Horace and Pete: episode 10


For such a brief moment

I’m glad that I watched this series. It was far from easy, and its ending was as painful as anything I have seen on television in my life. I’d like to thank again Pete L-M for suggesting this. I will almost certainly never watch this again in my life: there are some experiences that do not need to be refreshed and this ten part story, that refused anything easy, is one of them.

The final episode divided itself into two. The first half, the First Act, was an extended flashback, set forty years ago. Louis CK played Horace Wachtel VII, and Edie Falco his wife, Maryanne, Steve Buscemi played the Pete who we would meet at the other end as Uncle Pete.

The action was set around the day Maryanne left, taking with her Sylvie and Horace, but leaving Pete: Pete, Horace’s brother but not her son, Pete, tall, athletic, a source of lightly concealed pride to his otherwise piece-a-shit real Dad: Pete who, in the middle of the night had got out of bed to fill all the glasses in the above-the-bar apartment with water, because it had to be done before sunrise: Pete who was left, offstage, screaming because his perceived Dad was beating him.

It was another world, and God help me, it was horrible. It was brutish and nasty, a place of hatred and anger, of viciousness between people. I lived in that time, that year, I turned twenty-one in its November, I never came anywhere near a world like this New York abyss, this Hell-like place, but there wasn’t a second of it that was wrong, that was an exaggeration or a condensation. At least I have lived long enough to leave that world behind, or to have had that world recede for there are signs it may be returning, in a week where one Presidential candidate advocated the shooting of the other if she should win.

(Apart from anything else, it was truly fucking stupid because the Democrats would still have the White House and the Republicans would be out in the cold, so it would be completely ineffectual too).

And Horace VII was an absolute bastard, a total and utter twat. A petty tyrant, a wife-beater, a child-beater, the enforcer of his will because without it he would disappear up his own fundament. Horace VII made his wife and kids’ lives miserable because he existed on the sense of senseless, aimless power it gave him. Fucking bastard, fucking waste of space. No wonder Horace VIII, Pete and Sylvie became who they’ve been these past nine episodes.

And it was immensely instructive to be so forcefully reminded of the difference in ages between these siblings. Horace has been the leader throughout, for all his ineffectuality, with Pete dependent upon him, and Sylvie the outsider. But as kids, I was reminded that these roles and the reversal of their ages. Little Horace, a small, pudgy kid, humiliated by Uncle Pete over the pee-pee baseball incident in front of the whole bar. Athletic, handsome Pete, the elder brother, the icon of potential taking care of his younger friend, so much with-it until that moment of OCD obsession.

And Sylvia, eldest of all, teenager, more than teenager, already sexually active, most directly aggressive because she’s had it longer, had it hard, had Horace VII’s incapacity with women beaten against her for more years, the seeds not merely sewn but growing strong and true, yet crippled.

This young trio were perfectly cast. They were what their adult avatars had been, their adult forms were there in them.

And so to the end of the story. How much of an end it would be was hard to see. This series has ignored convention, so a non-ending was perfectly possible. It’s Easter tomorrow, Sylvia’s got out the old, old decorations but will Horace have them put up? The answer’s no. Horace is not for doing anything, not even that.

But he’s going to have to do something. Pete’s gone, and Sylvia’s going, leaving on Monday with Harold, leaving the bar, New York, everything that reminds her of her life and she wants Horace to do something. Anything. She’s not shown it, but he is her brother, she does love him, and he’s wasted all his life so far. She’s survived the expectation of death and is now going to live. Please, please, please let Horace do something. Let him live. Not just exist.

Horace has no idea what to do. We look at him and we cannot see him changing. He’s dead inside because Sylvia’s right, he has never really been alive inside. Horace won’t act because he can’t act. He can only react, and even then in the most minimalist way possible.

Then Roger, the cop, enters the bar. He tells Horace and Sylvia that there is not the remotest trace of Pete, that after a massive manhunt, there is nothing whatever. It’s being called off. If nothing has been found after so much time, so many men, there is nothing to find. Pete’s gone. Gone. It takes ages to force the word out but Pete is dead.

Sylvia takes it calmly, practically. Horace can’t. He tries to strike back, to blame Roger for giving up. He doesn’t want to give up because to give up is to force an action upon him, to acknowledge a change.

Into this comes Mara. She’s an applicant for the Waitress Wanted. She begins with a hug for the seated Horace. Mara’s a talker, bright, positive, upbeat. She’s a force of nature, interviewing herself for Horace. She’s been around, forever on the go. She’s everything this series hasn’t been, yet you can see her in it. Amy Sedaris, in what is all but a monologue, makes her into the kind of force that would destroy the dark, depressed world of ‘Horace and Pete’ has been simply by not noticing it. She’s a window, a chance, a possibility. She makes Horace smile, she invites him to this party she’s going to in Chicago, she hugs him standing up as she leaves: see you tomorrow, when she starts.

The effect is astounding. Mara’s impact has allowed Horace to accept that Pete is dead, that he will never come back. And in that moment, Pete returns. I had tears in my eyes. He was bedraggled, grubby, windblown, but he was smiling. Smiling ruefully, smiling affectionately. Smiling to be home. Smiling…

Horace welcomes him joyfully. Sylvia is stunned but glad. Horace leads him to the bar, to a stool.  Pete’s still smiling. He hasn’t said anything. There’s a sharp knife on the bar: Sylvia has been cutting limes, for gins. Pete picks it up, steps away. Horace goes towards him, Sylvia warns him, Pete’s turned, the blade invisible. Then the stage lights go out, and Sylvia screams.

It might have ended there. No-one would have argued if it had ended there. Instead though, the lights faded up. The bar was empty, closed, boxes all about. Sylvia’s supervising their removal, dispassionately. Harold is the Greek Chorus, telling us that ‘Horace and Pete’ was open for one hundred years, run by Horace and Pete, brothers. But then Pete killed Horace and had to go aware somewhere. No more than that.

Sylvia’s still leaving. She’s abandoning the bar, leaving it behind. It no longer encloses her and she refuses to concern herself with it. Harold goes out to the van, but as he does a young man comes in. He’s round-faced, with one of those ineffectual fringe beards, big glasses, baseball cap, jacket over checked shirt. Sylvia tells him they’re closed but that’s not why he’s here. He’s never met her before but she’s his aunt. He’s Horace Wachtell XI. He never knew his Dad and he wants to ask Sylvia what he was like.

At first she’s Sylvia, and caustic. Horace XI could have come here any day, his Dad was always here. It’s a cruel riposte, but I for one cannot fault her for it. From his appearance alone, Horace XI spells hapless, hopeless loser in big red letters. He’s too late, he has only come because his Dad is dead, and it’s on him, and if it weighs him down for the rest of his life, it fucking well should. It’s on both. It’s ever just you alone.

Sylvia starts to explain but what can she say? She can’t praise Horace, can’t build him up. He was nothing and nobody and Sylvia least of all is going to pretend he was special in any way when he wasn’t, but her voice starts to catch and she apologises and it comes again and she apologises again and then it’s just a case of sitting doubled over in a chair and crying for loss, loss of everything.

Which is where we leave Horace and Pete, and I’m crying too, because though classical tragedy is defined as the fall of a great one from power and grace, we in these twentieth and twenty-first centuries have learned that tragedy is not exclusively reserved for the rich and powerful, and that we all of us are surrounded by it and we are just as helpless in the face of it as the next man or woman.

Louis CK went massively into debt to fund this experiment, yet one more thing for which he should be applauded. He’s stated that that rules out  a season 2, but he’s also got ideas for it, though I personally cannot see how there is anything left on which a further extension of the story could be built, and I don’t want this series to be marred by anything that cannot stand alongside it on the ground that it and it alone occupies.

Horace and Pete was unique. For me, that’s enough.

Horace and Pete – episode 9


It was just chance, and a request from someone I’d like to think could yet be something of a friend, that got me into watching and blogging about Horace and Pete on Thursday mornings. I wish I’d happened upon a better time of day as the episodes are demanding and far from being invigorating when I have a full day’s work watching me from a few hours ahead.

Yet this is an extraordinary programme, doing things that are light-years away from the arts that I usually pursue. It’s not a series I would normally ever have thought of watching, and it’s intensity leads me to feel that I will almost certainly never watch it a second time. But I don’t regret giving it this time and these weeks, and anyway, I can’t think of a ‘better’ day or time at which I could watch it and not feel this way, or not be affected by it quite as I am.

I’m spinning my wheels a little because I’m not sure how to approach this penultimate episode. It was about Pete, though Steve Buscemi didn’t appear until the last few minutes, engaging in a bout with his Dad, Uncle Pete, Alan Alda. Yes, his dead Dad, who killed himself after episode 4.

The status of that scene is indeterminate. Ostensibly, it took place in Horace’s imagination, an attempt to give some form of, what? Closure? A gift of peace? A minor yet palpable triumph? It gave at least one member of the audience a terrible sense of chill.

But if I’m to make sense of this ending, I need to work my way towards it from the beginning. The actual beginning was Sylvie interviewing for a barman, interviewing the hulking, head-shaven, tough looking Gerald, all nervy smiles and a voice pitched so low it was difficult to hear all his responses. Gerald wanted, needed a job, was honest about his credentials, even to when, working backwards, he admitted to being in prison. For manslaughter.

That was the end of it. For all Gerald’s reassurances about being on life parole – one mistake and he’s back – Sylvie couldn’t get past that, though she tried to be nice about it. You felt sorry for the guy, it had happened so long ago, he wasn’t the same man, but…

Save as a way to introduce the notion that the Wachtels already had drama going on, this was completely irrelevant. So were all the other things going on, in and around the bar, including the appearance of New York’s real-life Mayor, Bill de Blazio, making the goodwill visit Pete had asked his cop friend to engineer, in the hope of securing Landmark status. His Honour ran the gauntlet of motormouth asshole Kurt (boy, is he an annoying shitbag!) and the wierd but surprisingly simple and gentle Leon, but Pete wasn’t there. Merely asking after him drove Horace out of the bar in pain.

Because Pete’s been missing for a week, ever since he left with Tricia at the end of the last episode. Neither Horace nor Sylvie know where he is or what he”s doing and, being Sylvie – who doesn’t really care – and Horace – who is completely ineffectual, they have done the glorified square root of fuck all about it. They haven’t even been to the cop. If it weren’t for Pete’s friend calling in, they probably never would.

I have to admire Louis CK, for the part he has written for himself. At first, he looked like being the nearest thing to a good guy that the series would have: the normal one, the one who’s fundamentally sane. But no. In his own way, Horace Wachtel VIII is a monster. He’s not just a completely ineffectual person, he’s a 100% failure, a man who will never rise, not an inch, above what happens to him and to people around him. He cannot contribute to anyone else’s pains, he won’t go the first step towards assisting them, his concern is shallow because all it produces is a vague, uncomfortable desire to get out of hearing about it.

It’s there in the bar, when Horace is feeling the pressure of Leon’s simple insistent that he should be looking for Pete, the condemnation of his not even trying, his giving in to the excuse that he doesn’t know where to start (so convenient).

But I actually had that thought in the next scene, in a hospital room. The Police have phoned Horace, he’s gone there. Tricia, the Tourettes lady, is lying in bed, head bandaged, left thigh heavily strapped. Pete had been with her. They’d decided to use up the remaining time his pills gave him by being happy. There was a heart-breaking aside about Pete being so happy, because nobody had ever loved him before, it was all so new to him, that was both tragic and very familiar.

In her naivete, Tricia had tried to prolong things, had succumbed to the delusion that love was enough, that simply by being together, by loving, by presenting a unified front, they could beat off what would happen to Pete’s mind. You and I knew that it wouldn’t, it couldn’t, but the vision of it, the possibility, was like the purest of drugs and addictive beyond anything else there is.

Pete had stopped taking his probatol. Later, he flushed the last of them down the toilet. Inevitably, it had taken the expected course on his mind. Tricia had tried to support him, to love him, in the end to simply hug him but his disorder had him tearing up the flat , knocking her unconscious and, ultimately, inflicting the wounds we could see. Love failed, love wasn’t enough.

Horace sat, and listened, took it in, was unable to think of anything to do, could not think of  anything to say that was remotely beyond banal. We’ve seen Louis CK listening, many times, in this series and it’s always the same, the empathy, the quiet expressions of pain being taken on board, the utter uselessness of him.

So Horace returns to the bar and the turmoil of everybody else’s life. There’s a horrible disintegration going on here, Horace is finding it unbearable, but everyone’s got their own concerns and the world is staggering about like it always does, and it’s a sideshow to Pete as he is a sideshow to each and all of them. Only Leon notices, fixes his eye on Horace, until he bursts out, shouting his ineffectuality to the bar, confessing to Leon that he does not where Pete is, he has no idea where to start, he isn’t going to start even now (this part is not voiced).

Of course Kurt, the complete twat, has to try to joke. And Horace attacks him with his paper, with Kurt protesting his utter innocence. That’s when His Honour walks in. It’s the bar’s great moment, but Horace can’t handle it, can’t handle anything right now. He leaves, goes to Pete’s room, silent, immaculate. He sits on the bed, back to us. And he starts to cry, slumping onto the bed. He will be crying fora very long time, I know, I understand those tears, and part of them is helplessness, that there is nothing that you can do that will alleviate this, that will change it in any way, that nothing will be better, and something is over with a finality as great as death.

But we don’t see those tears. Instead, we cut downstairs to the bar. It’s cleaner, lighter, brighter, the customers are sitting drinking silently. Behind the bar, Horace is wiping glasses. Pete is sweeping the floor, bent on his broom. Uncle Pete enters from the back.

Any thought that this might be a flashback is swiftly dispelled. Uncle Pete asks Pete what he’s doing here, Pete says his Dad shouldn’t be there, he’s dead. Uncle Pete knows it too. The implication is that this is a dream scene from Horace’s helpless imagination, but only the two Pete’s are truly here: everoneelse is back-cloth.

Uncle Pete’s a ghost, conjured up to berate his son, but also to call him son one time. To praise him for what he was, how brave and determined he was, what he could have done, if he’d pulled himself together. Pete isn’t a ghost, he isn’t dead. Pete’s just here. Because here is where Pete is, where he belongs, where he felt safe. He has no good choices, no happy endings. This isn’t something you just put a brave face up to, it’s too powerful to be beaten. Pete’s here. He always will be here.

These words chill me. I can’t see this as only Horace’s dream tribute to his brother, who he reclaims as his brother, his brother emotionally, historically, not his cousin. There’s something entirely too real to this. I am convinced that Pete is dead, that we won’t see him again, that his body is already somewhere in, or under, the bar.

The scene ends with Uncle Pete departing, respecting his son at last. Pete wants peace, just to be here. This reminds me so much of the final scene of the Homicide: Life on the Street movie, Giardello and the dead Crosetti and Felton, ghosts in the coffee room of the squadroom, present but invisible to all. A moment’s reconciliation, a moments peace, a flashcard of Garry Shandling to close out.

Next week is my one-in-four Thursday off. I know nothing of what the final episode will contain, but I think it’s going to be a very good thing that I shalln’t be going in to work after that one.

Horace and Pete – episode 8


This was a very difficult episode to watch/blog, less for the episode’s own structure and issues than for my current malaise. I’m in a difficult place for the moment, exhausted, mentally as well as physically, stressed at work worse than I’ve been for many years, and unable to concentrate on anything, not just writing.

Into this, thirty-five minutes of Horace and Pete, in which Louis CK rigorously pursues his goals without a moment of relent or relief, is not the best prescription. I confess that reaching the end of this production, extraordinary though it is, is something I’m looking forward to.

Episode 8 was a nothing of an episode in many ways, its central story wrapped up in vignettes that felt more like fillers, necessary to bulk out the episode rather than complementing/contrasting the main thrust, none of them of any significance in themselves.

Such as the opening, of Sylvie walking through the apartment, pouring herself an orange juice, smiling and, before long, laughing. She’s happy. Is this relief at the good news she received last week? Or has she had a fuck? Yes, she’s had a fuck and he’s Reg E. Cathey, veteran of The Wire, and by the way, Horace has had Rhonda over (and under, and sideways) again, and it’s all awkward, or rather it would be but Reg’s humour at the situation forces the scene towards warmth for once. Shame he couldn’t have stayed.

There’s a couple of scenes at and around the bar. Kurt is holding forth as usual, about taking acid, and coffee, and Artificial Intelligences. Leon is still drawing with a ballpoint in his tiny notebook (I wonder if we’re ever going to see what it is he’s drawing: I remember a Clive James review of a Seventies TV play which included a background character silently drawing, things seen later to be most unpleasant.)

Well-dressed Nick comes in and is immediately button-holed by attractive, ragged-haired blonde Lucy, with her mouth working. It seems she and Nick have fucked and he immediately abandoned her, which has majorly displeased her. Nick, on the other hand, suggests that there was a reason specific to her, something Lucy has forgotten, and removes himself to the end of the bar.

Lucy, we learn by the end, first from her behaviour and her increasingly aggressive tongue, and only finally by her admission, is an alcoholic, and she’s been cut off by Sylvie and Horace. She’s free with her insults, free and creative, to everyone’s amusement, until she begins abusing the customers, not Horace, at which point she’s escorted, gently, firmly, defensively, off the premises.

That ends the episode. But none of this has been what the programme has been about. The spine of the episode has been Pete,the outsider, the overlooked. Horace accompanies him to his annual check-up at the mental hospital, where Pete is judged on whether he’s safe to continue living outside. Pete’s tense and nervous, reacting badly to the Doctor’s insensitive light-heartedness over what, for Pete, is a life or (living) death decision. The Doctor apologises, before stating that that’s his way and he’s gotta be him and carrying on regardless. Twat.

But this is foreshadowing. Pete’s ok, he passes the audition, he can carry on. But. His medicine, probatol, on which he is completely dependent, has been found to have serious, liver-damaging side-effects and has been discontinued. in a month or so, when his current prescription runs out, Pete will have to return to the hospital.

Buscemi’s reaction is stunning, instant, unstemmable tears. He won’t even get to have Easter.

Back at the bar, with Horace, Pete’s fears are elaborated upon. Horace is well-meaning but, just as he has been in all such situations, he is completely ineffectual. He lacks empathy, and despite having known Pete, as if a brother, all these many years, he hasn’t the faintest idea of what Pete’s condition means, what it does. Everything Horace says is meant to downplay what’s happened, turn it into something you can get along with, but that’s what Pete’s life outside is: it’s dull, restricted, event-less, but he can get along with it. Returning to the hospital means surrendering, forever, anything remotely resembling autonomy.

He’s considered doing what his Dad did, and shooting himself.

That too is beyond Horace’s comprehension, but it’s not beyond Tricia. She’s the tourettes sufferer, whom Pete tried to avoid earlier in the series because she reminded him of the hospital. She keeps in touch with other survivors, one of whom also needs probatal. She knows it’s been discontinued and she’s thought of Pete.

And she gets it. She understands him in a way no-one else, certainly not Horace and Sylvie, can do so. She accepts his fear, the impulsion towards suicide, as both natural and understandable. But she also praises him for his bravery, the bravery he’s shown all along, for facing up to his demons. His bravery, though Pete disputes the term, has enabled her to handle her own problems. The two leave the bar together for somewhere quieter and more private.

Overall, and allowing for the effect of my own issues, the episode felt essentially complete. On checking the guest cast online, I’ve accidentally exposed myself to a spoiler about episode 9, a tragedy in the bar, which has already directed my anticipations towards Pete.

Hopefully, I will be better equipped to deal with that when the time comes round.

Horace and Pete – episode 7


Don’t Do Breakfast

I really wasn’t in the mood for this today. In part, it was the heat, that’s depressing yet further my already depleted mental faculties, but mainly it was last week. What Horace and Sylvie, and especially Horace, did to Pete took me at least over a line that’s hard to cross back. Some things are unforgivable.

This episode did nothing to suggest forgiveness might be possible. Last week might never have existed, all seemed as it was between Horace, Pete and Sylvie. Nothing was said, nothing was even glanced. I’m sure that there will be longer term consequences, and even now Pete is going behind his cousins’ backs to apply for ‘Landmark’ status for the bar, which if granted will make it harder to sell, or even modify.

Otherwise, his quiescence in what was done to him was dramatically flat, though it may have been an extraordinarily subtle way of demonstrating how broken Pete is, how narrow and trapped his life, if he really has no possible reaction to that swinish fuckery than to swallow it.

It was an odd episode, not really seeming to know what it wanted to do with itself. At fifty minutes, the episode was longer than the last three, but it had no structure. The first half was set in the bar and was a mish-mash of disparate scenes. Kurt tells a provocatively homophobic version of the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, until he uses the C word, and Sylvie throws him out and bars him for life. Alice visits to introduce her boyfriend Eric to her Dad: Eric is whipped, nervy, ineffectual, incoherent. He’s at the same Law School at Alice (prime lawyer material) and their relationship seems to be an emotionally sadomasochistic co-dependency.

Sylvie, trying to go through the accounts, gets hit on by some barfly who gets sexually aroused by woman cancer patients, which was creepy to the max and very much deflated his exit monologue about being disregarded, about being a giver who in turn received only rejection. I might have recognised a lot in what he was saying, but for his predatory weirdness having totally alienated me. Oh, and his truly horrible Seventies style yellow and brown striped shirt.

And Pete talks to a couple of cops, one of whom was an old school buddy, the other a somewhat insensitive berk, who got asked to go sit on his own for a while whilst Pete asked his old buddy, who is on the Mayor’s detail, to steer the Mayor towards this ‘Landmark’ application.

Short scenes, linked only by taking place in the bar. No sense whatsoever of what the episode is about except in the show’s exploitation of the many different ways people cannot/do not communicate with each other.

Early in the opening scene, whilst Kurt is spurting on in his very annoying manner, an attractive 40ish, light-skinned black women enters the bar, takes a seat in the foreground, orders and drinks a bourbon on the rocks and proceeds to sit there quietly, saying and doing nothing. This is another theatrical move, and I was waiting, half the episode as it turned out, for her to become involved because it was only too clear that she was a Gun in Act 1.

Her name was Rhonda, and Horace fancied her. He attempted to chat her up, a process made easier by Rhonda’s having earlier been crying unobtrusively (I didn’t see that, stage attention having obviously been directed away when it was shown). She’s not unhappy over a man, she proudly insists. She doesn’t need men to be lonely. Men are only useful for two things, lifting furniture, and fucking. Horace lightly used this as a way to declare that he found her attractive, and that he would like to lift her furniture.

Laughter got her into his bed and the following morning, both attested to a spectacular night of fucking, a sexual boastfulness that, applied to Horace, seemed rather at odds with the entire series. Rhonda didn’t mean to fall asleep (yay Horace the Stud! He da Man!!!) from which we all know that conversation over a scrambled egg breakfast was going to be another disaster.

In a manner I didn’t quite get, the suggestion arose that Rhonda might not be entirely who she seems to be in her skin, that she actually have been born a man and have transgendered. That idea fucks over Horace’s brain, for all his soft liberal attitudes, his belief in equal rites (that Rhonda painfully and swiftly shafts), that he might have done something gay, might have fucked what, from his own testimony is all woman, now, but may once have been man and, to Horace, are forever damned to be so.

Horace thinks that women who once were men should announce themselves as such prior to fucking men who have only ever been Men, because the only men who want to fuck women who once were men are men who only want to fuck women who once were men and, being such freaks, don’t want to fuck women who have only ever been women. Horace is a self-deluding prick.

Not that I have ever knowingly known a transgendered woman, let alone been in a position to have sex with one, so whilst I hope that the things that attracted me to such a woman would be all I would concern myself with, I can’t say that I too might not be affected by such a shadow. Throwing stones is a quease-making thing when you can’t truthfully say I have been there, I know I behaved better. We are all of us products of our time and of our history, and there are deep pools and unwanted eddies that drive us faster than our conscious mind.

The episode tops itself with another switch of pace. As Rhonda leaves, Sylvie returns. She’s had her results, the tests are back. She’s going to be ok. The cancer won’t kill her. It’s a better note on which to leave Horace: he’s awkward, feels unable to be demonstrative, even as Sylvie, for all her relief, is fragile. But he is crying too, with relief, and the two manage a hug that expresses more than their words.

So let’s end on an unsentimental piece of good news for once. As I’ve said, Horace could sure do with it, not just in his character, but in the character’s status with the audience. I am still not filled with sympathy towards Horace Wichtel VIII, and I wonder how far the story has to go to steal that back from me. Three more episodes in which to see.

 

Horace and Pete: episode 6


I was prey to mixed feelings during this latest episode, which was Steve Buscemi/Pete-centric in a way that, at first, struck me as a little too self-conscious. Let me explain.

We’ll accept as a given that Horace and Pete is theatre as opposed to television, being played on television with very few compromises to the medium it’s exploiting. Episode 3’s stunning fifteen minute monologue from Laurie Metcalf was not merely an uncompromising demonstration of that fundamental difference, but also, in its way, a defiant blazoning of such difference.

In shorter, but no less defiant manner, episode 6’s initial three minute solo by Steve Buscemi – silent, undemonstrative, coming out of the bath in a towel, slowly, shufflingly, preparing himself for what we would discover was a date – came from the same impulse. It was theatre, shouting at its audience that this is radically different from tv, and flaunting its refusal to go native.

It was also a conspicuous elevation of form over story. What we saw could have been presented in a televisual manner without undermining what was happening. Louis CK was being a bit too blatant for my liking at that point about being not-television, to the point where it pushed past what Steve Buscemi was doing.

But that’s in the essence of the show, and to complain about it would be like complaining that the sun comes up in the morning. Nevertheless, I think it a valid point to make: I have seen enough experiment for the sake of experiment by now, and prefer my art to be about its subject, rather than it’s own cleverness, which has so often been used to conceal a certain shortfall in that substance.

Not that you can make that accusation about Horace and Pete. The remainder of the first half was set in a nice-looking restaurant and was a two-hander between Buscemi and guest star Hannah Dunne as his date, Jenny.

The two had paired up on-line and were having their first IRL meeting. And it didn’t start well, because one of them hadn’t been honest. Not Pete: he’d told the truth about his age, had used a contemporary picture, had expressed a preference for women his age, 45. It was Jenny who had lied, who’d claimed to be 45 when in reality she was 26, and simply preferred older men, for their greater depth of personality, their decency, their emotional intelligence (the scene was all the better for such terms being scrupulously avoided.)

Naturally, Pete started off aggressive and hostile, automatically assuming that Jenny was disappointed in him because he was exactly what he’d stated himself to be,and needed to be convinced – without making Jenny out to be some weirdo or fetishist – that she had chosen him consciously. The gradual melting of that hostility, to the point where Pete gains the confidence to be wholly complementary (without once straying into cliche) towards Jenny, was a masterpiece of writing and performance.

But, of course, you now it’s aaaaaallllll going to go wrong. The third scene/second act took place above the bar, initially with Horace setting plates for a meal, for four. Enter Sylvie, in headscarf, now living here (this development was not unexpected: after last week’s quasi-cliffhanger over her decision, when googling an image of Edie Falco to illustrate the post, I was exposed to scenes of her behind the bar, with the scarf covering her presumed bald head).

The fourth plate is for Jenny. We know it’s going to end badly, partly because we have watched five episodes to date but, in continuity, Horace picks an unnecessary fight with Pete, seeking to undermine his efforts to lay on something nice for Jenny, and Sylvie turns back his thanks to her for cooking by denigrating what she is doing in a way that, by implication, damns it as worthless from the start.

And once Jenny arrives, the pair completely and utterly fuck Pete over.

Initially, the awkwardness is so palpable, you could break it off in lumps and use it for door stops. Both are taken back, and  Sylvie the more so, that Pete is seeing a woman half his age, and a not unattractive one at that. I couldn’t help but recall the comment I’d seen when researching episode 3, about how the underlying theme of the series being the inability to communicate.

But sometimes the characters find it all too easy to communicate. Sylvie is pissed off, and she is the first to kick the avalanche into motion, out of spite, rejecting Pete’s reference to her and Horace as his brother and sister, with a determined recitation of Pete’s true parentage, forcing Pete to tell Jenny things he hasn’t yet disclosed, stealing his right to say such things in his own time and his own way.

That’s bad enough, though Jenny looks able to ride it, especially as, in striking back at Sylvie (who is basking in the self-righteousness of her ‘honesty’) he lets slip that he loves Jenny, something he’s obviously not said to her face, that she notices but does not have the time to react to, because Pete is still going on at the uncaring Sylvie, being the bitch to the hilt.

And Jenny doesn’t get to react, because Horace, in his passive-aggressive manner, without any seeming motivation to do so, drops the absolute fucking bomb when he flatly tells Jenny about Pete’s mental issues, his complete history in institutionalisation and his dependancy on his medication.

It stops Pete in his tracks. He can’t answer. It’s the complete no-way-back moment and it breaks him. It’s one of the cruelest, most vicious, least-justifiable or forgivable things I have ever read or seen, and at least I know that this series will not sweep it under the carpet.

Jenny leaves. Before she goes, she gives Horace and Sylvie both barrels over their treatment of Pete. Heartbreakingly, she is still prepared to leave a door open for Pete, if he will move, if he will speak, but he has lost the ability, and she turns and leaves. Hannah Dunne has been beautiful in this role.

And I have been answered in my concerns about the overt theatricality of this show, its experiments in formalism at the expense of naturalism, because nowhere outside of theatre could you present this, could you create this excluding bubble, where characters act so determinedly in the lines set for them by their natures. It just can’t work any other way.

So Pete rages, brokenly, at the family that has so right royally shafted him. Sylvie he berates in half-sentences. If you had loved me. If you had ever shown to me any sign of love. The rest we have to conjure into being, but it is after saying that in some other world where the past had gone differently, what has just happened might somehow have been justifiable.

Sylvie’s unconcerned. The world is shit, and her own personal satisfaction is such that she is not merely unconcerned but content, even proud of herself, that she has made it even shittier. Sylvie is a monster who has given up on life and who will tear down everything she is within reach of, to bring it to the level of entropy that her own life has become.

And Horace? Horace, our hapless, indecisive man in the centre, trying to do the feeblest right thing he can get away with? He might just be the biggest monster of them all.

I await the next episode.

Horace and Pete – episode 5


Brothers and Sisters

I will admit that I was dubious about watching the next episode of this series today. Horace and Pete is an intense, slow-moving experience, of which the word ‘downbeat’ is superficial and simplistic, and I am not having the best of weeks (or months, or years, come to that). I did not think that the episode was going to improve that humour.

Nor did it. Yet it held me for thirty-three minutes, my attention focused utterly upon it’s minimal movement, its increasing burden of hopeless misery, like icebergs slowly converging on unanswerable tides.

And yes, I was right about last week’s ending, that sense of dread that I felt. The show opens on the dark stage of the bar, the door opens, the cast enter in dark clothing, switch on the light, drinks are poured. Theatre to the max: it is the wake following Uncle Pete’s funeral. The gun he took from behind the bar was significant, except that it signified the one possibility that I, oddly, did not foresee. As in life, I did not imagine that he would kill himself.

Uncle Pete’s removal was clearly the catalyst for change, but what change would that be? Jessica Lange, as Marsha, told a splendidly defiant, yet regretful monologue of her life, as a drinker, before leaving the bar, having been told, and recognising, that she has no place here now, no connection.

Pete himself struck up with a defiant claim that he could survive, in the face of Sylvie’s urge that the bar be sold: $6,000,000 could be had, $3,000,000 for each of her and Horace (nothing for Pete, now he’s not a brother, biologically, which he accepts imperturbably.

And it’s growing desperate for Sylvia, jobless, broke, having to afford cancer treatment and slowly breaking under it. Daughter Brenda is almost aggressively protective, which earns her only an order to get out from her mother. Horace’s daughter Alice, a silent presence, a watcher from the sidelines, speaks her only words in leaving, a final departure. The next time one of you dies, she says, I’ll see you at the funeral.

Meanwhile, the customers are the customers. Leon sits in his corner, drawing in his tiny notebook (I have long been wondering if we’re going to see what he draws and just how sickening it’s going to be). A young woman who can’t escape from her own narrow confines calls people who enjoy orchestral music fakes and phonies. A fucking rude hipster who thinks he’s funny gets thrown out. A nihilist wants to see a Sanders/Trump co-Presidency so it can completely fuck the country up forever.

It’s Intermission, it’s a change of pace, it’s the least interesting part of the play.

In the morning, Sylvie having slept on the couch, feeling weak, Horace pitches for a solution. He’s prepared to sell the bar, irrespective of the history of which Pete is desperately protective, taking up his father’s role. Sylvie needs the money, she has cancer. Pete can be brought in, $2,000,000 each. Pete pleads for the bar to stay open: it’s his life, his only life, the only place he’s lived outside the hospital, and he cannot cope without it.

But Horace pitches a third way, that Sylvie come in with them, that they make it a three-way partnership. It’s not what she wants, by any means. Sylvie wants out from under the weight of her own history, and wants her brother out from it too, for his sake, even if he feels that selling is harder than staying. But it may be the only practical solution.

She can’t decide now. Sylvie leaves, and there’s a cute little section at the end where Horace and Pete go about their business, not talking to one another, without hostility, just dropping into the groove and avoiding conversation, and it’s beautifully composed and acted, and it’s only drawback is that it’s self-consciously clever.

And to emphasise the theatricality of all this, the closing credit is ‘End of Act 1’. We are now halfway through the series.

Despite wanting lighter, less demanding, more fun fare, I still wound up immersed in Horace and Pete, and especially wanting to know how it all works out. But I’m getting there the hard way: one a week, no spoilers. This is too intense an experience to bingewatch and get out of it all that Louis CK has put in.

 

Horace and Pete episode 4


Booty Call

I struggled to watch this week’s Horace and Pete, not due to any deficiency in the content but rather because the Council are cutting the grass around our block and the motor-mowers have been roaring on for the best part of two hours and making it impossible to hear the quiet parts of the dialogue. Oh, Uncle Pete was as audible as can be, which on one level was a shame, because he’s a true monster, a true blue-collar, ignorant, prejudiced, hidebound, chauvinist monster. He’s a very real monster and he’s presented unashamedly, and the audience that I imagine Horace and Pete attracts, will see him for what he is, but in his gross reality, he is in many ways a distillation of the things I loathe, and to which I have been ultra-sensitive since the events of seven days ago.

In real life, I would avoid him like a highly avoidable thing. Alan Alda’s performance (is this really Hawkeye Pierce?) is astounding, which only adds to the queasiness I am beginning to experience whenever he opens his mouth, and I’m forcibly reminded of the late Johnny Speight’s Till Death us do Part, and warren Mitchell’s Alf Garnett: a figure of fun, the complete Sixties’ reactionary and bigot, a satirical figure that instead found an audience of people who decided that he was speaking for them in a way no other character on TV was allowed to do.

But I ended up stopping the show after about 14 minutes, and starting again during a lull, realising I’d missed dozens of lines without which I wasn’t getting the full idea (even in trivialities, every line in this show is vital). And even then i got to 22 minutes and had to pause for over another five before it was quiet enough to continue (the mowers are still blaring as I write).

Since the opening episode, the subsequent episodes have been growing shorter, until this one barely scraped over thirty minutes (it is, however, the shortest of the series). The theme this week was sex: there was a bar discussion about abortion to begin with, in which Uncle Pete’s opinion was the loudest and most vehement, and the only woman’s was the one nobody was interested in hearing.

And it ended with Uncle Pete’s violent rejection of oral sex (even when the man is receiving) as, well, dehumanising, and his presentation of the romantic ideal, the only true love as, well, the missionary position, only as if you were standing up. It was laughable, though not in a funny way, except that in describing what real, rare love is, Alan Alda gave the sense of someone insensitive revealing something deeply private and vulnerable about themselves. Disorienting.

In between, there was Horace. Horace was depressed. You may justifiably ask, when isn’t he, but this was depressed by Horace and Pete standards. Uncle Pete, with a crassness above and beyond the call of something I’d rather not think about, diagnosed it as a need to get laid and headed for the phone to call up an Asian girl to fuck Horace (he’s never had an Asian girl, which makes him a prejudiced m*therf*cker in Uncle Pete’s vocabulary, Asian girls being there to fuck and for no other purpose).

It’s plainly deeper and more complex than that but Horace decides to act on something he can act on, not to mention the superficial pleasure of getting laid, and text’s Maggie for a booty call.

Maggie, splendidly played by Nina Arianda, as a superficially attractive blonde barmaid type, with long skinny legs in unsexual hotpants, covered by patterned opaque tights, turns out to have been an ex-lover of Horace, a waitress at the bar until she left a year ago. Turns out she left because Horace was in love with her then.

They haven’t been in touch for a year until now, and she’s happy to come round for some casual sex, for which she brings a bottle of Russian bourbon so she can get herself a bit fucked-up in preparation. But though Maggie is perfectly down with being called up by an ex-lover for a one-night stand, Horace is a bit ashamed of himself for resorting to such a thing and wants to treat this as more of a date kind of thing, have a drink, catch-up, relate, and still fuck at the end of it.

Only Maggie’s had things happen to her. She’s gotten married, to a pilot who lives in Atlanta, whirlwind romance, gloriously happy, things are brilliant, week after the honeymoon, he dies of a heart attack in Montreal, she retrieves the body, buries him gets challenged over his estate by his sister, says fuck it, walks away, back in New York. And it’s all happened so fast, like a dream and nightmare, in a few weeks, that she’s left with no feelings about it.

Nor can she really get it on with Horace, because what she really dug about him was that he was fun. And he’s not fun now.

This was a compact, but far from bijou episode, Mostyn. I’d like to say this was another thread in a tapestry, but really it’s another patch in a patchwork quilt, only not one being sewn up by some sweet, white-haired old lady. Nor was the body of the episode what necessarily the impression I took away with me.

No, the episode ended with Uncle Pete, having taken bills from the cash register, putting a pistol in his coat packet before leaving. The camera followed him to the door, which he shut behind him. It stayed in place as his silhouette turned right, and it kept looking at the door. The credits ran in absolute silence, without the Paul Simon theme music.

Part of me says they won’t do that, that television logic says you don’t kill off a character like Uncle Pete, not when you’re not even halfway through the series. But this is not a television series governed by television logic. The gun, so casually introduced, opened up my imagination: if episode 5 should feature Uncle Pete having been killed in a mugging, I would not be shocked one little bit.

Hopefully, next week it’ll be as silent as it finally is now.

Horace and Pete’s – part 2


This is a sex fantasy

I did say I wasn’t planning on blogging each individual episode of this series, but there was enough in episode 2 to prompt me to some comment, which would otherwise be lost if I waited until the very end.

All the things I said about episode 1 apply again, in spades. This series is dark, intense and draining, an effect multiplied by the theatrical staging. It’s also unfailingly cruel, sand not all of it comes from the obvious monster, Uncle Pete, who at one point had the bar in stitches as he related a story of the five year old Horace peeing his pants at baseball – whilst Horace was there in the bar – and later was warm and approving towards Tricia, an attractive woman with Tourettes Syndrome, shouting out the kind of aggressive, transgressive things that are Uncle Pete’s daily conversation.

No, what decided me to blog again was the scene where this new guy objects to Uncle Pete charging him $4.50 for a budweiser when this other guy got charged $3.00. Horace took over to defuse a rapidly escalating situation with the guy protesting discrimination, and clarified that it had nothing to do with the guy being gay or Jewish, but was like a surcharge for additionals. You see, the guy was coming in here to drink ‘ironically’, and call the place to his friends, but the regular who was charged $3.00 only comes in here to drink.

So, it’s kind of a douche tax? the guy enquires. That’s acceptable.

At which point I roared with laughter and decided I had to comment again. Because episode 2 did what episode 1 didn’t, and made me laugh. Without changing itself in any substantial respect, it was funny. In among the pain, the misery, the complete frustration of everybody’s lives, the series began to make me laugh out loud. And I have never been any good at finding comedy in real pain.

One aspect where the tenor of the series hinted at a possible development was hinted at in the opening scene. I didn’t mention Jessica Lange last time, as Marsha, a tightly-wrapped, blonde, formerly hot lush, who was Horace VII’s last mistress. She turned up in Horace VIII’s bedroom in the open, sat on his bed whilst he struggled with his modesty and her being there.

I should have twigged when she was nowhere to be seen when he dressed, but there was another, longer scene, later, where it’s made plain that these are Horace’s sex fantasies, except that his guilt towards their twisted nature and the fact they feature a woman at least in her sixties (Lange is 67 and has come a long way from her debut in the utterly disastrous Dino de Laurentis 1976 re-make of King Kong, which rivals Raise the Titanic as the biggest disaster movie of the era, and yes, I do mean ‘disaster’ that way) means that there isn’t going to be any actual sex and that fantasy Marsha is even moore contemptuous towards him than real Marsha.

Who was being squired around the bar this week by silver fox Denis, owner of a string of tyre stores, who wanted to wine, dine and romance her, in short, paint the town red with her, whilst Marsha wanted to paint the town red in the bar, whilst drinking steadily.

The story, meanwhile, thickens. Sylvie tells Horace that she has breast cancer, which she then tries to use to get him to agree to sell the bar. She also tells him to keep it secret from her kids as they’re such narcissists, they’ll make it about themselves, but when Horace confides in his daughter Alice, she already knows because she’s heard it from her cousin Brenda, who’s being very supportive of Sylvie.

And Tricia, the attractive Tourettes sufferer, is in the bar looking for Pete (this was a week in which Steve Buscemi was kept away from the main stories), a former fellow inmate, whom she appears to hero worship to some degree. Pete doesn’t want to talk to her: they’re not in the hospital now, and besides, for all the support he’s given her, and which Uncle Pete is prepared to extend, her condition affords her the luxury of foregoing her meds in order to lead a ‘normal’ life, and his doesn’t, condemning him to a dulled-down, sleep-dominated, affectless life.

The non-series Pete, whose recommendation has brought me here, says this gets better and better as it goes along. On this showing, he’s not wrong. This is a world away from the kind of thing I usually watch, and when you’re feeling less than chipper, it can be intimidating to approach, but if this really does get better all the time – and if the ‘sex fantasy’ is indicative of an intent to incorporate other strands in this ultra-realistic approach, then what I’ve got coming I hardly dare try to imagine.

Uncollected Thoughts: Horace and Pete episode 1


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…

Homicide: Season 3 on the Street


Season 3’s cast

Homicide had made an uncertain start, commercially, but the figures for the ‘second’ season had been positive enough for NBC to recommission it for thirteen episodes, with an option for a further nine that would go to make a full network season. However, they were insistent upon changes.
It was the same request: shorter stories, resolved in an episode, more conventional camerawork, younger and more telegenic actors, together with a plea for a lighter tone. Fontana resisted stubbornly, protective of the show’s integrity, but to secure the re-order, did agree to two points: that each episode would include a story that ended in that episode, and that there would be a cast change.
The unlucky actor was Jon Polito, who played Steve Crosetti. Short, bald, fat, wheezing, Crosetti was one of two veteran detectives, and as the other was Ned Beatty, Polito was the obvious target. I have also heard it rumoured that Polito had been a disruptive influence on set, and that this was also taken into consideration.
Polito’s replacement was Isabella Hofmann, who might have been designed for the show by NBC. She was cool, blonde, attractive, in her mid-thirties, everything they asked for, and as such a means of introducing sex into the series (the show acknowledged as much in its initial ‘open’ – the segment prior to the theme music and opening credits – with a barbed discussion arising out of Bolander’s disgust at gratuitous sex on the coffee room TV, allowing Munch to insist that it’s the networks who force TV shows to insert sex where it’s not needed).
There was, no-one in David Simon’s book that Hofmann remotely resembled, so her character, Megan Russert, became the first cast member to be wholly invented. Though Hofmann’s playing of the role was excellent, it was unfortunately misconceived from the start.
Russert – who has an almost too good background in Naval Intelligence and ten years as a Detective in Narcotics – is newly-promoted to Lieutenant and a belated replacement for Giardello’s old friend Sinta, as Commander of Homicide’s other shift. When the series started, with a three parter based on a Redball case, Russert has been in command for only a week.
Just to remind everyone that a Redball is a high-priority case, frequently because of its PR implications, at which all resources are thrown. These would be more frequent henceforth, new co-Executive Producer Henry Bromell having recognised their appeal as commercial TV.
Baltimore’s ‘Samaritan of the Year’ was found in a dumpster at the back of a church, stripped naked except for a pair of white cotton gloves, hit with a blunt instrument and strangled. The case came in on Russert’s shift, and Colonel Grainger and Captain Barnfather, wanted Giardello to oversee her: Russert herself was grateful for the assistance from Gee and his squad (saving only Crossetti, who had gone off on vacation to Atlantic City that morning, owing Bayliss $10.00).
It was only a start: two more bodies were found in identical circumstances, ratcheting up the pressure. The primary – Roger Gaffney – was incompetent: lazy, sloppy and overtly racist towards Pembleton, and when he was taken off the case by Russert in Pembleton’s favour, was offensive to her, leading to his being slung out of Homicide (he’d be back, though: there’s a future for Gaffney).
Pembleton himself had difficulty with the case, its religious elements deeply affecting his own, schooled by Jesuits, catholic sensibilities, leaving him questioning his religion. Not that it keeps him from resolving the case when a ‘witness’ came forward: an attractive young woman with Multiple Personality Disorder, who eventually ‘confessed’, throwing the blame to one of her ‘alternates’.
But it was a defining moment, as Pembleton pursued the woman in the Box in an extraordinary interrogation (Police would marvel at how true to life even such bizarre-seeming interrogations would be, from writers and actors with no actual experience of real-life Boxes). Frank was at his most mercurial, and came close to drawing out a real confession, despite Russert’s failure of instinct in backing him.
It was an instructive story in introducing Russert as a Lieutenant, with the character generally distinguishing herself in command, though her handling of Kay Howard, who was something of a hero-worshipper about Russert’s achievements demonstrated that there would be no sympathy along gender lines. But it rather skated around the basic problem of the role: Russert was Commander of the other shift, meaning that by definition she was on duty when the rest of the cast were not! From that point onwards, making her available was a job of shoe-horning awkwardly. I do rather wonder if, at least sub-consciously, the need to bring in a primarily photogenic role was resented to the point where the show was not prepared to make proper accommodation for the character?

Goiardello and Russert office-sharing

I don’t want to be seen as belabouring this season-opening three-parter, but in addition to the case, it also used its time carefully to set up underlying stories that would ruin through the entire season.
Lewis and Munch have gone in together to buy the Waterfront, a bar virtually opposite the Police HQ. Unfortunately, they’re short on the cash required and are trying to hit up their fellow detectives (and even Gee) as a third partner. They end up with Bayliss, who starts off wanting to be a silent partner only, but who quickly becomes just as involved in the long, stumbling process of bar purchase and ownership that runs throughout the series, but which provides a venue for the detectives to meet up, off-shift, for years to come.
A less palatable development was that Felton reveals to Howard that his wife, Beth, has thrown him out, but that he has another woman with whom he’s staying. His marital problems would escalate, and after his wife disappears with his children, Felton starts the long slide towards the skids.
It’s not, in itself, a bad story, nor is it played with heavy hands, but there is a serious problem when the first episode ends by revealing that Felton’s other woman is Russert. That touch is too much of the soap opera that NBC wanted, and though the relationship ends by the third episode, it’s already mired by the sheer implausibility of the rough and ready, hard-drinking Felton getting involved in the first place with the elegant, well-dressed, clearly more prosperous Russert: what the hell have they in common? It’s another black mark in the process of establishing the new girl.
And then there’s Crosetti.
It was meant as the fourth episode, but NBC intervened, postponing it into the New Year in favour of some more ‘life-affirming’ (and overtly sexy) episodes, despite the damage it did to the season’s continuity. But Crossetti’s overdue from his vacation, Lewis is covering for him, and Bolander and Munch pull a floater out of the harbour: the body’s unrecognisable after several days, but the wallet tells the unwanted story: it’s Crossetti.
It was a powerful episode. It was up to the investigating detectives to call the case murder or suicide. Bolander’s convinced, but Lewis is angry, frantic almost to have the case be treated as a murder, avoid his partner’s name being blackened. He interferes with the investigation, full of righteous fury, which lasts until the ME’s report makes it impossible to sustain the fiction. Lewis’s breakdown, and Bolander, the butt of his anger, is the first to hold him, to try to contain his grief.
There was no explanation, not then never. No honour guard from the bosses, as was Crosetti’s normal right, but as the funeral, following a lone jazz saxophonist, passes HQ, Pembleton – whose issues with religion have kept him from the church – is there on the steps, in dress blues, completing the salute.
The intensity of those opening episodes couldn’t be maintained, indeed shouldn’t be maintained for a whole season, and the show was canny enough to release the pressure in several ways. A string of ‘opens’ were used to depict the detectives conversing about things that had no relation to the meat of the episode. The classic example was the episode that started with Howard and Felton, Bolander and Munch discussing the cancellation, after 41 years, of the long-standing TV kids show, Romper Room, an exchange made all the funnier for it taking place at the morgue whilst each pair was waiting on the Medical Examiner’s report on a corpse.
The stories themselves were the typical Homicide mixture of cases, still being taken from Simon’s book, built around the frame of ongoing issues such as the hoops through which Lewis et al. were jumping to get the Waterfront off the ground, and Felton’s disintegration after his wife Beth takes off with his kids.
Bolander and Munch have to face a 10 year old kid on Christmas Eve whose father is thought dead, Pembleton gets burned by inter-departmental intrigue when he undertakes a virtually private case for Deputy Commissioner Harris, even going to far as to resign for an episode, and the show finally gives up on finding ways to insert Russert into the other shift’s territory and gives her her own story, dealing with domestic violence issues relating to her ex-partner in Narcotics, who is newly-transferred into her shift.
This last one came on the eve of the at last Grand opening of the Waterfront, which provided a very happy ending to episode twelve. Then all Hell broke loose.

Pembleton, Bayliss and the Board

In planning the season, Fontana and his team decided to throw down a gauntlet to NBC by scheduling episode thirteen – last of the guaranteed order – as the first of a three part story. Four detectives (the quartet of the Romper Room discussion) execute a routine arrest and search warrant on suspected paedophile Glenn Holten. From the landing above, shots are fired. Three detectives – Bolander, Felton and Howard – are hit. Cancel us if you dare.
The melodrama of the story was at odds with Homicide‘s principles, but it made for a very effective story, though not quite the challenge originally envisaged: long before episode thirteen was due to broadcast, NBC had taken up its option for additional episodes, although oddly for only seven of the possible nine.
Nevertheless, the drama went ahead, dominating the back half of the season. The first two episodes concentrated upon the shooting, and the angry, aggressive response of the Police, as they hunt for the suspect Holton. It was a mirror reflection of the season opener: a Redball case, this time with Russert pulling in her shift to back up the main cast. The safety of the detectives haunted the action: it was clear fairly early on that Felton (shot in neck and thigh) was in no danger, but Bolander (head) and Howard (heart) remained at risk until the end of the second episode.
By that point, Holten had been tracked, captured and has confessed to the shooting. Unfortunately, his confession was so inaccurate that it was evident he didn’t do it. Strictly, the case should have passed to Violent Crimes, nobody being dead, but Giardello got another 48 hours out of Barnfather for his men (but not Russert’s). Attention focussed on Gordon Pratt, tenant of the flat outside which the detectives were shot. Pratt (a brilliant guest performance by Steve Buscemi) is an overt racist with a superiority complex. It’s clear that he is the would-be killer, but his arrogance and racism winds Pembleton up into concentrating on puncturing his supposed superiority: as soon as he does, Pratt clams up, demands his lawyer and, to everyone’s chagrin, and a background of anger and dissension among the detectives, Pratt walks.
But not for long. Everybody’s gone but Bayliss, and he catches a call from the landlord, who can’t get the Police to come out otherwise. To the body in his hallway, shot dead through the head at close range, only two hours after being released. The body of Gordon Pratt.
The story moved into a fourth episode, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pratt case was just one of several strands, and not the most important. Pembleton and Lewis argued about where to start investigating a white woman killed by a random shot, Felton struggled on his return to work and Munch was embarrassed by an old picture from his hippie days. Meanwhile, the Police turned their backs, collectively and individually, on Gordon Pratt, except for the unlucky Bayliss, who had to work the murder, without back-up, evidence, leads or the least goodwill.
Pratt’s name is doomed to stay in red on the Board from the outset, but there were two moments in the weary, reluctant investigation that stood out. The first came when Bayliss, forced to consider his colleagues as suspects, queried Munch’s alibi: Munch reacted by handing over his gun, inviting Bayliss to test it for ballistics. A clear line is being drawn, and Tim balks at crossing it.
But for fans, who have followed the series to its end, who know what is to come, what was, in 1995, unimagined and unimaginable, the true frisson comes later, at Bayliss’s defeated face, when he tries to engage Pembleton in a philosophical debate about the danger of cops becoming executioners: Frank won’t give an atom of concern: Bayliss is completely alone.
The series wound down towards its end, with Bolander coming to the fore in a pair of fine episodes, and Tim’s cousin Jim Bayliss (guest star David Morse) appearing in a seemingly simple story – inspired, Law and Order style, by a true life, non-David Simon incident – that dealt with under-the-skin racial attitudes.
Russert’s situation was finally dealt with: she’d been dumped upon once more in the shooting three-parter, ordered by the brass to investigate how the matter had come about, with a view to scapegoating Giardello for signing off on a warrant with a mistyped address. Reluctant it might have been, and Russert did valiantly defend her co-worker, but not before she had been further painted as a bosses patsy.
The solution was promotion: Giardello exposed Colonel Grainger over having used his relatives to carry out sloppy repairs, Barnfather was promoted to Colonel and, instead of the obvious choice as the new Captain, with his thirty years of experience, Gee was passed over in favour of Russert and demographics. There would be no further strain about bringing her into the storylines.
Though the underlying lack of trust the show demonstrated towards Russert as a character was demonstrated by having virtually her first act as a Captain undermined by Giardello.
That left the question of renewal. Homicide had thrown down the gauntlet over the option for a back half season, but it was still not delivering the audience NBC wanted, nor even the audience earned by the ‘second’ season. Cancellation seemed imminent. So convinced were the team of this that Barry Levinson himself returned to direct the season finale, typical only in its atypicality, an oddball story, low key, distant, focussing not on the detectives but on guest star Bruno Kirby, playing a recently released landlord who’d been put away by Pembleton when his failure to repair gas systems killed tenants. Kirby’s character stalked Pembleton, intent on killing him, eventually trapping him, but finding himself incapable of killing.
It was quirky, but it was an unsatisfactory season finale and an even more unsatisfactory series closer, so it’s a very good thing that NBC showed faith in the series by finally commissioning a full twenty-two episode season for season 4.

Kay Howard

Overall, it was a good season. Though Homicide had had to compromise upon its basic principles, it had stood its ground in its central determination to reflect the reality of policing in modern America, and in its determination to see its subject from as many different directions as possible. The series developed a core of committed, talented writers, who kept characterisation consistent, and attracted a series of guest stars who would add to the show’s reputation for mixing frequently very dark comedy into its take on the grimness of the industrial city.
The show enjoyed its first, unofficial crossover with the much more procedural Law and Order when Chris Noth turned up in an ‘open’ as Detective Mike Logan, delivering a prisoner (himself played by cult Director John Waters) to Frank Pembleton whilst maintaining a studied New Yorker’s superiority over no-mark Baltimore.
My own favourite guest appearance came from Gary d’Addario as Lieutenant Chris Jaspers, head of the Quick Response Team, who clashed with Pembleton over police tactics during the pursuit of Glen Holten. Not a major scene of any kind, except that d’Addario wasn’t an actor, though he held his own flawlessly, amongst superb actors like Andre Braugher. Gary d’Addario was a serving Baltimore Police Officer: he is the original of Al Giardello in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
So the show had survived its first change of cast and, despite the uncertainty still underlying that change, was renewed and stronger than ever. But Homicide was never destined to be stable, and when it returned it would be without two members of its cast.