post about detachment, Buddhism, and book-buying, I used that oh-so-iconic figure of Henry Bemis, the eccentric banker from a famous episode of The Twilight ZoneI’ve been watching the show recently from the very first episode, and my god, that show is dark, intense, and ahead of its (yes, here’s that word again) time.

Henry Bemis, as played by Burgess Meredith

In the episode “Time Enough at Last”, our tragic bespectacled hero Henry Bemis is a timid and eccentric bank teller and husband. He’s nearsighted and loves to read books. All Henry wants to do is read books and talk about books, but the real world represented by his wife, his job, and his boss, keep intruding.

The president of the bank tells him, “You, Mr Bemis, are a reader. A reader of books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers. I see you constantly going down to the vault during your lunch hour. You will henceforth devote your time to your job and forget reading, or you’ll find yourself outdoors reading on a park bench from morning until night from want of a job.” Bemis interrupts the president, to which the president replies, “Make it quick and get back to your cage.” Imagine this president in the age of the internet. Talk about the distraction and productivity killer to end all.

His wife is no better, talking down to him and his silly books, a lot like how people used to pester me about video games. She even takes a pencil to his book and vandalizes them. Henry Bemis is crushed. Even after Bemis tells the president how his wife will never let him read, driving him to desperate acts of reading the labels on the ketchup bottle, the president commends Bemis’s wife as a sound woman.

They all just seem like a bunch of meanies, at least to my roommate and his girlfriend.

So much of the episode sets up the viewer to sympathize with Bemis. This shy, timid, gentle man is just being bullied and misunderstood by the world. It’s certainly difficult for an informed and literate New Yorker like myself to understand how so much of Bemis’s world can be against books. It’s even more surprising just how anti-intellectual the world can be even now in the heyday of the internet and quick-and-easy access to knowledge. There’s Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia (which actually gave presented the idea of anti-intellectualism in this episode).

In my liberal time and place, education and being informed are often so highly regarded. I take it for granted just how much we value books. And that’s exactly what the story is trying to teach us, right? The world is just a bunch of dummies, and Bemis is the true hero because he reads books and is educated and understands the human condition and blah blah blah.

Then the H-bomb goes off as Bemis reads from the protected shell of a bank vault. He’s suddenly left alone. His pocket watch shatters. There’s no one to bother him. He has plenty of food, well, crackers, but there’s no one to bother him. No one. Soon enough he goes mad, finds a gun with which he’s going to kill himself. “Surely I’ll be forgiven…”

Then he sees the sign for the Public Library and approaches his version of Heaven.

“Collected Works of Dickens. Collected Works of Bernard Shaw. Poems by Browning, Shelley, Keats! Great Dramas of the World! Books, books, books. All the books I’ll need, all the books I’ll ever want!” No wonder this video was first shown to me in a high school English class.

Still, if this episode is a champion of intellectualism, then why is Bemis “punished” at the end of the episode? He embraces a huge clock when he expounds on having all “the time I’ll need. All the time I’ll want. There’s time enough at last.” And yes, secretly there’s a part of me that wishes for an apocalypse where I’m secretly vaulted up in the cellar of The Strand book store with enough crackers and salami to keep me alive.

And even though I’d be able to read all the Dostoevsky I wanted, and enough time to read The Fermata over and over again, surely I wouldn’t be able to make love to any of these books. I couldn’t discuss them with anyone, and let’s not forget that Bemis wants to discuss books with others. It’s not that he’s a recluse. He wants to

But with no markers of time, no people, no eyeglasses, no life to which our books and knowledge can refer to, it’s all dead anyways. As admirable as Bemis’s intellectualism is, he ultimately falls prey to his own desires. There’s a limit to it all.

What would Werner Herzog have to say about this, though? When he said that you can’t be a filmmaker if you don’t read, bemoaning a culture that only reads magazines and blog posts (like this one), did he see the blind spots of his own obsession with the written word? And what do we make then of this limitation of knowledge when David Simon, the creator of The Wire, one of the most critically acclaimed shows touted for being authentic and unflinching, tells us that we still need to be reading books because they do something television doesn’t? Or even when Buddhists must practice detachment from books and knowledge?

Was Bemis punished? Was it the world that was at fault? Or is this just an example of the amorality of our universe and the tragic nature of humanity? Even books can’t save us in the end, not even an e-book. But if books can’t save us, neither will all of our stories. When the big one hits, no matter how we view these stories as little time capsules, capturing history and slices of life, they’ll never be a substitute for living itself, even if that reality is a harsh wife and a demanding boss.

Is it really that simple, though? That cut-and-dry? Why shouldn’t we get our own little slice of paradise? As we’ve all most of us have learned, life isn’t fair. And as The Twilight Zone, books, and the events of the world have taught us all (oh-so-recently) we often live in a confusing, alien, and amoral world that all the books and knowledge could possibly fix or alleviate.

But I’d like to think it might help…

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