Louis C.K.'s Horace and Pete

Strange and superlative though it may seem, in Horace & Pete, comedian Louis C.K. may have created one of the most affecting, incisive, and tragic television series of our era.  Touching on mental illness, modern loneliness, family dysfunction, male cruelty, and Donald Trump - among other things - it seems to begin from the idea that the world is an intrinsically sad place. In it, it seems to say, we are all both victims and perpetrators. Its a show that’s painful in the way that life is painful - blindly, with little discrimination. It follows individuals who cant seem to get out of the hamster wheel of misfortune. 

The setting is, logically, Horace and Petes a family-run Brooklyn dive bar that remains stubbornly true to its 100-year history. Everything inside is flanked with wood, and like the inside of a ship, all is burnished and dimly-lit. The walls are crowded with messy picture frames. Dont even try to order a mixed drink or wine. Trendy Brooklyn millennials are treated with open hostility. If someone were to turn the borough on its side and shake, youd find what came loose propping up the bar there. The patrons, at their spindly stools and chairs, are alternately loud-mouthed or morose, pontificating about politics or online dating. They float in and out of the periphery; we get insight from them occasionally, but just as often we get drunken belligerence or light comic relief. Its much needed here.

Horace & Pete is a flag-in-the-ground statement of artistic intent. Written as a ten-episode mini-series, the show was self-funded by Louis C.K. with no network backing or set time-scale. Episodes run from 30 to 60 minutes, as the story demands. Divided into Act I and II, its structure is exquisitely pared down; almost all scenes take place in the same upstairs-downstairs setting, with maybe only two exteriors. We never even see the street front outside Horace & Petes establishment; its a world unto itself. 

As for the central character Horace (played by Louis C.K), the bar is his whole world. He views the rest of his life passively. Things just happen to him; insults and events that would wound most people bounce off him. In moments of genuine distress, he fills up like a glass of water, going strawberry red and rubbing his eyes. Horace made a reckless, selfish decision as a 21 year old, and it’s kept him estranged from his adult children. But he’s not a terrible guy, not really. He does what he can to keep the family business together; to protect his ailing brother and negotiate with his prickly sister. Life just doesn’t afford him much of a chance at normality. 

The old story of Horace & Petes Bar is repeated throughout the series like a mantra: It was opened in 1916 by two brothers called Horace and Pete. And then they had two sons named Horace and Pete, who took it over. And then the next bunch of sons too.But the reality is more convoluted, and the family’s history is far from idyllic. The late Horace Sr was a monstrous domestic abuser, barely letting his wife see the light of day. His brother — Uncle Pete to us — is a terrible bully with hardly a redeeming trait. Now a doddery old man, Pete (Alan Alda) still tends bar, taking any given opportunity to humiliate his nephews. The role was originally written for Joe Pesci, and his dialogue still has Pescis familiar foul-mouthed cadences. 

Young Pete, on the other hand, is quieter - shuffling around and sweeping up the barroom floor. Steve Buscemi gives him a bent, rumpled appearance, with a thin-skinned translucence not dissimilar to a hard-boiled eggshell. But Buscemis familiar wide-set eyes have a kindness to them. It’s a once in a lifetime performance for Buscemi, who builds his character’s physicality to match his interior life. Pete’s desires are simple; he wants to live a plain, dull, even joyless existence. Its not the absence of joy that concerns him, but the absence of sanity. Without his medication, he is certifiably insane — schizophrenic, perhaps, though no one says precisely. He’s simply content not to disappear into the fog of his own mind. 

And so slowly, through these individuals, the show chisels away at the mythology of the family-run business - a cornerstone of American entrepreneurship. It’s key to our country’s idea of itself, past and present. It’s Horace and Pete’s older sister Sylvia, played by Edie Falco with pinched, purposeful severity, who makes the point best. There should be zero nostalgia for the old watering hole. It’s merely been the home for a hundred years of downtrodden women, tortured by abusive, drunken husbands. She encourages her brothers to close the bar down and to move on with their lives, but no one seems capable of following through on that idea.

In this way, Horace & Pete continually undermines the masculine history that Uncle Pete rhapsodises about. Oddly, even Horace and Pete themselves are prone to misty-eyed fondness for an imagined version of the past. They feel a baffling loyalty to keeping the place open. If they try hard enough, perhaps, the golden fiction of family tradition might come true. 

Misery really is passed on through the generations, as Philip Larkin famously wrote. If it ‘deepens like a coastal shelf’ over the years, then watching ten episodes of Horace & Pete is watching the deepening of that misery occur; like witnessing erosion through a time-lapse lens. It’s never shied away from, never blunted for the sake of audience comfort. Some situations are sad and only become sadder.   

Does Louis C.K. see America on the same terms as he sees Horace & Petes? It’s possible.  But if the show is a larger statement on the current state of affairs, its never concisely laid out. Its too specific to the particulars of its dysfunctional family; too in touch with human realities. Nonetheless, the bar is an outdated, isolated place in an advanced state of decay. The lost souls inside are in total denial, avoiding the sins of the past and focusing on a more noble legacy. But it’s just a story they’re telling themselves. And if they can’t reconcile themselves to the past, then what hope is there for the future? 

Somehow, it turns out that Paul Simon was enlisted to write a short, melancholy ballad for the show’s theme music. It bookends each episode, and and strains of it pop up mid-way through, too. The gentle insistence of its tune becomes inextricable from the action onscreen. By the conclusion, its plaintive sound is enough to bring a lump to your throat. 

The final episodes of Horace & Pete are almost unbearably sad. The narrative is saved from mean-spiritedness only because it loves its characters, in all their fucked-up, unlikable complexity. The events almost feel preordained; there’s a tragic necessity to them. It could only ever have ended this way, but the audience will undoubtedly wish for a million other ways. And keep wishing long after the series is complete. Horace & Pete will stay imprinted on my memory. Its small gestures, its painful intimacy, its vulgar jokes — the way Horace rubs his eyes and Pete shuffles along the floor. There’s nothing disposable about what it offers; it keeps percolating around my head. I’ll carry it around with me for a long time -- and I can’t think of a higher compliment for a work of art. 


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