The difference between theatre and television is that the first form is always artificial whereas the second aims for a paradoxical reality, even – especially – when what it’s portraying is utterly fantastic and, thanks to technique and the judicious application of CGI, seduces its audience into accepting the unreal as truthful.
I like the theatre, though I rarely go. It offers an intense experience, which is necessary to overcome the essential dislocation between the fact that you are sitting there, in an oversized room, with a bunch of people who, within your sight, hearing and sometimes the length of your arm, are very noticeably pretending to be someone else, somewhere else,while you watch.
Horace and Pete, though it is broadcast as television, is pure theatre, a fact Louis CK emphasised in episode 3 by eschewing every single element of television and focusing on a wholly artificial performance. There was no action beyond the occasional sip from a glass of iced water, or a glass of beer, although the Intermission was signaled by a silent sequence of Louis getting up from the table, going to the toilet and washing his hands.
This episode was a two-hander, featuring only Louis, and guest Laurie Metcalf, as Sarah, Horace’s ex-wife. For the first almost ten minutes it was a monologue, the camera fixed on Metcalf’s face as she talked, hesitantly, rambling slightly with asides, relating a story whose ramifications could have gone anywhere. We didn’t know her, we had no idea who she was, but from one thing said in passing, a direct address of a half-line to the unseen, unheard recipient of all these words, I inferred the relationship.
The first half was Metcalf’s. After that initial monologue, the camera began to double back and forth between her and Horace, but he was providing little more than reaction shots and ‘go on’ comments (did Louis lose his nerve here, pull out of his experiment? The change from monologue to two-hander came at an arbitrary point in the tale and I could see nowhere that the first part would have suffered if Horace the listener had been introduced much earlier, nor anything afterwards that required his worried faces and half-lines to convey).
I’m not going to detail the monologue. Suffice to say that it involved Sarah – who has remarried to someone really good for her, taken on stepchildren that adore her and is putting it all at risk by screwing someone related to her unsuspecting husband – relating what built up to this at formidable length, because it’s a repeat of what Horace did that fucked up their marriage. And she wants to know from Horace how you handle the way it feels.
Unfortunately, the second half wasn’t as powerful as the first. Horace, it transpired, had been fucking Sarah’s younger sister, a woman of the same age as him, where Sarah was fucking her father-in-law, who was considerably older. The problem was that, at the end of the day, Horace had nothing to offer, not merely Sarah but ourselves as audience.
True, he reduced the problem to utter basics, a technique I used to use myself in days long gone by, which tends to leave you with two outcomes: the first is that it makes ultra clear what you should be doing and the second that you really really really don’t want to do that specific thing.
So Horace’s advice was ultimately to keep on doing what you’re doing, until you’re found out, until all the shitty horrible consequences descend on your head, and then get out. It turns the infidelity into a clean, uncomplicated break and avoids you having to deal with the real causes of your unhappiness.
This time round, it didn’t work on me and ultimately the experiment fell short. The episode offered no laughs – Alan Alda cameoed at the end to deliver the obvious punchline, disparaging Sarah in true Uncle Pete fashion (and language), which was supposed to be a tension-buster but which instead fell horribly flat – and I confess that my interest started to drag in the second half, and I started checking how long there was left.
It was a experiment, which I applaud, but it ended up not quite working out for me. Laurie Metcalf was exceptional, though, and if Louis had taken the plunge and allowed her solo to continue to the Intermission, revealing Horace only as Sarah concludes by asking his advice, I think the second part would have gained from being a release from the incredible tension she would have built up by that point.
Be back next week.