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Review: With ‘Horace and Pete,’ Did Louis C.K. Con Us Into Paying For a Two-Act Play?

Review: With 'Horace and Pete,' Did Louis C.K. Con Us Into Paying For a Two-Act Play?

Is “pulling a Beyonce” the official term for when a creator suddenly drops a new work on his or her unsuspecting fanbase? I like it, if only because comparing Louis C.K. and Queen Bey isn’t something you get to do too often. But this weekend, we had the opportunity to do so thanks to the surprise release of “Horace and Pete” Episode 1, which C.K. launched directly to fans online for $5 a pop. 

READ MORE: Louis C.K. Taking an ‘Extended Hiatus’ from ‘Louie,’ FX Dates ‘Fargo’ Season 2, And More

Written and directed by Louis C.K., the hour-and-seven-minute episode stars C.K. and Steve Buscemi as brothers operating a 100-year-old Brooklyn bar that bears their names. Set almost entirely in said bar, we meet bar patrons as well as Horace and Pete’s extended family, coping with secrets revealed as the fate of the bar itself comes under debate. 

Given that C.K. has a tight relationship with FX and, in general, a sterling reputation as a television creator, the initial instinct is to question why, exactly, he chose to go the self-distribution route with this project. But once you start watching, it’s pretty clear why Louisck.net was the home he chose for it. Between the unconventional runtime, the deliberately simple execution and what was clearly a shoestring budget, “Horace and Pete” feels like something that was very dear and precious to C.K. and thus something he wanted to maintain complete control over. 

And he was able to assemble an incredible cast. Beyond the always delightful Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Aidy Bryant, Rebecca Hall and Jessica Lange play significant supporting roles and get plenty to work with opposite C.K. and Buscemi. It’s a character piece, through and through, and Falco, as Horace’s determined sister, is especially fun to see in action opposite Alda, who leans heavily into a cranky old man schtick that lacks much depth. However, it’s Alan Alda. Half-decent Alan Alda is better than an awful lot of things. 

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. 

There’s something about “Horace and Pete” that lacks real spark. Maybe it’s the obsession with tradition or the extremely talky nature of the scenes, but the most novel thing about the episode is the distribution model. C.K. was an early pioneer of video self-distribution, and the clean, simple approach to selling his work and making it available for download must be applauded. The only hangup in me acquiring the episode was waiting for my slow home internet to download the high-quality MP4 file. On a technical level, everything here is working perfectly. 

The catch is that all we potential buyers had to go on — before reviews started filtering in — was the fact that Louis C.K. had made a thing, and as humbly stated on his official site, “We hope you like it.” No trailer, no further information. As someone on Twitter put it, “This is the content equivalent of a trust fall.”

Would we care about “Horace and Pete” if C.K. wasn’t behind it and it didn’t feature this level of cast? I’d honestly bet not. A hundred independent series get released online every month but never draw an audience, and many of them have more to offer viewers, in terms of a unique perspective or interesting message. They’re all fighting for even the slightest bit of attention. C.K. doesn’t even bother courting it. As our own Ben Travers pointed out, if C.K. plans to produce a full season of “Horace and Pete” and release it in this fashion, that could mean spending in the neighborhood of $50 to 65 to watch it. I don’t know how much it costs to have Paul Simon do the music for your show (and compose the title theme song!), but I’m pretty sure C.K. doesn’t need the money.

“Horace and Pete” is quiet and intimate when it’s at its best, but in so many ways it feels like indulgence. And that’s fine. If you’re operating at Louis C.K.’s level, I guess you get a few of those. And it never stops being exciting to see a creator unafraid of experimenting — a creator who honestly seems to live for those opportunities. I don’t begrudge “Horace and Pete” for existing, and I don’t begrudge C.K. for Beyonce-ing us all. 

That said, for me, Episode 2 is going to be a much harder sell. 

Grade: B-

READ MORE: Louis CK, Tig Notaro and Shane Black Highlight Amazon’s 2015 Pilot Season

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