Sunday, January 31, 2016

REVIEW: 'Horace and Pete' - Tradition and a Changing World Clash in a Family Owned Bar in 'Episode 1'

Louis C.K.'s Horace and Pete - Episode 1

An hourlong dramatic play with an all-star cast including Louis C.K., Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Rebecca Hall, Aidy Bryant, Jessica Lange and Alan Alda.

It was such a surprise yesterday to learn that Louis C.K. had released a new television series on his website, It was released with no advance warning. Something that is completely unexpected - and thus, totally exciting - in this industry. It's so difficult to release a new show without any advance warning that it's coming. So many of the production details have to go right in order to keep it a secret. Moreover, the cast and crew have to be willing not to promote it in advanced even though it's something they are heavily involved in. Horace and Pete has one very impressive and accomplished cast. This is a great project for all of them. That just makes it more impressive that such a stealth release was able to happen this weekend. All of these people were able to come together and film this show. And then, C.K. was just able to release it on his site without a whole lot of effort - just an email to subscribers of the site saying it's there to purchase for $5 without any details about what it actually is.

It's likely something that only C.K. could have pulled off. He has the infrastructure on his site to make this a reality. He's previously released comedy specials from both himself and several of his comedy friends on the site for five dollars. More importantly, he has the influence to create such a genre-bending series and fill it with some terrific dramatic actors. The finished product is a tad rough around the edges. But it's also such an exciting throwback to the type of filmed stage productions that used to be so popular in the medium during the 1950s. The fact that it's being released in such an usual way fits in perfectly with the style and tone of the piece as well. The industry has been changing for a long time now. Shows can literally pop up anywhere - and without much notice. That's both a terrifying and exciting prospect for fans and critics alike. Sure, it means one more thing that needs to get covered on this site. But C.K. is such a proven talent as an actor, writer and director that it's easy to spend the money and watch the 67 minute experiment he has put forth into the world.

Horace and Pete takes place at a bar of the same name that is entering its 100th year of operation. It has always been managed by a Horace and a Pete - typically being passed down by generations. Sometimes it's brothers running the place and sometimes it's cousins. But that's the way that it has always been done. The current owners are C.K.'s Horace and Steve Buscemi's Pete. At the start of the hour, the two are falling into the same routine that they've always done with this business. They open it up with very little excitement or urgency. But this opening sequence also tells us so much about the characters. Horace doesn't always do a great job at expressing himself. In fact, he turns innocent situations into hurtful arguments because he doesn't know how to voice his opinion to the outside world. Meanwhile, Pete is in the background during meticulous work but with something being strangely off about him as well.

Over the course of the episode, the bar opens and the audience gets to see an atypical day at the place. It is filled with regular customers - such as Jessica Lange's Martha - and its veteran bartender - Alan Alda's Uncle Pete, who managed the place with Horace's father, Horace, who passed away a year ago. But the schism between the old traditions and the new ways of life are clashing within the bar. This family is keeping secrets from each other. Most of them aren't worth keeping at all. But those secrets are also defining who these characters are right now in their lives. Horace is happily in a relationship with Rebecca Hall's Rachel but estranged from both of his kids. Meanwhile, Pete has a mental illness and has stopped taking his meds due to a mix up with his changing insurance providers. Uncle Pete is lashing out at the hipsters who have started coming to the bar looking for a traditional dive bar experience - but still looking for specialty drinks and mixed cocktails. And Horace's sister, Edie Falco's Sylvia, is pursuing legal action against the bar due to how terrible it's been doing since their father passed away.

The show is at its best when its focused on exploring and expanding the personal lives of its core family members. The cutaways to the various bar patrons are frequently quite amusing. The show clearly has something it wants to say about the current state of the country and the political arena. Those bits about the Iowa caucus, Donald Trump skipping the most recent debate, and the differences between how conservatives and liberals see themselves and each other largely played as a way to showcase just how close the show's production and release dates were. Plus, it played into the show's overall themes of change overwhelming a sense of tradition that doesn't want to change. That was very enjoyable and got better as the hour went along.

And yet, the show was at its strongest when it was just Horace, Pete, Sylvia, Uncle Pete, Marsha and Sylvia's lawyer at the bar. That sequence showed just how complicated these family dynamics really are and just how defining the secrets between them have been. For fifty years, Horace, Pete and Sylvia have believed that they are all siblings. Instead, Pete is actually Uncle Pete's son who he gave to Horace because he simply doesn't like kids. This truly is a fantastic performance by Alda. It's not flashy due to his fame or rooted in his familial characters. Instead, it's a character that receives so much multi-dimensional texture through his bigoted ways and insistance on keeping things the same way that they've always been done. He's a man who makes sense in the context of the show even though he could easily be written off as the one-note antagonist to the thing that Sylvia wants to get done. It's so much more than. This hour peels back the layers of these characters and shows just how ugly they can be. It's explosive once the family finally hashes things out. But it's also an argument that doesn't accomplish anything. For all of this passionate talk, they are still the same people who make the same mistakes they did before learning these harsh truths. In fact, it only escalates the tension for later.

It's currently unclear how many episodes of Horace and Pete are being produced and when they'll be released on C.K.'s site. And yet, this is such a strong premiere. It's completely satisfying by itself. But it also makes it so engaging and exciting to see what's next for these characters. I can't wait to see more.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Episode 1" was written by Louis C.K. and directed by Louis C.K.
  • It's easy to see why Horace has a horrible time connecting with other people. When his daughter shows up at the bar, he doesn't know how to react or how to actually connect with her in a genuine way. She hates how he wants things to be good all the time. His efforts to change that are always way too much too soon. She barely feels like telling him about her apartment troubles and his solution is to invite her to move in with him.
  • Horace also asks Rachel to move out because it's what he feels like he should do right now. He doesn't have some grand epiphany about the two of them moving in too fast and it ruining their relationship. In fact, their relationship is of very little importance in this episode. But he still manages to screw it up simply because of what he thinks he should do and not what he's really feeling about the situation.
  • Uncle Pete has a close bond with Marsha solely because she was the late Horace's last lover. She stills wants to be seen as the grandmother of the bar - even though she has no familial connection at all. Uncle Pete even encourages it.
  • The best cutaway tangent to a bar patron is when the guy just shows up after getting released from prison to tell the story about him meeting his wife in this place and also killing her after catching her cheating on him in the same bar stool.
  • It's a big reveal that Pete isn't actually Horace and Sylvia's brother. But since they're all in their fifties, it's really not that big of a deal.
  • The stealth release is also something C.K. wanted for the show. He easily could have gone to any network with this project and gotten it picked up. With this cast, that would have been a no brainer. But he wanted to do it this way. He had a vision for what this show was and just wanted to stick to it without any kind of outside influence. That's impressive. But again, it's only something that someone like C.K. could pull off.