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 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 episode 3

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.

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…