Ambiguity surrounds Horace and Pete, a project-of-love from Louis CK, who created, wrote, directed, and stars — but what is it exactly?
For starters, it’s a ten-episode TV series that you can’t watch on TV. (It’s fairly easy to find, though – the self-produced show can be bought for $31 directly from CK’s website; and if you prefer, as I do, to watch it on a television, I managed it via a laptop and HDMI cable.) H&P’s future is also uncertain — it comes to a natural end point after the first season, and CK is equivocal about whether there will be a second.
More substantively, there’s confusion about the genre. H&P’s two Emmy nominations categorize it as a drama and a comedy, though CK himself, at least, is clear on this issue — “Warning: this show is not a ‘comedy,’” he writes on his website. (He’s right, even by the blurriest standards. If H&P is a comedy, I’m Michael Phelps.)
For me, the best description yet came in an email from my friend Leo Charney, who called it “an odd, imperfect, uneven, almost hallucinatory show — it’s like having a dream about a Playhouse 90 production.”
The Playhouse 90 comment helped me understand my own fascination with the show. Unlike so much of today’s current television, where content and style are linked to film, H&P is connected to the more grandiose, slower-paced, stiffer world of TV’s first “golden era.” And like those old shows, it’s also fundamentally connected to theater.
Many viewers will see H&P – set largely in a blue-collar Boston bar – as an homage to Cheers, and I imagine Louis CK would acknowledge the parallel. To me, though, the show evokes Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. It, too, is set in a bar — but one where jovial fellowship is fleeting and superficial. Here, the denizens are heartbreakingly weary. Life, even on a good day, is an uphill climb.
That goes double for the proprietors, who are, of course, Horace (Louis CK) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) — the latest in a line of them (the original pair opened the bar 100 years ago). This Horace and Pete are related to each other, but it’s a complicated story, which in some ways sets up the entire show. Family relationships — and the inescapability of their legacy — is a major theme, which links the show also to another great O’Neill work — Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Both plays are an Everest for actors — and in its way, so is H&P. I have my reservations about the show, which is sometimes shapeless and random, and has its share of longueurs. (It’s also often profoundly depressing, though this isn’t a criticism — in fact, it speaks to the depth of CK’s vision, though it means it can be tough to watch.)
But what has kept me glued to the TV — and wanting more — is the acting. CK has assembled one of the great casts in recent memory, and given them material worthy of their gifts. I’ll single out just a few…
- Laurie Metcalf. In a one-episode performance as Horace’s former wife, Metcalf got an Emmy nomination, and it’s easy to see why. In an extraordinary extended monologue, which as far as I can see is done without cuts, she describes a sexual encounter, and every discovery and moment seems vividly real, as though she just remembered. Theater buffs will recognize this as another homage — to a memorable scene in Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, which starred Metcalf. For many, that was an iconic performance; this, too, is a tour-de-force.
- Jessica Lange. Lange enlivens everything she touches, and I’ll see virtually anything she’s in. As marvelous as she’s been recently in American Horror Story (and also Long Day’s Journey on Broadway), her work here — as a broken but charismatic barfly — is even more memorable.
- Alan Alda. It’s always a pleasure to watch an actor playing against type. Alda, well-known for his nice guys, is riveting here as a nasty, foul-mouthed racist. He could have a whole new career — and it was visionary of CK to see this in him.
- Edie Falco. She’s had some great roles on TV before, including recently as Nurse Jackie. What Falco does here (playing CK’s sister) isn’t all that different, but it’s so richly detailed and genuine that it feels new-minted.
- Steve Buscemi. A remarkable actor in his ability to show seemingly incompatible sides to his personality: is he a beaten-down, disenfranchised Everyman?… or a terrifying psychopath? Buscemi’s recent gig on the dreary Boardwalk Empire (to my mind, the main reason to watch it) nodded at that dichotomy — but here, CK gives him material that lets him release it full-throttle, and he’s superb.
- Louis CK. In terms of technique and range, CK isn’t in the same class as the others here. But he’s also not doing that grandstanding, Look-I-can-be-serious-too! kind of showboating that ruins many Robin Williams’ performances. CK basically does one thing — playing a version of himself — but he does it very well. He’s unselfconscious, a good listener, and a likeable presence… and he holds the show together.
So there you have it. I hope there’s a second season of Horace and Pete. I’m still not certain what it is, but I can promise you it’s worth $31 to try to figure it out.