With little fanfare and no prior announcement, Louis C.K. dropped a new television series on the world two weeks ago called Horace and Pete. Set in a bar run for a century by various related Horaces and Petes, the current owners struggle to keep the doors open and fend off a left-out family member. Is this the end of the establishment, or simply the regular challenges that occur regularly over the course of a lifetime?
The story is simple enough. Horace VII passed away a year ago, so now the bar has fallen under the care of Horace VIII (Louis C.K.), an accountant, and his medicated brother, Pete (Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire). When their sister, Sylvia (Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie) brings a lawyer (Stephen Wallem, Nurse Jackie) in to assert ownership, the politically incorrect previous Pete, known as Uncle Pete (Alan Alda, M*A*S*H), tells the storied history of the place and defends the status quo.
One wants the status quo defended, as the titular drinking hole is a universe unto itself, removed from the city outside. Its regulars, including Horace VII’s last girlfriend, Marsha (Jessica Lange, American Horror Story), Leon (Steven Wright, Reservoir Dogs), and Kurt (Kurt Metzger, Ugly Americans), may enjoy debating current events, but it’s hard to imagine them discussing such things anywhere else. Those that come in less often, such as Horace’s daughter, Alice (Aidy Bryant, Saturday Night Live), and a few hipsters looking for an experience, don’t understand.
Horace and Pete can be humorous, but it’s not a comedy. It’s much darker than Louie and there is a sadness that permeates the proceedings. It’s thoroughly enjoyably, beautiful, and stylistic, but it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, and at times, it’s downright depressing. It’s the natural extension of what Louis C.K. has done before, deepening the pathos.
Calling Horace and Pete a television show stretches the definition of that term. True, I did watch it on my television (by buying the episode from C.K.’s website, downloading it to my laptop, then transferring it to my TiVo, where it still looks fantastic in 55 inches), but it does not broadcast on any station, nor is it available via streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. Instead, as he has done with recent stand-up specials, C.K. controls the experience, providing a single portal through which to get it, giving him total control over the presentation, and allowing him to release the first one while still filming the second.
Some may balk at the $5 price for episode one, when most buy-alone shows are $2.99 (for high definition) per episode. C.K. has pledged to sell the second installment for $2 and subsequent ones for $3, so it’s only the pilot, which clocks in at an extra-long 67 minutes, that costs a little more. But it’s totally worth it.
What the viewers get with Horace and Pete isn’t just a show, it’s an experience. The drama feels like a Broadway play. Filmed multi-camera with no background score, there’s a constant white noise one would expect when watching a recording from a theatre. The cast is top-notch and very New York, lending to the impression of a live performance. The script is by C.K., and while most of the dialogue could easily come from his FX comedy series, Louie, by giving his words out to a varied ensemble and delivering them in the right manner, they become the lyrics of a playwright, not sitcom fodder.
None of this avant-garde art is totally unexpected for C.K. Perhaps this specific format is not what one would have predicted, but it’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself to be defined by convention. C.K. is constantly pushing boundaries and doing something no one else has before, if only because of a clever bend. Horace and Pete is that from beginning to end.