This is a first for this blog: a post on a subject that’s been requested, in a recent comment. I’ll be upfront about it, I don’t do other people’s suggestions well, I never have. Quite why that is, I’ve never been entirely sure: a large part of it is that I’ve always been a voracious consumer of books, comics etc., and I have an individualistic taste in things, which makes me the best person to determine what I’m likely to like or not. On the other hand, I’ve always suspected that my reluctance to explore recommendations is based on a certain arrogance: if it’s any good, then I’ll choose it myself.
However, I was asked for my take on Louis CK’s web-series, Horace and Pete, co-starring Steve Buscemi, and the request came from someone entitled to special privileges, so I’ve laid hands on the entire ten-part series and, having freed myself up from finishing one current series, I’ve taken the time to watch the first episode.
After which, I really must say: thank you for the recommendation, Pete.
Horace and Pete is created, written directed and self-financed by Louis CK, whose reputation I knew but who I’d only seen when he briefly guested in a couple of second season Parks and Recreations as Leslie Knope’s police officer boyfriend. Horace and Pete are, respectively, Louis and Steve Buscemi, who start the opening episode as brothers and end it as unrelated. ‘Horace and Pete’s’ is also the name of the bar, established one hundred years ago, which is the site for the series: the bar has been owned, generation after generation, by successive Horaces and Petes: Louis CK is Horace Wichtel VIII and Horace Wichtel IX won’t even say his name, let alone speak to him.
The first thing that struck me was the opening, wordless scene. Horace comes down into the bar to start setting chairs at the tables. He punches in a number on the juke-box, which plays a generic, sixties-sounding organ-dominated instrumental with a gentle, undemanding beat to it. As Horace, who already looks downbeat and miserable, crosses from table to table, he begins to move more rhythmically, fitting his actions to the beat. Something resembling a smile starts to hover on his lips. Behind him Pete comes down into the bar, carrying a broom. He starts to sweep the floor. He sees Horace moving about, stops to look at him a moment, and falls into rhythm with him and the record. The two continue in this gentle, almost-contented vein, until the track ends.
Maybe it’s because I’m still influenced by reading Remember Jack Hoxie, with its lack of any understanding that music can be of any effect, can uplift, excite, move or just be a moment or so’s distraction from the shit going on around you, but in that moment I decided I liked these pair. I was in with them, on their side.
The next thing to strike me was how theatrical the set-up, with the fixed stage, the slow-moving dialogue, the lack of action and especially the lack of audience noise/background music, made the programme feel. That was the case all the way through, and it’s a very clear, deliberate, active choice. This isn’t television, it’s theatre. Never mind the changes of camera angle: Horace and Pete is theatre to its bones, and the artificiality of the theatrical set-up, the consciousness that you are watching acting, by real-live people standing a few feet away from you, the deliberate insertion of an Intermission, covering a change of scene, is perfect for what Louis CK is doing.
He’s normally known as a comedian, and there are comedic moments in this episode, but there are no jokes. The comedy arises from the situation, it’s real and natural, it’s you or I attempting by humour to define a shitty problem. Horace and Pete is set in, around and about a bar, but it’s the anti-Cheers. The bar has its regulars, barflys, who come pouring in as soon as it opens and who hug their seats as if they are their only personal possession in the world. But they’re here to drink, not to make pithy remarks, do schticks, hold court. They have no relation with the group, they only have a relationship with their glass, and they’re only here because it’s seriously shitty out there, and they’ve all been damaged by it.
Things are bad inside the bar as well. The first episode took a very shrewd route to setting its world up, especially as it was determined to go down the 100 Bullets line where nobody sits there telling somebody else what they already know just so the audience can get clued in. The minimal plot lay in the fact that it was exactly one year since Horace VII died. Horace VIII unwillingly gave up his job as an accountant to take over, his brother Pete (who has serious mental issues kept under control by paradol, a medication that, due to insurance company complications, he is running out of) came in with him and the previous generation’s Pete became ‘Uncle Pete’ and is now the barman.
(He’s also Alan Alda playing a tour de force role as a cantankerous, grumpy, traditionalist stickler of a racist, sexist, homophobic monster of an older generation, who’s about as far from an Alan Alda character as anyone who remembers him from M.A.S.H. onwards could imagine.)
But the bar is declining so Horace and Pete’s sister Sylvia (Edie Falco – this show attracts heavyweights) wants to bring the law in to close the bar down sell it and free the entire family from the misery it embodies. Which in turn enables the offensive Uncle Pete to give a brief bar history to the lawyer, Randall, and along the way out Pete as being his, not Horace VII’s, son.
Best of all though is that this scene is delivered very late on. We know what’s going on, but only after spending five-sixths of the episode putting our own pieces together about these people.
This is very intelligent, very well-acted, very serious art. It’s about things that, on all levels, can only be described as depressing. There isn’t a single life-enhancing moment in any of it, and I will be grossly disappointed if there is one in any of the remaining nine episodes. But it has the ruthless accuracy of reality about it. You can believe in every single one of these people. You might not want to meet any one of them in real life, but you know that every one of them are out there, in the real life you move through.
Which is not something you can say about most people you meet on TV.
I’m not going to blog each individual episode the way I’m blogging Deep Space Nine, or at least I don’t intend to: I haven’t watched episode 2 yet so let’s see. Meet me again here when I’ve watched the full series. Not that it’s summer TV in any respect…