Louis CK released the first episode of Horace and Pete on his website at the end of January. It cost $5 and, initially, you only even knew about it if you were on the CK mailing list. The series ran 10 episodes, concluding in April, and you can now buy the whole shebang for $31. (All in USD, FYI.) Well aware of how difficult it is for a famous person to release anything these days without a deluge of anticipatory fanfare, CK produced Horace and Pete on his own dime and just put it out there. Boom. You start watching it and what do you get? You get a measured opening scene in a sepia-hued old tavern, a song on the jukebox, a guy sweeping, and you don’t really know what the hell this is. Thank God. Thank Louis. Whatever. It’s a privilege to come to something like this blind. The remainder of this column will perforate that privilege somewhat.
Horace (CK) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) are the latest in a lineage of brothers named Horace and Pete who’ve been proprietors of a Brooklyn bar currently celebrating its 100th year. Celebrating? Horace and Pete’s isn’t exactly a place people party. It’s a place people settle into stools and stew livers and addled minds for a spell. No mixed drinks here, just hard liquor and Bud. No music: that jukebox is largely for show. There’s an elderly bartender, the elder Pete (Alan Alda), who’s vigilant about forbidding all clientele who might threaten the bar’s air of working-class austerity, and he enforces his ordinance primarily through the constant spewing of brutally vulgar, reactionary, hipster-skewering diatribes and withering anecdotes. Sometimes you want to go where everybody curses your name.
Writer-director-producer-star CK, the comedian most famous for his FX series Louis, cannot bring himself to make something devoid of laughs, but as Horace and Pete makes its way, it slowly sinks in that this story is moving toward quotidian tragedy of the sort cherished by the American stage—and Horace and Pete plays very deliberately like a stage play that’s undergone minimal adaptation en route to the screen. Entropy encircles nearly every episode. Can this Spartan bar stay open? Will Horace and Pete’s cancer-stricken sister (Edie Falco) let it stay open, given the huge profit to be made from its sale? Will Young Pete manage to keep functioning even though he’s dependent on an experimental medication to control his debilitating mental illness?
The show, to be frank, is depressing as hell, but gloriously so. It resonates, and part of the reason it does so is because it builds slowly—it metastasizes. Exposition’s nearly absent, nothing’s hurried, everything feels real. It does occasionally stumble. The first episode features a group conversation about liberals and conservatives that’s do didactic it could’ve been written by a junior high drama student trying to show off how preternaturally egalitarian he is. The climax feels excessively mythic and gestural in comparison with the rest of the series’ naturalism. Of the camerawork, all one can say is that it’s workmanlike. But over and over again the writing is startling and rich. CK has a profound feeling for the cinematic potential of talk, the allure of, to quote the critic David Thomson, watching a human face as it changes its mind. (This bears out especially beautifully in “Episode 3,” which begins with an unknown character telling a story about other unknown characters, the camera not breaking from her until at least 10 minutes in.) Characters truly challenge each other—and us. And the performances are uniformly extraordinary. A nearly defeated man refusing to surrender to bitterness, Buscemi breaks your heart. Alda’s character is like sandpaper, but we know guys like him, and Alda does nothing to ingratiate. He has a monologue (reportedly inspired by Joe Pesci) about what he considers to be proper loving sex that is almost devastating in its sudden, lacerating earnestness. Jessica Lange, Kurt Metzger and the brilliant Steven Wright each have a seat at the bar and contribute to the heavy sense of fleeting consolation taken there. I found myself binge-watching Horace and Pete, becoming far more involved in the lives of these characters than I’d anticipated. And I can’t recommend it enough. V