In season 2 of “Louie,” the audience is treated a flashback in which Louis C.K. is filming a pilot with a major network. Despite his wife’s insistence that he not, C.K.’s character opens his beer bottle by bashing the cap into the side of the kitchen table. A laugh track plays.The fact that the audience is supposed to find this endearing frustrates Louie, since his character is clearly an asshole. See, Louie always wanted to watch the sitcom where the asshole got what was coming to him. A show with real consequences that make the characters feel authentic, unlike the uncanny valley of major-network sitcoms.
Well, C.K. finally got what he wanted, he just had to make it himself. Many have echoed the sentiment that Louis C.K. is television’s first auteur. Whether he is the first the medium has seen or not, his creative fingerprints are impossible to confuse with anyone else’s. This is true down his methods of distribution. One Saturday in February, without any fanfare, members of Louis C.K.’s official website received an email the morning before the Super Bowl, announcing yet another show written and directed by the stand-up comedian, (C.K.’s production company, Pig Newton, now puts out three separate shows). Except instead of airing on any TV channel, C.K. devised a pay model in which fans would purchase episodes directly from his website at gradually decreasing costs (meaning that the pilot is the most expensive episode at five dollars).
Just like “Louie” and “Baskets”, “Horace and Pete” is as surreal as television gets, with a cast of veritable TV legends to boot. Members of Horace and Pete’s family include their sister Sylvia (Edie Falco) and their Uncle Pete (Alan Alda,) as well as a frequent mysterious bar patron played by legendary comedian Stephen Wright, who has also made appearances on “Louie.” The show takes place entirely in the titular bar which has been family-owned for generations, a hundred years in fact. What makes this family legacy unique is that the bar has always been run by a Horace and Pete of the Whittell family. Horace Whittell (C.K.) and his relative Pete (Steve Buscemi) are the modern iteration.
What’s problematic about recommending “Horace and Pete” is that its best asset is likely also its most off-putting. The aforementioned authenticity of the show’s characters and relationships come at an emotionally-steep price. The tense moments in “Horace and Pete” aren’t just awkward, they’re often viscerally painful to witness. Conversations about cancer, infidelity, and sexual taboos pull no punches, as the characters are usually desperate to resolve some deep-seated inner turmoil. The bar and the burden its legacy leaves on the Whittell family serves as a clear metaphor for all of the sadness, anger, and resentment that can accumulate over the course of any long relationship, be it friend, family, or significant other. C.K’s characters gather all of this intimate baggage, put it on display for the audience to see, and proceed to use it to emotionally batter the viewer into submission.
The only glaring fault the show has to offer is its bizarre desire to constantly let the viewer know how current it is. Its worst scenes come in the form of bar patrons having debates ripped from headlines as recently as the week before the episode was released. With each episode, C.K. writes a long email to his fans. In one email, he begged his viewers to not vote for Trump, comparing him to an early Hitler. The email then linked to the episode where a fictional comedian (“C.K. Louistein,” subtle,) catches a ton of flack for telling people how to vote. The show does feel somewhat dynamic as result, since we know C.K. is churning these out as we speak, but he doesn’t do much with that sense of dynamism. The most we get with these headlines are cliche (and often over-acted) barstool debates over topics like what it means to be a true conservative or liberal. These are especially egregious when considering how natural all the other character interactions feel.
What sounds like a shaky plot premise at best, combined with a classic teleplay format and cheesy sitcom aesthetic doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success, yet “Horace and Pete” has proven to be some of the most viscerally compelling television of 2016. As I’m writing this, there are nine episodes out, with no announced end in sight. Much has been made about this golden age of television we are in the midst in, and rightly so. The fact that C.K. can step in at such a thrilling time for the medium, and continue to impress and surprise is remarkable. Here’s to hoping that he can continue this out-of-pocket gem.
Photo courtesy of Horace and Pete