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★★★★★

Horace and Pete

Written and directed by Louis C.K.

Starring Louis C.K., Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda

Available for purchase at https://louisck.net/show/horace-and-pete

Part One: What is Horace and Pete?

Picture this: you are Louis C.K. in 2016. You’re a well-known comedian and an up-and-coming creative mind in the industry, and FX is willing to let you put your television show Louie on an extended hiatus. Your work has become increasingly experimental and free-form, and you have a strong vision and a dogged, perhaps stubborn, sense of artistic purity. You’re sizably wealthy and have an established online platform for distributing your content, where people have shown they’re willing to pay $5 and get access to streaming and unlimited downloads of your comedy specials.

You’re Louis C.K. You might just take a look at the entire established media industry and say, “Nah. Fuck the industry. Fuck traditional distribution platforms. Fuck the producers and the executives and the pitches and the oversight. And fuck promotion. I’ll just write, direct, and finance my own thing.” That thing is Horace and Pete.

Louis C.K. launched the 67-minute long first episode of Horace and Pete on his website, louisck.net, on January 30, available for $5. The second episode cost $2, and every episode since has been $3. There are 10 episodes, and the final one went online last Saturday. The only announcement of its existence was an email he sent out to his subscribers, reading, “Hi there. Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5. We hope you like it.” Seriously. That’s it.

On his website, C.K. explained his motives for creating and releasing Horace and Pete in the way he did: “As a writer, there’s always a weird feeling that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.”

That experience of receiving a work of art piece by piece, with no expectations or knowledge of its subject or structure, is undeniably powerful. And I don’t want to ruin the sense of discovery that he has worked so hard for. So I’m going to review Horace and Pete, but first I want to let you go watch the show now if you don’t want that experience spoiled. If you’re just intrigued, or if you’re a fan of Louis C.K.’s work, and especially if you enjoyed seasons four and five of Louie, scram. Go follow Louis into the glorious abyss. Yes, the entirety of Horace and Pete has a $31 price tag, but I promise it is one of the most powerful and interesting shows out there. Watch episode one. If you’re not sure if you’ll want to keep watching, know that the first episode is not only a great representation of the show as a whole, but can also stand proudly alone. Fare thee well, brave explorers.

Part Two: No seriously, what is Horace and Pete?

Cool. Those people are gone now. So Horace and Pete is … well, what is Horace and Pete? I’m not sure if it’s a webseries, or a TV show, or a really long piece of filmed theater broken into 10 pieces. But for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to it as a show.

In addition to not quite being a TV show, Horace and Pete is not really a comedy; in fact, Louis C.K. just last week submitted it to the Emmys as a drama. However, its structure deeply reflects his standup comedy, which in my opinion is, at its core, a series of digressions. He will start telling a story, then spend five minutes riffing on something random he mentioned at the beginning of that story, then dwell on something in that, and so on, until he gets back to the original story. Each level of deviation complicates the original premise and introduces hilarious new elements to the joke, and when he actually returns to the story, it’s somehow still interesting.

Horace and Pete mirrors that structure on both a macro and micro level. The first episodes introduce the main characters and the overarching issues that will define the show, and then Horace and Pete gives way to a series of episodes that explore specific ideas, or follow the experiences of certain characters. Towards the end of its run, it focuses back on the issues that were introduced at the start of the show. Horace and Pete concludes its story with confidence and finality, directly confronting its core underlying themes.

Horace and Pete stars Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi, respectively, in the title roles of Horace and Pete. They run a family bar in Brooklyn, Horace and Pete’s, that’s been passed down from generation to generation for a century. The owners have always been named Horace and Pete, and they’ve always named their sons Horace and Pete. Alan Alda plays the role of Uncle Pete, the Pete from the previous generation who still hangs around, tends bar, and takes money from the cash register. He’s stuck in the past, both in his beliefs and his idea of acceptable language. Horace and Pete have a sister, Sylvia (played by Edie Falco), who’s frustrated with the bar’s abusive legacy and wants it shut down and sold. This is just a fraction of the fantastic cast, but these four lie at the heart of Horace and Pete’s story.

Horace is largely apathetic, divorced and the father of two adult children who refuse to speak to him. He never seems to know what he wants, and he struggles to find and retain happiness. Pete is more optimistic, and often the most rational character on the show, but he’s spent a significant amount of time in a mental hospital for an unnamed psychotic condition and is finally on a medication that keeps him stable. Horace and Pete’s is the only home he knows. And Uncle Pete … well, Uncle Pete is rude, bigoted, and entrenched in tradition and the past, but he’s also understandable and somehow endearing. Alda, as Uncle Pete, has delivered a standout performance in a show full of top-notch acting, fully embodying a character that even C.K. didn’t think he could pull off. One might say he has pulled a Michael Keaton. (One might also say that Louis pulled a Beyoncé by releasing Horace and Pete with no notice. Accepting those two premises, one could further conclude that Alan Alda has pulled a Keaton within a Beyoncé. I’m just saying.)

The fact that Louis C.K. was able to book the high-caliber star power for Horace and Pete that he did is itself a testament to the show’s exciting ideas, and to his directorial prowess. (The theme song, by the way, is written and performed by Paul Simon, who has a cameo, as does New York Mayor Bill Deblasio). And the show feels like something entirely new. Horace and Pete is shot like a sitcom, on a sound stage and with a multiple-camera setup, but it has no audience and follows none of the traditional sitcom conventions. Rather, the show feels somewhat like a play, with some of the episodes even having intermissions.

Horace and Pete’s first episode, with a nearly 70-minute runtime and an open but satisfying conclusion, could stand alone as a fantastic stage play. But the freedom that comes with the show’s format allows it to continue, and to be so much more than that. Theater is subject to time constraints (nobody will sit through a 24-hour play), and television shows are usually expected to run for multiple seasons. But Louis C.K. eschews both conventions, crafting something which is uniquely situated between the two media. He takes his characters on the strong arcs expected in theater but also has ample time to flesh them out and experiment. As the show goes on, C.K. gets better and better at working in the format, taking Horace and Pete from what feels a bit like filmed theater to what becomes a true hybrid artistic medium.

Just like the arc of the show as a whole, most of the episodes tend to echo Louis C.K’s standup comedy in structure. Each episode contains story threads following the main characters, be they about Horace trying to reconcile with his daughter (Aidy Bryant), or Pete going on an online date, or the continuing drama that is the fate of the bar (which usually underlies whatever is happening). But the show always devotes a substantial amount of screen time to the bar and its patrons. This is where the digressive nature of C.K.’s standup really shows itself, and it’s also the most consistent source of comedy. Horace and Pete overflows with conversations and arguments, between the barflies and between them and the central characters. They range in topic from current events, like Donald Trump’s candidacy or Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit with Gawker, to abortion, or Tourette’s syndrome, or the nature of love, and Horace and Pete approaches them in ways no other television show would. People tell stories and debate with one another and make ridiculous claims about human nature or Syrian refugees, and out of the seemingly meaningless banter comes profound truth. These bar segments sometimes seem ostensibly unrelated to the plot, pure digression, but the core ideas they get at often provide insight into something else going on in the show, or just cause me to entirely reconsider my ideas on a topic.

Horace and Pete is never really beholden to a format, and C.K. will occasionally devote entire episodes to a concept or idea. One episode consists of a single conversation between Horace and his ex-wife (guest star Laurie Metcalf), just switching between long, close-up shots of their faces. It begins with an unbroken 9-minute shot of her telling a story, during which it’s unclear who she is and who she’s even talking to. It is intimate and enrapturing, and deftly explores topics of sexuality, fidelity, and the connections between people in ways I haven’t seen before.

But even in the more traditional episodes, the show never rushes scenes along. C.K isn’t afraid to let a conversation or monologue go on for much longer than it would be able to on network television. When a normal show would cut to the next shot or scene in order to establish pacing and vie for the viewer’s continued attention, Horace and Pete is willing to linger for several seconds on two characters sitting in silence, staring into space. Louis C.K. can pull this off not only because he has the ability to make the episodes as long as he wants (they tend to vary in length between 30 and 60 minutes), but because he knows that he will keep your attention, that he can make the unspoken just as compelling as the spoken. He asks the viewer to contemplate.

If I had written this review last week, before the final episode, I would have focused more on the humor, on the day-to-day tone of the show. And it builds up a compelling sense of momentum; if Louis C.K. wanted, he could have made Horace and Pete a great television series with multiple seasons, chronicling the sad, odd and sometimes funny goings-on at an old Brooklyn bar. But by giving the story finality, by taking its characters on journeys from which they can’t just return and start cracking jokes again, he gives the show as a whole a sense of focus and direction that feels entirely new to television. When Horace and Pete concludes, it leaves all of the smaller meta-narratives behind and targets the sweeping themes that have underlied the story from the start.

Horace and Pete is both timeless and very much of its time. It’s grounded in the reality of the human experience and what the world is like today, in ways other television shows haven’t yet approached, but it confronts the past at the same time, in its format and in the antiquity of the bar and its inhabitants. At its core, the show is a rumination on legacy, on America, on how we integrate the past into the present. It forced me to confront the notion that our opinions, on people and on the past, are all a matter of perspective. It shows that our lives — and history itself — are made up of endlessly repeating cycles, but also constant change. It depicts and laments the perpetuation of suffering and discontentment, and the challenge of breaking these cycles.

I imagine many people will call out Horace and Pete for being too serious or depressing, especially because it was created by a comedian. And yes, there aren’t any joyful resolutions, and the show exudes an overriding sense of unhappiness. But that’s life. And it makes the brief moments of joy in the show feel like shining beacons of hope. It makes the constant ironies present in the show both sadder and funnier. Horace and Pete is funny, often and hilariously. But I would never describe it as a comedy, because humor is the byproduct, not the purpose.

Horace and Pete is unique. It’s unexpected. It’s groundbreaking. It shows the incredible power that can come with simplicity. It embraces the past and the present. It leads the way for the future of artistic expression. And I really, really, really want people to find out it exists already, so we can start talking spoilers.