Louis C.K.'s "Horace and Pete," Episode 1




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DEARTVLOGOTheses on the Philosophy of Horace & Pete
By Aaron Bady
February 3, 2016

Dear Television,

THERE ARE MANY reasons why Horace and Pete feels like a play. It feels unprocessed and un-polished, rehearsed without being perfected. It has not been heavily edited; the camera is unobtrusive, a passive audience member (albeit with good seats), and the cuts can be so long you don’t notice they even exist. The lighting and sound is rough, occasionally amateurish, from the inconstant buzzing of electricity to the kind of muddy color palette that would give a cinematographer a migraine. Alan Alda and Edie Falco are mesmerizing, like watching a storm rage across the stage as a hot front meets cold, but the rest of the actors are competent at best and incompetent at worst. It is well-written in moments and not-so-well written in others.

Most of all, however, it feels like a play because it was an event. An email went out, and by paying five dollars, you were ushered into a room where — unadorned by trailers, buzz, reviews, or expectations — this play simply happened, then and there, until it was over. The performance also observed the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action: you pull your seats off the tables, turned on the lights, and there it was, until it wasn’t. It was like drinking time. Lights on until they go off. A long play’s journey into night.

Though Horace and Pete been widely reviewed by TV and movie critics, I think one needs different standards for thinking about how live theater works. I’m not a theater critic, but I know this: you attend, you witness, and you reflect. You don’t really “review” a performance that — because it observes the unities of time, space, and action — only happens once before it’s gone forever: what you will have seen on that night will surely resemble what another person might see on another night, but at the beating heart of the thing is the fact that it won’t be exactly the same, and can’t be, and shouldn’t be. And so you don’t expect it to be. You take it in, drinking in the time that you’re in those seats, and then write something afterwards. But those kinds of accounts are flecked with loss, the realization that the event itself, because of what it was, is gone forever. Unities are also singularities: if a thing happens in one place and time, it does not happen in others.

As the first episode of a television show, let us say, Horace and Pete is too long, baggy, in need of editing, and could probably use a re-write. It lacks direction, in every sense. As a movie, let us also say, it’s uninspired, a bit dismal. It’s too short, its perspective too limited, and it lacks vision (again, in different senses of the word). This is what you might write if you were reviewing a movie or a television show; you might also mention all the things that are great about it — the performances, the dark and airless mood, a few scintillating pieces of dialogue shining out from the dross — but you’d find it hard to avoid the admission that it is not, ultimately, a very well worked-out work of art. It’s not great. But that’s also what’s great about it.

Time is vital. Time is what keeps different things from happening at once, and that’s the only way we ever live: Time lets us hope, grow, forget, and rest. But history is not “time”; history is when the past refuses to let the future go, when it refuses to pass. History is when the world is nothing but a succession of Horaces and Petes, an interminable singularity which refuses to let go of its singularities of time, space, and action, when everything is the same thing. History is Alan Alda ripping the plug out of the wall, his face frozen, expressionless, dead.

History is also the genre-stories that trap this… event into being a bad show or a bad movie.

History makes it interesting, of course; Horace and Pete puts the O’Neill back in the Irish pub show, making the gang at Cheers into the vicious group of sad alcoholics that they should have been. What if Coach was a vicious bigot? What if Woody had a serious mental illness? What if Sam Malone was played by Louis CK? What if women could be lost in their cups too? These are interesting things because they tear the gloss off of one of the great genre-defining television shows, reminding you of all the things that — in order to become such a lovely fantasy — the show had to forget. Cheers had a certain darkness and occasional drifts into melancholy, but it also had jokes and a laugh track and a comic romance plot to keep things on track.

All of that is interesting, but it isn’t compelling. It makes you sad, but it doesn’t move you. There is no joy in this version of Cheers, at least not when it’s open; there is no romance, no love, no community. These are all things the bar functions to destroy, so they can never be lost. Instead, the one real moment of joy in the thing — and probably the only instance of real intimacy — is before the bar opens. We see Louis CK, at first, tentatively, dancing to the music of the jukebox at the opening, and it’s funny, goofy — he’s heavy, awkward, uncertain, yet he’s dancing. But when Steve Buscemi’s character joins him, and they dance together, separately, senselessly, and without any reason except the joy that comes from joy… that moved me. There is fear there, and yet also love; hesitation, shame, and longing, pried apart by the way time allows things not to happen at the same time, and for bodies to move separately in space.

They stop dancing well before Alan Alda’s character enters the show — and pulls the jukebox cord out of the wall, as he must do, every morning — but the way this emotionless act freezes the bar into stasis is part of what the bar is for: you can’t dance when he’s in the room because time has stopped, which is why the room is there, why the booze is there, why Alda is there.

What made Horace and Pete powerful for me — what I found compelling, when I watched it, Saturday night — were those occasional moments of time outside of deadening history, the moments when even Alan Alda’s face thawed over, for an instant — if only in anger — and revealed the life beneath that frozen lake of his mummified character. His hand shakes when he calls Louis a piss-ant, “an insect with no value”; he fights emotion when he must remember his dead daughter; he shows passion when he appeals to his own sense of common law and justice. Those moments humanize Alda’s character because it’s when time intervenes, when a blast of fresh air sweeps into the basement bar, and when the jaws of history are pried off of his liver, if for just an instant. But in this dank cellar of men, there are only interludes; the Horaces and Petes live in the bar, upstairs and downstairs, and they never leave. They started this thing, as Alda declares, to get away from their wives, and so they drive women away.

“The tortoise is women, the frog is men,” you said, Lili; also, men are history in this play, and women are time. These men will not change; whether it is in their nature not to, or whether it’s just the habit they’ve caught themselves on, history is the masculinity that locks them into an endless fraternity of Horaces and Petes. They are not happy, but history gives them a safe place to hide, a hole to stick their heads into. And so they stay. Lili, you wrote that you “don’t know what role Horace’s daughter Alice — played by Aidy Bryant — will play in the future” and it strikes me that this not-knowing is the vital thing about that character, and the way even she does not know. To live in time is not to know what happens next. I bet Alice is a good dancer.

But it’s Edie Falco that blows the roof off. By the time she enters, we have already met Vladimir and Estragon, and some Pozzos and Luckys have wandered on and off stage. But time does not move; it is 1 or it is 4, or both.

And then, Godot arrives.

She has come to shut down the bar, and she’s going to. It’s not a good thing. It has never been a good thing. History is bunk, and though her (male) lawyer is tempted into drinking time — is lulled into dull repetition and passive complacence by the lethe flowing through this underworld — she has nothing to overlook or forget or forgive. She is free because there has never been anything there for her, nothing but frogs sullenly munching on eggs, and tortoises have long memories. There is nothing to humanize; nothing even to save. She is not mean, but she is not tempted to eat any pomegranate seeds.

This place needs to stop.

Time needs to end this history.

And so she has come to clean house. She puts the gun on the mantle. She leaves, but if there’s one thing theater has taught us about guns on mantles… 

We hope you like it,

Aaron

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“Like drinking time…”
By Lili Loofbourow
January 31, 2016

Dear Television,

I’VE BEEN IMMERSED in old TV lately — Murder, She Wrote, Dinosaurs, Friends — and I’ve hesitated to write you because whatever I have to say about television these days is the opposite of timely. Imagine my delight, then, when I opened my inbox today to find Horace and Pete there: a new Louis CK show.

What is it, you ask? A stagy, mangy lark! A gummy plunge! And while new, it’s the kind of show that’s always already old. Obsolescence is its watchword.

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Dear TV, imagine cutting Eugene O’Neill with some Woody Allen and a million histories of Brooklyn, but doing so with such grim unseriousness that the effect undercuts everything on which all those precedents aesthetically and dramatically depend. Horace and Pete evokes and then shoos all of Cheers. It savages American fantasies — guts the family business, de-glams Jessica Lange, un-beatifies Alan Alda. It frustrates our hunger for easy political points and deflates our hopes for meaningful political discourse. I’d describe it as, oh, a Mobius escalator — shuttling us through a series of genres and dramatic expectations only to deliver us to the other side without a climax, mostly and mercifully unchanged.

That’s a long way of saying that Horace and Pete isn’t about Louis CK’s Horace and Steve Buscemi’s Pete. Both are interestingly incidental; they’re secondary to their names. As the latest iteration of a business model that for generations has had a Horace and a Pete, our heroes are the sad-sack heirs of a fraternal empire in decline. That empire is a bar, and it’s explicitly treated as an empire by at least one important character: Buscemi is referred to as “the reigning Pete” by Alan Alda’s Uncle Pete, who abdicated his throne when his Horace died. (He continues to preside like a cantankerous Queen Mum, however.) So fanatically devoted to the Horace and Pete legend is Uncle Pete that, when he drops a bombshell about Pete’s true identity, he does so as an angry aside. That isn’t the story he wants to tell: the point, for him, is the bar. “You’re Pete,” he repeats, as if that trumps any personal betrayals. “You’re the new Pete of this new generation.” (Those who’ve seen the episode may agree with me that the way this particular revelation was handled constitutes a bracing antidote to Star Wars, which handles similar material quite differently. In an otherwise dusty universe, that felt like a breath of fresh air).

If this sounds both absurd and typical of the “old New York” we’re routinely asked to revere, mourn and preserve, the show appears to agree. The episode is largely about the toxicity hiding behind institutions that — to outsiders — look like beloved legends. It’s about how fetishizing the “family story” displaces actual family. For all his charm and despite terrific lines — “a pissant is an insect with no value” is my favorite — Uncle Pete’s gestures of inclusion routinely slice deeper than his insults. His attempt at being “nice” to Horace’s daughter Alice, played by Aidy Bryant, is horrifying. And when he tells the history of the bar, he does so in a way that makes clear that the “females” weren’t just excluded from this particular “family” institution: they were enemies. “There’s always been a woman in this family, always trying to shut the place down,” he says. “You know, the very first Horace and Pete, they started this place to get away from their wives. There’s always been a female in the family.” (When Horace’s sister Sylvia — played by a wry, exasperated Edie Falco — sues for her rightful share of the business, Uncle Pete recommends that she find someone to impregnate her and name the child Horace or Pete. Otherwise he pronounces her a charity case at the mercy of her brothers: she herself has no rights.)

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But this isn’t a straightforward condemnation of the New York nostalgia that powers so much of that city’s art. As these deep familial faultlines emerge, we’re also — at the same time — exposed to the Horace and Pete legend as Woody Allen (for instance) might understand and narrate it. To those who fancy themselves lovers of the “real” New York, Horace and Pete is a grand discovery: a legit dive bar! You go for the abuse and the watered-down drinks. It’s where you meet real people and talk politics with strangers and get kicked out for ordering a Corona; it’s where the books don’t add up and the accountants don’t care. It’s a place out of time.

Even Sylvia’s lawyer Randall is seduced — despite having homophobic epithets hurled at him by a rebarbative Uncle Pete. “It’s like drinking time,” he says, sampling a hundred-year-old bottle of whiskey.

One of the funniest things about the show might be the shallowness of its in-universe appeals to history. I considered counting the number of times Uncle Pete said “A HUNDRED YEARS” with an awe-struck tone — as if a hundred years were a thousand. A hundred years is barely three generations of Horaces and Petes, if I’m tracking the show correctly, but for Uncle Pete that amounts to an unshakeable tradition, an immovable text. It’s the way things have always been. In a different show, Uncle Pete’s recourse to that “tradition” might come across as truly tragic; in this one, Edie Falco punctures it with a will. “This isn’t Game of Thrones,” she says, sighing. 

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“Common law” becomes Sylvia’s response to Uncle Pete’s “hundred years” — they almost form a kind of call-and-response. They’re fighting for the legal principle that will determine the bar’s future. “Now look,” says Alda at his most charismatic point, “I’m not an educated guy or anything, but it seems to me that common law is when there’s nothing written, down, like there’s no will, right? And that’s when you go to a generally agreed-upon principle of law, is that right? So what about our family law? What about our common law? This family, this establishment has a tradition, it has a history, it has by-laws that have been followed by the letter for a hundred years.”

Sylvia’s response: “A hundred years of misery is enough. It’s enough Pete. Misery is something you get past, not something you pass on to your children.”

She’s right: the actual bar is much sadder than the legend. People are drinking at one in the afternoon. The reigning Pete is losing his sanity because his insurance plan changed and he’s almost out of meds. And wow, everyone who comes in is just a bummer. The woman who calls out Uncle Pete’s racism is right but awful. The hipsters are worse. There’s the political philosopher who won’t shut up, the guy who fancies himself a Socratic healer, the washed-up older woman whose French twist is unraveling. Hope dawns when an old man comes in and asks whether this is the Horace and Pete. He remembers the place! Hurrah! I thought he’d talk about Horace and Pete in its glory days. No: he’s revisiting the bar where he murdered his wife for cheating.

These reversals, these outright refusals to let us activate our merry Cheers-muscles just keep coming. When four men talk politics, it scans at first like an elegy to the kinds of public squares we no longer seem to have — to places where liberals and conservatives can exchange ideas and seek common ground. But the conversation feels so canned it’s even a little upsetting, as one guy points out. “You sit here doing your little Punch and Judy puppet show, as if it matters that you’re a liberal and you’re a conservative. You’re both suckers,” says the bar’s resident contrarian, played by an angry Kurt Metzger. And he’s right, but he’s annoying and a sucker too.

Nor are there any winners when it comes to the show’s treatment of gender issues. Horace and Pete is a blighted space — a legend whose history required excluding and abusing women. “My father was a wife-beater and a fucking brute and a narcissist,” says Sylvia, “and thank God our mother got us out of here. How many wives have been beaten up here, Pete? This has never been a good thing.” But her plan for the future is bleak too — waiting for her brothers to fail so she can sue and sell and Uncle Pete can get a mail-order bride and “fuck her mouth” is hardly an inspiring vision for a female-driven future. (Is this, at some level, about Clinton and Trump?)

Louis CK’s standup peeks through the dialogue fairly often. I’m thinking of one bit in particular, when he’s talking about a friend of his whose daughter is about to become a teenager. “What if she has a bad sexual experience?” his friend says. “Oh, she’s gonna have a number of those,” Louis CK replies. “Oh yes she is. Her whole life is going to be walking through a blizzard of bad dicks.”

I thought of that because, Dear Television, this is the first time (in my memory) that Louis CK has cast himself as a bad father. I suspect it’s because he’s started imagining his daughters as adults rather than adorable children, and it’s fascinating. I don’t know what role Horace’s daughter Alice — played by Aidy Bryant — will play in the future of the Horace and Pete, but their scene in this episode seemed pivotal. When CK’s Horace asks Alice if she’s mad at him, Alice replies with a clumsy story about a tortoise and a frog who are friends: one day for no reason the frog eats the tortoise’s eggs, and then asks the tortoise what’s wrong. She’s the tortoise, he’s the frog. The tortoise is women, the frog is men.

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It’s a scene that seems to highlight one of the episode’s subtexts: the women of the family saw their futures shredded while the men got so tangled in their Horace-and-Pete dynasty that they never quite saw them as having futures to wound. This does not, however, make Horace a villain or Alice a saint; they’re both silly and sad and groping. So is Buscemi’s Pete, whose few moments of clarity are far from prophetic — he’s no Shakespearean Fool. “How did this place survive for a hundred years?” he yells at Uncle Pete in a moment that in any other script would be labeled a breakthrough. “The family business? How did it survive? Because all the Horace and Petes before you were good fathers. That’s why. Because they kept the family together. Yes, they beat their wives and they raised their sons right!”

No one is right on this show.

That’s pretty damn great.

Dear Television, 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.

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I worry these days that writing about whatever makes a show interesting has become tantamount to proclaiming it Good or Bad. Let me say here that I have no idea whether Horace and Pete is good or bad. This is the first episode. I am not a prophet. My guess is it’s probably good and likely great. But at this point… who cares? What matters is that it’s a formal televisual experiment up there with other jagged gems like Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy. It’s shot as if it were a play — the cinematography is every bit as basic as Louie’s is lush. It’s long — 67 minutes! It has an intermission! And when the hell was it filmed? It feels timeless but it’s bewilderingly current — it even mentions the Iowa caucus and Trump’s Fox boycott. Was it shot last week?! Was it improvised? I don’t know. What I do know is that it takes on the dark and bright sides of nostalgia with equal force. It’s achingly, even anti-dramatically, even-handed.

That’s what I meant about the Mobius strip earlier: Horace and Pete is basically stasis masquerading as crisis. Because it’s so play-like, we expect that familiar theatrical catharsis, that slightly mannered building up and breaking down of boundaries and people. Instead, everyone just gets tired and agrees to reconvene. And when Pete asks Horace about the giant revelation that changes everything they thought they knew, Horace says, “Pete, we’re in our fifties. I mean, what’s the difference?”

He’s talking to invisible monsters,

Lili

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