Friday, March 11, 2016

What about this Place: Louis C.K's Horace and Pete

Steve Buscemi and Louis C.K. in Horace and Pete.

Sometimes I wonder why do we tear ourselves to pieces / I just need some time to think / Or maybe I just need a drink / At Horace & Pete’s.
– from the theme song to Horace and Pete, written and performed by Paul Simon. 
On January 30, without fanfare, press release, or social media campaign, Louis C.K. sent out a mass email to his fans: “Hi there. ‘Horace and Pete’ episode one is available for download. $5. Go here to watch it. We hope you like it. Regards, Louis.” (Subsequent episodes were downloadable at a lesser cost: $2 for episode two and $3 for each episode after that.) For the past six years, C.K.'s Louie has been the standard bearer for indie TV within the network model, so this move to direct-to-consumer series distribution seems, though maybe only in retrospect, like a natural next step for him. Unlike Louie, which remains a comedy (albeit a dark and sometimes surreal one), Horace and Pete is a drama, in every best sense of the word: both in that it has the deliberate texture of a stage production and that it lands with a surprising weight of reality.

Unstructured but meticulously scripted, the 67-minute first episode of Horace and Pete introduces us to Horace and Pete's, a family-owned Brooklyn bar currently run by two brothers, Horace (Louis C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi). As is slowly revealed, twelve months earlier their father Horace (who ran the bar with his brother Pete) passed away, pulling the reluctant younger Horace Wittell from his Manhattan life as an accountant back to Brooklyn, his childhood bedroom, and the longstanding family tradition. With the irascible elder Pete (Alan Alda) behind the bar, the two brothers have apparently spent the last year clumsily in charge of the century-old establishment. (As the younger Pete bluntly puts it in the first episode, "I'm incompetent, and he's unwilling.") Populated by a colourful if depressive array of day drinkers (including the welcome presence of a sexagenarian Steven Wright at the end of the bar), the bar is the stage on which the increasingly strained relations between the family members are played out: Uncle Pete and the brothers, Horace and Pete and their sister Sylvia (Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie), Horace and his estranged adult daughter Alice (Saturday Night Live's Aidy Bryant).

At the centre of all this is C.K.'s Horace, the largely indifferent planetary body around which the characters who enter and exit through the bar's heavy wooden doors move in slow orbit. Some stick around for a while – like Marsha, his father's final girlfriend (played with a lusty, intoxicated flourish by Jessica Lange) – and others – like the steady stream of bearded Brooklyn hipsters – stay just long enough to ironically enjoy the watered-down booze and "authentic" dive atmosphere.

Bypassing the network model also allows the series to be sometimes disconcertingly topical. Episodes are clearly filmed on an on-going basis, with minimal lag time from production to distribution. The first episode (dropped January 30th) references the details of the then-imminent Iowa Caucuses, the distressing popularity of Donald J. Trump, and the next week's Super Bowl match-up. The floating bits of conversations from the bar patrons, the background music to the Whittell family drama, are precisely as timely, familiar, and decidedly inconsequential as the conversations all of us are having this season.

Alan Alda and Jessica Lange in Horace and Pete.

C.K. – who has written and directed every episode so far – has gathered an amazing cast who deeply inhabit these unhappy but layered characters, with Buscemi, Lange, and Alda leading the pack. Not only bringing 40 years of sitcom history onto the stage with him, Alda's Uncle Pete is also the face and casually racist voice of the family and the bar's long, messy past – with both he and it are rubbing exasperatedly up against the encroaching 21st century.

The love child of Eugene O'Neill, Norman Lear, and Glen & Les Charles, Horace and Pete has the intimacy and feel of a stage production, though it also harkens back to the era of CBS's Playhouse 90. Filmed live to video with long extended takes, the series feels spacious – voices are crisp and resound as if on a sound stage (even the very few scenes set outdoors), but the artificiality of the presentation only highlights the humanity of its situations. I don't believe I have attended so closely to every line of dialogue in a television series since Deadwood, but my attention to Horace and Pete stems from entirely different reasons. I listen to every line of dialogue not because it is some kind of Milchian profane poetry (although it is profane, especially the words coming out of Alan Alda), and not because it's a rapid-fire, ten-jokes-a-minute comedy (though it is sometimes funny, in a "so funny I could cry" sort of way), but because that's all it is.

Like the strongest stage dramas, Horace and Pete is made of dialogue, if not always exactly words: full of awkward and lengthy silences, mundane conversations punctuated by raw bursts of entirely unpoetic honesty. C.K. has built a small pocket universe of stale beer, polished wood, and 70s-era upholstery and seemingly left it to be filled by words alone. I paid attention because if I didn't, there would be nothing there. While it is deliberately reminiscent of theatrical productions (some of the episodes are interrupted at the mid-point with an intermission), once those features became familiar, I was consistently reminded of radio. I never tested the theory, but I am confident that most episodes of the show would be equally effective, if not more so, with the video turned off.

Taking full advantage of its streaming model, the episodes are of varying length – the first episode is the longest so far at almost 70 minutes, with others as short as 30 – and scripts of equally variable structure. The premiere episode is like a standalone drama, building the world of Horace and Pete's with small snatches of conversation, minor revelations and brief, awkward exchanges. (If it wasn't titled "Episode 1," you would be forgiven for thinking it a wholly self-standing narrative.) Subsequent scripts continue to play fast and loose with its own established conventions, giving characters lengthier and meatier monologues. The third episode, for example, introduces us to Sarah, Horace's ex-wife played by Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), who opens the episode with a ribald and riveting 9-and-a-half minute monologue. Unique among the six episodes so far, the 43-minute episode is essentially a two-hander, with Metcalf and C.K. laying bare their characters with startling directness.

As of last Saturday, six episodes of Horace and Pete have been made available – though C.K. has been characteristically mum on how long the series will run. Perhaps another episode will drop tomorrow, or perhaps the last line of last Saturday's episode, "This country's going to shit in a handbag." – spoken by Edie Falco, through a mouthful of spaghetti – will be Horace and Pete's final words.

All current, and future, episodes of Horace and Pete are available for download on Louis C.K.'s website.
– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large
since 2010.

1 comment:

  1. I've never watched a live streamed show, but I may start with this one. That's a hell of a cast, apart from anything else.