1. Horace and Pete

1. Horace and Pete

Horace and Pete and the Lingering Scent of Regret


“Feel-good entertainment”, at this point, is pretty much a misnomer. Any media we consume is intended to distract and compel us in one way or another but, logically, if it succeeds in that endeavour then we’ll ultimately feel good about the time we’ve devoted to it, regardless of the emotions it stirs in us. To that end, Horace and Pete is almost certainly the best time you will spend with a television show this year. That said, watching it will fucking break your spirit and thrust upon you issues that might seem moribund at a funeral. It’s also barely a TV show, having been distributed online by its creator Louis C.K. with absolutely no preemptive marketing and entirely free of the constraints that you would expect even the most liberal network to enforce upon a program. So, there’s that.

Steve Buscemi and Louis C.K. as Pete and Horace, defiantly standing in the wrong order. (Louis C.K.)

The setting: in the year 2016, two middle-aged siblings named Horace and Pete Wittel (C.K. and Steve Buscemi, respectively) are the proprietors of a century-old New York bar that has always, traditionally, been run by a Horace and a Pete within the Wittel family. They both grew up in an apartment above the establishment with their sister Sylvia (Edie Falco) whose memories and appreciation of the place stand in stark contrast to those of her brothers. In this way, the plot echoes the thematic concerns of the show as it regards each character’s past experiences to demonstrate how they butt up against the reality of their predicaments. Horace wishes to preserve the tradition that their ancestors started in erecting the bar in the first place by keeping it running for the small yet dedicated customer base they have. Pete, an acknowledged schizophrenic, just needs somewhere familiar to preserve the cobbled-together normalcy of his fractured adult life. Sylvia, clear-eyed and unapologetic, wants to sell the bar and move on from the incessant wretchedness that each of them has been subjected to throughout their childhood and continuous existence simply by being associated with the place. Additionally, there’s Uncle Pete (Alan Alda, playing ferociously against the genial type he’s cultivated for decades), the oldest living Wittel and the most resistant to any change being visited upon the venue. A crude, stubborn yet, in many ways, sentimentally-inclined old bastard, Pete the Elder continues to pour free drinks for dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic Marsha (a devastating Jessica Lange), the last sexual partner of his late cousin Horace, as a gesture of maintaining the status quo that has informed Horace and Pete’s since its inception.

Pete, Horace and Edie Falco as Sylvia, still coming to terms with what’s become of their lives. (Louis C.K.)

In exploring these characters and the circumstances they occupy, Horace and Pete addresses misery with more honesty than any other show currently on television. This extends not just to those running the bar but the patrons who frequent the place that share the self-same affliction, who are as incapable of escaping the past as they are seeking out another venue or method of dealing with their unhappiness. Regret courses through everyone like a slow-acting poison, potent enough to drain their life force but too weak to actually kill them. There’s Leon (legendary comedian Steven Wright), a long-ago recovered alcoholic who props up the bar every afternoon, sipping apple juice from a shot glass. Kurt (Kurt Metzger), who doesn’t act so much as play his boorish, opinionated, sexist self, takes LSD on the daily and rants about how Trump is something we actually deserve. Tom (Tom Noonan), perhaps the most tragic man in New York (or the world), occasionally tinkers away on the piano and gives one of the saddest speeches I’ve ever heard about loneliness (“I walk around brokenhearted and get drunk. I hate being alone. Someday, it’ll kill me…”). To all of them, Horace and Pete’s is communally accepted as both a cross to bear and a salve for their ailments; it stands as a refuge from and a perpetration of their deep-set depression, a testament to the Stockholm Syndrome that afflicts them all and keeps them tethered to the past. If Sam Malone’s bar from Cheers was a place where everybody recognised you, Horace and Pete’s is where you might be lucky enough to forget your own name. Of course, it never works that way but then, I suppose, that’s what the alcohol is for.

Alan Alda as Uncle Pete. You ever seen M.A.S.H.? Holy shit, is this so not M.A.S.H. (Louis C.K.)

This sad, ungainly group of people seems to find comfort by amassing together to combat their woes, like some bastardized version of a church gathering, despite the well-established fact that a congregation can never offset the burden of personal apathy. They say that misery loves company, but what they ought to say is that it craves distraction and feeds on stagnation. True misery is like the opposite of a shark or a healthy relationship: it dies if it starts moving. This is easily the most common attitude adopted on Horace and Pete, a weary yet comfortable resignation to what the world has wrought. Horace himself represents this mindset at its most stalwart: throughout the series’ 10-episode run, he is confronted with several opportunities to re-evaluate his station in life, almost always (tellingly enough) in the form of a beautiful woman. Maggie (Nina Arianda), a former booty call, comes around one evening to tell Horace about the year she’s spent abroad, where she had a whirlwind marriage to a gorgeous pilot who suddenly dropped dead. The way she speaks about it is incredulous but not angry, like recalling a deeply involving dream she’s not quite sure what to do with. She seems to say, “This shit happened, and it sucked, but I won’t let it define me going forward because I can still live having been through it.” Horace, though, doesn’t seem to grasp her point. Even when his ex-wife Sarah (Laurie Metcalf, completely owning her one scene) visits the bar to discuss his former failings as a husband and basically forgive him for being a cheating arsehole, Horace continues to mire himself in his mistakes and shortcomings. She says she’s proud that he’s found the inner strength to be alone but, in truth, he simply finds it easier than addressing his problems and taking steps to work through them and become a person who could ever successfully be with someone else.

Jessica Lange as Marsha, appearing in one of Horace’s sexual fantasies. You have no idea how much I’m not kidding. (Louis C.K.)

Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack in these ten episodes. They can be funny (half of everything Uncle Pete says or does, for example) and also utterly fucking soul wrenching (the other half), but through it all there shines a faint beacon of hope for the future, a notion that maybe, even if this cycle can’t necessarily be broken, then it can be amended to cause less suffering on those who inherit it. Uncle Pete’s continual kindness towards Marsha, especially when considered in the context of how much physical abuse was visited upon the women of this household in the past, is one of his many attempts to quietly rectify the ills of the past. Later on, in one of several moments in the show that is fascinating for its dynamism and specificity, Uncle Pete has a conversation with Pete the younger, instructing him on the indignity of performing cunnilingus. He speaks of the act with contempt, saying that, “How could you put yourself beneath a woman and ever, ever, expect to rise above another man?” In content, it’s shockingly misogynistic and narrow-minded, seeming almost enough to crumple whatever good will Uncle Pete has generated up to this point through his other words and actions. There’s another level at play here, though, one that adds a sheen of poignancy to the speech: it’s a token of wisdom, however misguided, from an old man to one that will ultimately succeed him, an apology of sorts to the person whom he feels he has let down. Uncle Pete, like a lot of men over the years, stood by and did nothing as he listened to the younger Pete get the shit beat out of him as a child. He essentially abandoned this kid when he needed him the most, at a time when he was least able to defend himself, and so passing on this information now, telling him to listen and please God understand this one thing: “Love is when you hold a woman up close to you… and you look her in the face, eye-to-eye.” It’s crazy, strange and almost overwhelmingly moving.

Uncle Pete and Pete, sharing a weird, beautiful moment together, talking about eating pussy. This fucking show, man. (Louis C.K.)

To summarise (not just Horace & Pete but in general) it appears that 2016 was, for whatever reason, a year for casting our gaze backwards, in television and across the cultural landscape. Match Game was a rejiggered ‘60s lark; Stranger Things preferred the ‘80s; The Circus followed a candidate who swore to bring about greatness again; HarmonQuest pretended that we were those kids in the basement from Stranger Things; Christ, we even had two fucking shows about O.J. Simpson, both timely reflections of where America currently finds itself. It seems fitting, then, that the year’s best new show would be one where its characters are incapable of looking forward, whose minds are so fixed on the past that there might as well not be a future. I’m sure that’s not the case but, if this really is it, there are definitely worse ways to go out.


The entire series of Horace and Pete is available for download at Louis C.K.’s website for $31. Do yourself a favour.

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