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Is There More to Louis C.K.’s ‘Horace and Pete’ Than Its Surprise Release?

Is There More to Louis C.K.'s 'Horace and Pete' Than Its Surprise Release?

On Saturday, Louis C.K. surprised nearly everyone by sending out an email reading: “Hi there. Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5. Go here to watch it. We hope you like it.” That was it — no plot summary, no publicity campaign, no further explanation, just a fee of $5 to see what’s inside the mystery box. (Take that, J.J. Abrams.) What you found once you lifted the lid was a 67-minute two-act play, apparently performed live or close to it, shot in the style of a “Playhouse 90” episode from the 1950s. C.K. has pushed his FX show, “Louie,” farther and farther from its comic roots, and with “Horace and Pete,” he cuts the ties altogether. (The show itself is on unspecified hiatus.) There are a few laughs for those with a particularly mordant sense of humor, but they’re swamped by an overwhelming sense of despair, the kind you experience walking into a windowless bar in the early afternoon when the only customers are drunks and people with nowhere to be. “These aren’t customers,” says Alan Alda’s Uncle Pete. “They’re alcoholics.”

“Horace and Pete” has touches of the absurdism that’s taken over “Louie’s” later seasons, mainly in the notion that the bar has been passed down through the generations from one Horace and Pete to another: The current crop, C.K.’s Horace and Steve Buscemi’s Pete, are the eighth of their lines. But C.K.’s writing isn’t inventive enough to make up for the staid, largely single-set staging, the slack pace, the awkward silences that surround every line. (The only music is Paul Simon’s theme song, which appears over the end credits and the intermission — yes, there is one.) C.K. assembled an impressive cast, including Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, Aidy Bryant and Rebecca Hall — the latter presumably fresh off premiering “Christine” at Sundance, given “Horace and Pete’s” references to of-the-moment events. In fact, it’s possible, although C.K.’s not talking yet, that the show was filmed as late as Friday before being released on Saturday morning, a stunning demonstration of how quickly the wheels of distribution can turn when there’s no media conglomerate slowing them down.

The flip side is that “Horace and Pete” feels woefully undercooked, less like an “Episode 1” than a first draft. Alda’s elderly racist is his best role in years, but the other actors, especially the female ones, have precious little to do: It’s difficult to imagine so little coming of the convergence of this much talent. “Horace and Pete” isn’t even as interesting as “Tomorrow Night,” the rickety first feature C.K. took to Sundance 1998 and surprise-released on his site in 2014. It’s fascinating that it exists, but it’s also a chore to watch, and leaves little impetus for an Episode 2. It’s great that C.K. has the drive to try new things, and the resources to do it himself, but he’s not establishing a model for others to follow, just proving that it’s good to be the king.

Reviews of “Horace and Pete,” Episode 1

James Poniewozik, New York Times

Horace and Pete” is like a dark take on Norman Lear’s sitcoms of the early ’70s (if with far more profanity). It’s shot as if through a whiskey glass and staged like theater, albeit without a live audience, featuring long takes and an artful use of silence and speeches. (There’s even an “intermission” midway through, during which, I guess, you’re meant to hit the pause button and go pour a stiff one.) The only soundtrack is a mournful guitar theme by Paul Simon. Lyrics take hold during the closing credits, obviously written for the show: “Why do we tear ourselves to pieces?/ I just need some time to think/ Or maybe I just need a drink.”

The premiere’s production was shrouded in silence, but it has the raw feel of a show done without too many takes. There is, as in live theater, the occasional hesitance over a line, and the first episode relies on melodramatic twists that don’t always feel earned. But when it really gathers steam — nearly any time Mr. Alda opens his mouth, and especially in his scenes with Ms. Falco — it’s like little else on TV. (If it can be said, technically, to be TV at all.) Like much of Louis C.K.’s TV work, “Horace and Pete” is a messy experiment that stays just on the good side of pretentiousness. But it’s also probing, engaged and moving. I expect to be thinking about this first episode long after the Iowa returns roll in, and waiting for word of the next round.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

There are occasional jokes, most of them revolving around the clash of political ideologies among the customers at the eponymous bar. There are topical references to the Iowa caucuses and Donald Trump skipping the latest debate, and at one point Alda’s Uncle Pete gets annoyed that their Brooklyn establishment has started attracting hipsters looking for an authentic dive bar experience. (This has also, strangely, been a running joke on Shameless this season.)

But for the most part, Horace and Pete is a melancholy drama about a family bound by both traditions — the bar is in its 100th year of being run by a succession of either brothers or cousins, all of them named Horace and Pete — and secrets, unclear which of them, if any, makes sense to keep at this point. Buscemi’s Pete is mentally ill but, due to an insurance snafu, currently off his meds. C.K.’s Horace is estranged from his kids, and in the midst of a legal feud with his sister (Falco). And Uncle Pete — played by Alda with venomous force and a complete lack of vanity for his appearance or personality — keeps demanding that everything be run like it’s always been, no matter what.

It’s an experiment, and one with some rough edges. (The political references, for instance, sometimes feel like they’re there just to let you know how recently this must have been filmed, though they eventually fit into the larger themes about time and changing standards.) But Alda, Falco, and Buscemi are powerhouse dramatic actors, and C.K. makes a good reactive foil to them. The first episode (which runs slightly over an hour) feels like such a self-contained story that I have no idea what later installments will be about, or feel like, but I can’t wait to see them, whenever they happen to appear.

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times

As in a stage play, the actors and the dialogue carry most of the weight; information is parceled out in bits, foreshadowing eventually explodes into revelation. (This hour is only the first episode of a number yet to be revealed; but it has a play-like arc on its own, and an “intermission” in the middle.) In some ways, it’s the opposite of “Louie,” which is careful with every element of its production, with its manipulations of time and mood, its photography and its music.

The production here emphasizes theatricality – you could play it, without alteration, onstage – just as its theatricality is likely what makes its production economically viable. (In television terms, what this most resembles is a soap opera.) But even at its most obvious or ungainly, it’s never less than interesting, and it’s certainly not shy of conviction; no C.K. fan with an Internet connection and $5 to spare will want to pass it by.

Ian Crouch, New Yorker

Despite its dim view of the cultural moment, and the bitter edges of its characters, there is something exhilarating and hopeful about the show. Part of that comes from the verve of its creation and surprise arrival. Its very production and distribution feels like a political act—a demonstration of the power of creativity, and a rebuke to the well-known mechanics of television: pilots, polls, advertising dollars, viewer demographics, and the like. Parts of the show work better than others, the seams appear in places, the large cast of well-known comedians and actors makes it feel a little like a benefit concert. But all of this is part of its impromptu appeal, and the performers, given strong material and thrown together in the warm space of a murky bar, rise to surprisingly urgent and, at times, moving heights. We’ve seen these performers elsewhere, we know many of them well, but, for a little over an hour, they are fully these characters, part of a specific and indelible extended family. This is the magic of theatre, more than of television, which usually relies on the repetition of many episodes to create a pleasing familiarity. C.K. has pulled off another clever trick.

Nandini Balial, Slate

Like Louie, Horace and Pete is not a straight comedy. There are laughs and quirks but the issues addressed are serious and unforgiving: parental abuse and neglect, alcoholism, exhaustion, shattered relationships, estranged children, imminent bankruptcy, and mental illness. Gentle awkwardness quickly spirals into full-blown tragicomedy. If the first episode is any indication, Horace and Pete is the next great show to get obsessed over—and Louis did it on his own.

Lili Loofbourow, Los Angeles Review of Books

it feels like a timely treatise on the blinders that makes nostalgic love possible. I’m talking about our stubborn love of old institutions, TV shows, and film franchises even when they don’t stand up to scrutiny. All those charming archaic social models whose flaws we sort of understand but whose atmospherics “we” nevertheless miss. (Hello, Mad Men.) It’s a love we like to ascribe to art that’s really based on indulgence, on feeding the parts of us we’re now hell-bent on disciplining.

Horace and Pete establishes itself in that nostalgic fictional domain, which we routinely mistake for history. It starts with two charming caricatures and an Est. 1916 sign. We begin with Horace and Pete dancing! But then something turns: we get none of the rosy lighting. No sepia tones. And TV history appears before us looking ugly and unmade-up. Uncle Pete might be an Archie Bunker figure, but there are no Ediths left to love him. We’re forced to wonder what a realistic look at Carla’s life outside the Cheers filter would yield, or what Hawkeye is like 40 years after M*A*S*H*. Or what Carmela Soprano might be like if she really truly confronted her nest of man-frogs. It would not be pretty or triumphant; things would still be kind of gross and disappointing and gray.

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire

The problem is that “Horace and Pete” is more fun as an idea than it is as something you want to watch. Thanks to the limited locations, minimalist execution and muted pacing, the ultimate sense is of watching a stage play — hell, there’s even an “intermission” halfway through. It’s unusual as hell, and hearing C.K. explain where the idea came from and how this was produced in relative secrecy will be fascinating. But am I chomping at the bit for Episode 2? Honestly, not really.

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