What is a comedy and what is a drama? What’s a TV show and what’s a play? And, whatever the answer, is it worth $5?
These are all questions one might ask when encountering Horace and Pete, Louis C.K.’s surprise weekend release. The first of what looks to be four episodes is available on his site for a cool five bucks, though the show packs more than enough star power to lure those dollars out of your bank account: Alongside Mr. C.K. himself (who stars, writes, directs, and even sweeps with a broom), H&P boasts Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, and Edie Falco among the central cast, along with key performances from the likes of Aidy Bryant and Rebecca Hall. Oh, and Paul Simon sings the theme song.
So it’s covered in prestige. But there are other players worth mentioning: Hipsters, cell phones, racism, Cam Newton, sexism, other -isms, the Iowa caucuses, a gay lawyer, and, most importantly, time, man. The drama (and it is mostly drama) revolves around a 100-year-old family-owned bar in Brooklyn that has resisted change every step of the way, bound by its own insular (and often backwards) traditions. Each pair of owners have had the same two names, all of them descendants from the original pair. Horace and Pete are dead; long live Horace and Pete.
C.K. plays the put-upon current Horace and Buscemi takes on the unstable Pete, while Alda stands tall as the cranky sorta-father-figure known as Uncle Pete. All of this is worth knowing because, in the episode’s second half (there’s an intermission), the family’s intriguing messy relations become the main focus.
But that’s if you make it that far. Many might not, especially if they’re expecting a sitcom. They’ll be very disappointed. With various characters walking on and off the stage during the 67-minute runtime and unloading full paragraphs of thought-provoking dialogue, Horace and Pete has the arrangement of a play — very specific kinds of plays, at that. Think Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill‘s The Iceman Cometh, even Annie Baker’s more recent The Flick. What unfolds is a family drama, a meditation on memory and generational change, an examination of what “right” and “wrong” really mean, and to whom. It’s not Death of a Salesman, but it’s the death of something.
But it’s not all so serious — there is some solid comedy here, too, particularly in the first half. With a heavy dose of Norman Lear in its DNA, C.K.’s script throws in heaps of political and semantic back-and-forths on such hyper-topical issues as gentrification, political partisanship, and the upcoming Super Bowl’s black-and-white quarterback matchup. A lot of these scenes hit the mark, others hit the floor with a thud. But, much like last summer’s The Carmichael Show, it’s an admirable exercise either way.
The strange thing is how well C.K.’s experiment seems to work in the end. The cast puts on a hell of a show; Alda is magnetic as he descends into sadness, while Falco injects Horace and Pete with tissue-worthy emotion. Buscemi is masterfully Buscemi-ian, and C.K. has only gotten better at making shame-filled frowny faces. By the episode/play/dramedy’s last minutes, I was genuinely interested to see where things would take them next — even if the characters themselves weren’t. “We’re in our 50s,” Horace says at one point. “What’s the difference?”