Why You Should Be Watching Louis C.K.’s 'Horace and Pete'

Louis C.K. offers you a story in installments and counts on you betting on him. And it's worth betting on.

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Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi in 'Horace and Pete.'
Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi in 'Horace and Pete.'Credit: Courtesy

For seven weeks I’ve been holding my tongue (actually my fingers hovering over my keyboard) about Louis C.K.’s new series “Horace and Pete.” I’ve been savoring the successive samples of this comedian’s genius in the splendid solitude of my sojourns with my personal screen. Having accumulated enough data to describe, define and assess the outstanding and original qualities of Louis’ latest creative endeavour, I’m simply bursting at the seams to tell you all (okay, not all; no fear of spoilers) about it.

So here goes. “Horace and Pete” – created, written and directed by Louis C.K. (who also plays, or rather, is, Horace) – is a TV series, roughly in the vein of sitcom-cum-soap opera, that redefines the whole set of relations between the creator, the televisual media and the viewer. It gives a whole new – and deeper – meaning to the act of experiencing a visual narrative, lifting it out of the realm of mass media into the sphere of the arts. In it, the most significant things happen between you – the viewers, human individuals with biases, fears and preferences – and the characters on-screen and their creator, without a buffer or mediator of any kind.

I’m not sure it can be labelled as TV at all, since it is not “on,” programmed or scheduled by a TV provider, network, channel or cable. Neither is it “released” upon you as a whole season to binge on or view at your leisure, like Netflix’s “House of Cards.” It just arrives one day in your mailbox (that is, if you accessed Louis’ site at one time and left your e-mail address there) with a laconic one-liner: “‘Horace and Pete,’ episode one, $5, click here.”

Those who succumbed to the temptation – five bucks is more than the usual price for downloads – were irresistibly drawn (and quartered) into a slice of life in a family-owned, 100-year-old bar in Brooklyn, where they sell only one kind of beer (Budweiser, as if to highlight the fact that all the characters are sadder but wiser). They don’t mix drinks (but the Scotch is diluted with 50 percent water). Horace is a fiftyish guy, living alone in a flat above the bar, single, divorced with two 23-year-old children who are not twins. He runs the bar with his cousin Pete (played by Steve Buscemi), also a fiftyish loner who spent 10 years in a mental institution and now can function as long as he takes his meds. The two cater to the alcoholic and other needs of regular and chance customers; they are prone to offering drinks on the house, and never reluctant to throw patrons out if they feel like it.

In a way, the show is a metaphor for the world at large: Two flawed and confused deities – Horace and Pete – try to maintain the original structure (the bar as created by the original Horace and Pete a century ago) and fit into changing mores and manners. On another level, it may be seen as a metaphor of the innards of a perplexed personality, with Horace as the “ego” and Pete as the “id” (or the other way around, depending on the episode). The Pete of the previous generation, an amazingly lively, vicious and grumbling octogenarian (played by Alan Alda) serves as a sort of obsolete super-ego. Horace’s sister Sylvia (Edie Falco), is battling cancer; she is scathingly businesslike, without a shred of compassion for anyone, least of all herself. Sylvia also serves as an alter ego to both Horace and Pete, trying to steer the plot her way. (She is also possibly Pete’s sister, which is too complicated to explain here.)

The main thing Louis C.K. has achieved is to cut out the middlemen. He does not have to conform to any existing constraints, and has no fear whatsoever of viewers zapping off. He can introduce a new character of whom we know nothing, and make her deliver a one-shot, nine-minute monologue to the camera about matters intensely intimate. The viewer is transfixed by the story, trying to understand who the character is and to whom she is talking. It gives Louis unlimited creative freedom. It also creates an intense personal bond between him and the viewer.

Unlike TV, where you become part of a faceless multitude of viewers who are being manipulated by the series runners and the providers’ whims, “Horace and Pete” is between the creator and you. He offers you a story in installments and counts on you betting on him. It is a relatively small bet (first episode was $5, the second $2, and the rest are $3). No strings attached and no commitments. He delivers one episode (they vary in length) per week, on Saturdays (for weekend viewing), and you also get an e-mail that makes it very personal (“Hey there, (“there” is your name, right?)”).

But much more personal is what happens on screen, in the fictional world of Horace and Pete, with Horace’s children or the girl Pete had a date with and brings home to meet his family. This series is about the way people in the real world – as opposed to the fictional world of other TV series and sitcoms – treat each other. In one of the episodes a character tells Horace, “You are skilled in justifying horrible behavior.” In a way, that is what “Horace and Pete” is about: the horrible way we tend to treat each other, with life going on and lives going to the dogs.

And yet, each episode touches a sore point of contemporary life, treating it in a way that is both wildly funny (no audience, no canned laughter; the jokes just hang in the air) and deeply serious, stirring a depth of conflicting emotions. Episode seven, for instance, tackled the issue of “sexual preferences,” with all its transgender intricacies, including a wild retelling of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah by one of the bar regulars. And there are topical references aplenty: In his e-mail delivering episode six, Louis penned a scathing anti-Trump salvo, comparing him to Hitler (who was also a guy with a funny hairdo at the start of his career). In episode seven one of the bar regulars responded to this, advising that “Sodomite of a comedian KC Louistein” to shut his mouth, as “not everyone is a Hitler.”

The most beautiful thing about the whole of “Horace and Pete” (the series and the way it is being made and marketed) is, in my view, that it becomes somehow like reading a really good book. You experience it in an intimate way, between you and your personal screen, and it manages to involve you deeply, so you seek others who have seen the episode, because you need to share whatever you felt with others who saw it. It makes you want to talk it over.

Week after week, Louis manages to surpass himself yet again. There is no way of knowing how many episodes he plans, and where it’s all going to lead. Very much like life itself.