The other day Louis CK went on Howard Stern and said that his recent series, Horace and Pete, which he wrote and directed and starred in and released through his website, left him millions of dollars in debt. The deal with the show, if you don’t know, is that CK released a new episode every Saturday for ten weeks on his website, and viewers bought them one at a time. The first episode was five bucks, subsequent shows went for two or three dollars. CK’s plan was to pony up a couple million dollars to finance the first four, to get things going, and then make his money back on individual episode sales.
But he didn’t. Which is too bad, because Horace and Pete is a genuinely interesting and almost/ sometimes/ basically a great show. It’s surprising and weird and funny and thought-provoking and bleak as fuck. Seriously bleak. So bleak it makes Dick Cheney look like Dudley Moore.
But that’s no way to convince you to watch the show, and let me be clear that I mean Dudley Moore back when he was a wise-cracking sprite, not the version of Dudley Moore with a degenerative brain disease.
It’s not always that bleak.
But it’s not really a comedy, either. The show’s tone is more like that of CK’s FX series Louie, or Zack Galifianakis’ new show Baskets (also on FX, also produced by CK)– it’s often funny and kind of works along comedy rhythms but is ultimately more interested in telling a story, and it’s unafraid of veering far from humor if that’s what the story demands.
So what I want to do here is encourage you to purchase, download, and watch all ten episodes of Horace and Pete. But who am I to tell you what to do? And isn’t enough of the Internet already taken up by witless dopes eager to tell you how to live your life and spend your time and money?
Mine is. I can’t look at Facebook or Twitter or the fucking New York Times without some goddamn content creator telling me I’m doing something wrong and shoving an official ranking down my throat like I’m supposed to accept their opinion as my own now and forever. I saw something recently, an official ranking of every Foo Fighters song. Can you imagine being the intern tasked with ranking every Foo Fighters song? There are so many, and only one good one. That ranking should have gone like this: 1. Everlong. 2. A picture of a garbage can containing every other Foo Fighters song.
Horace and Pete takes place at a bar in Brooklyn called Horace and Pete’s. The place is one hundred years old, and for a century has been run by a succession of Horaces and Petes. The most recent Horace (Louis CK) is a divorced/ haunted sad sack, then there are two Petes for the price of admission—Pete Senior (Alan Alda), a raging asshole, and Pete (Steve Buscemi), whose struggle with mental illness gives the story some narrative drive. The cast is rounded out by Edie Falco as Horace’s sister, Jessica Lange as a barfly, Aidy Bryant as Horace’s estranged daughter, and a bunch of great actors who pop up as surprises that are best left unspoiled.
And there are plenty of surprises. I guess that was part of CK’s design for the whole thing, to release the show with no fanfare or advance marketing. I don’t know exactly why he thought that was a good idea and suspect he was maybe just curious as to what would happen. Well, what happens is that you end up millions of dollars in debt. But okay, along those lines, CK is doing exactly what he wants with this show. Sometimes the episodes are an hour, sometimes thirty minutes. They’re as long as they need to be, to tell whatever story he’s telling that week. Which is a little disconcerting at first, until you realize the only reason most television shows are whatever length is because they need a certain amount of commercial breaks. Even the purest, most auteur driven vision on basic cable has to conform to commercial expectations. H&P is a show that it’s tough to imagine anything outside of Xanax advertising on, but that doesn’t matter because CK is kicking all commercial consideration and every rule out the window. This is auteur television at its most auteur-y.
Which by the way, might not be the future, but should be. Everyone with bandwidth wants to be in the original streaming content business now, but everyone outside of CK seems to be convinced that the future of television—or episodic entertainment, I guess—is the same shit as always but on your phone instead of your TV. Does that really make sense? Is the delivery method really the thing people are rebelling against? It’s such a pathetic old man vision of tomorrow, like when a college professor decides to integrate Tumblr into the classroom but just posts the same shit there that he used to project on the wall.
Which is in some ways what the series is about, I guess. The ten episodes loosely deal with Edie Falco’s character trying to convince Horace and Pete to sell the place and move on with their lives, and their reluctance to do so. Horace and Pete believe they have to hold on to the place, that it’s a family tradition, hers is that repeating the same mistakes over and over might technically constitute a tradition, but maybe not one worth fighting for.
There’s a great scene in one episode as well where Horace comes to suspect that a woman he slept with the night before might have been born a man, and the two have a long conversation about what—if any—responsibility a transgender person has to alert sexual partners as to their past. Horace begins incredulous, suggesting that not sharing this information is a betrayal, but as the scene plays out he begins to doubt his position as the woman challenges what he believes and why, pointing out that he’s ultimately hung up on paradigms he’s never really put any thought into. The woman insists that if she’s physically a woman now, that’s all that matters, and the two leave promising to meet up again. Edie Falco enters, and Horace tells her he thinks he had sex with a man.
It’s a great scene that probably would have spawned more half-cocked vitriol had more people seen it, but I love it because it’s so… let’s say unpleasantly honest. CK, as the author of the scene, knows which side is the right side but illustrates the weird tension (that most people don’t want to talk about, which most television shows wouldn’t touch in a million years) between knowing what you should think and what you do think.
I don’t know if I’m doing a good job selling you on this. Buscemi and Alan Alda both turn in some of the best acting of their careers, how about that? CK really comes into his own as a dramatic actor, too. Go watch it. I want more people to talk about it with.