“Horace and Pete” is a Russian doll of surprises. Comic heavyweight Louis C.K. released it Jan. 30 without any prior announcement or publication, which is probably for the best. That’s not to say the series is bad; quite the contrary. But it’s definitely challenging.
The pilot, the only episode yet released, comes together like a two-act play. The first act is one very long scene, ending with a depressing sucker punch of a monologue. Then follows an intermission (an actual solid minute or so of black) and a faster paced second act.
It’s not your typical comedian’s sitcom. Whereas C.K.’s “Louis” fulfills that typical comic breakthrough (albeit with his unique style), “Horace and Pete” is something entirely new, at least in this context.
There’s black comedy (the morbid) and blue comedy (the profane), and C.K. is well versed in both, but his standup has always had an unmatched weight of misery to it. He delivers it well, absolutely owning the misery and embracing it to the extent that you can’t help but find some weird comfort in it.
“If you can survive disappointment you can survive anything,” C.K. says. It’s both depressing and motivating.
“Horace and Pete” is more like a grey comedy, or a comedy color like that brownish mush you get when you mix all the paint together. It forces you to rethink what a comedy is.
In common usage today, a comedy is something that makes you laugh. “Horace and Pete” doesn’t do that. In old timey literary usage, a comedy is a work with a happy ending. “Horace and Pete” certainly doesn’t do that.
But I still want to call it a comedy. It feels like a comedy. It’s like C.K. (as a writer and director) is using all of the tropes and conventions so intrinsic to modern comedy in telling a serious, sad drama.
The basic premise sounds unoriginal: two brothers own a family bar, there’s an obscene old man character and a bunch of quirky drunkards. The family is dysfunctional. Viewers assume comic misadventures follow.
C.K. plays his typical everyman character, Horace. He’s deeply frustrated by life but doesn’t have any real faith that anything can ever change, not unlike the fictionalized version of C.K. he plays in “Louis” or his standup.
Steve Buscemi co-stars as Pete. He’s not the smarmy Buscemi of “Fargo,” the scheming Buscemi of “Boardwalk Empire” or the scaly Buscemi of “Monsters Inc.” He’s a surprisingly sincere, sympathetic, psychotic shlub.
The first act is high concentrate sadness to set the stage. We see Horace’s broken relationship with his daughter, Pete facing a relapse after losing access to his medication and an impending legal suit from the pair’s sister which threatens the business.
The first act drags. It’s the hardest part. It’s not funny or even really topically entertaining in any traditional sense, but it’s transfixing. Horace and Pete’s miserable existence pulls us in like a sinking ship.
Within the 30-minute scene that is the first act, there’s one particular engagement between Horace and his daughter at table. For minutes Pete just sits between them looking miserable.
The second act is faster but still pretty slow paced. After the first act sets the stage, the second is more of a series of quick parables and debates united by many of the same pessimistic themes prevalent in C.K.’s standup.
The ending is satisfying for a pilot. There are plenty of loose strings for a sustained series.
It’s about a lot of things: fundamentally disturbed families, finance-defying business models, and most of all, misery. Misery is the show’s aesthetic. Some of it seems entirely unnecessary other than for adding texture to the pervading misery of it. Just listen to the monologue closing the first act.
“Horace and Pete” is worth watching. It’s not a comedy in any traditional sense, but it seems fit perfectly within the expectations of comedy as a craft. It’s poignant and deeply sad. It shows C.K. completely rethinking the ways that he expresses the feelings central to his comedy.
Christopher McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.