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On Louis C.K., ‘Horace and Pete,’ and the Meanness of Donald Trump

On Louis C.K., 'Horace and Pete,' and the Meanness of Donald Trump

I woke up late on Saturday morning to good news in my email
inbox: a new episode of ‘Horace and Pete,’ Louis C.K.’s online series, had
dropped. The first part of the email was fun and games as usual, but then there
was a PS, during which C.K. delivered a lengthy and much-publicized rant against
Donald Trump. As one might expect, C.K. had choice words for Trump, calling him a
liar, a bigot, the equivalent of Hitler–all fair labels. Most saliently, though, C.K. called
Trump out for a couple of things: he stated that he’s “not one of you. He is one
of him,” urging readers not to be fooled by Trump’s promises. And he described, at length, Trump’s bullying, threatening tendencies,
his pure meanness. Meanness should be distinguished from cruelty: meanness is inherent, deep, and yet also tacky; cruelty is slightly different, possibly situational. There’s a reason why C.K.’s words on the meanness and pretense of Trump should be taken seriously,
and that his rant should not be dismissed as yet another self-serious
celebrity’s conscious political statement. The reason is that C.K. is a student,
practically a scholar, of both these qualities in humans. This knowledge is in glowing and wince-worthy evidence in Episode 6 of ‘Horace and Pete.’

Pretense and meanness are, in fact, what the series is all
about. Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) are cousins who thought they were brothers until Uncle
Pete (Alan Alda), their late uncle (to Horace)/father (to Pete), revealed otherwise, running a bar which seems
like a solid establishment but is in fact losing money and serving watered-down
drinks. Horace presents as affable but is in fact highly dishonest in his
relationships, and, in some ways, mean-spirited, with a damaged, unhappy daughter and a
son who doesn’t speak to him. Pete seems like a retiring sort, but is in fact
heavily medicated—without his meds, he begins having visions. And then there’s
the meanness. Throughout this brilliant series, characters say unabashedly mean
things to each other, from Uncle Pete’s call to Horace to say hi to his “fat
daughter” onwards. The drama’s characters regularly tell each other to go fuck
themselves, believably, with full-throated anger. And they do mean things too;
in one particularly harrowing and beautifully executed episode, we learn that
Horace’s marriage ended because he slept with his wife’s sister. Repeatedly. And
we learn this after Horace’s previous wife has announced that she’s cheating on
her current partner with his father. 

Episode 6 cranks this sort of ultra-meanness up a notch. It
begins benignly, as Pete springs around his bedroom, preparing for a blind
date. Then we cut to the date itself, as Pete and Jenny, played with great
honesty and forwardness by Hannah Dunne, muddle around a bit and then speak openly
with each other about their attributes and shortcomings. Nothing mean yet,
really, but in the next scene, which takes place after the two have become a
couple, Pete and his new partner have dinner with Horace and Horace’s sister
Sylvia (Edie Falco), a tightly wound, short of phrase, long of vindictiveness, cancer
patient. The dinner starts awkward and gets worse as probing questions turn
into snappish judgments (she’s 26, he’s 46). And then, finally, the kicker:
Horace explains, explicitly and bluntly, Pete’s condition. Crushed, Jenny leaves, but not before telling Horace and his sister off, as Pete sits, head
bowed, destroyed and ashamed. After Pete leaves, Horace and Sylvia go on
eating dinner. So, the siblings have taken an unstable, lonely man, who was clearly
enjoying a chance at happiness, decided that he wasn’t being forthright enough
about his past, made a decision for him, crushed him, and then savored a plate
of family-style spaghetti and meatballs. If you want a definition of meanness,
look no farther. But simultaneously, if you want a definition of nakedness, the
absence of pretense, the conclusion of this dinner gathering would be an apt
illustration, as well. Nothing is hidden. Everything is revealed. Everything is ugly. Pass the parmesan.

What is the origin of nastiness? The sad reality is that its
origins are often hard to place. One could hazard a number of explanations for
why Horace spills Pete’s beans for him: he didn’t want a painful situation to
develop later; he was doing his cousin a favor by not allowing him to become
involved with a woman not mature enough to handle Pete’s reality; he was
protecting Pete’s stability by stopping things before he got in over his head;
he was bringing truth in where there had been none before. But none of these
explanations are quite as strong as: he felt like it. And: humans are like
that. So, the spectacle of Trump must be quite interesting to Louis C.K.: a man
who says whatever he wants, and who promises to commit acts of great barbarism if
elected President, for no other reason than impulse. Simultaneously, Trump is a
pretender, someone who acts as if he has compassion for the downtrodden and yet has none, clearly. C.K. understands this man, because he’s watched this behavior in others, and he has allowed it to spark ‘Horace and Pete,’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Louie.’ In C.K.’s dramas, the urge to be nasty or brutal or mean floats around like a life force, at times seeming like its own character. There are other impulses as well, but the injustice humans do to each other is often the catalyst behind each storyline. Dissembling is germane to C.K.’s work as well; C.K. plays himself, in a sense, in his dramas and in his stand-up–and yet who is this man? C.K. pretends to be a likable schlub, an everyman, a junk food addict, an ordinary guy–and yet, look: he’s assembled a remarkable cast for ‘Horace and Pete,’ with a theme song by one of the best songwriters of the past 50 years, a drama packed with incisive, acute analysis of American sadness. Not the work of a schlub! C.K. demonstrates by example that there are two kinds of dissembling. His is the good kind. Trump’s? Something else altogether.

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