Reviews, Screen, TV

Horace and Pete TV review –Cheers crossed with Death of a Salesman

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Fans of Louis C.K. have been treated to a surprise. In late January subscribers to the American comedian and actor’s email list received, seemingly out of nowhere, news that a previously undiscussed new show called Horace and Pete was available to rent or stream via his website.
Initially C.K. provided no plot synopsis or information about its regularity. There was nothing to suggest there would be several episodes or only the one that was initially uploaded, which runs for 67 minutes. There have subsequently been eight, with one released every week. They have no set length (the shortest is 30 minutes) and vary in price – either $5 or $3.
This is no a cheapo reality TV series shot with wobbly handheld cameras in a comedy club; Horace and Pete is narrative-scripted drama with real pedigree. C.K. (also writer, director and creator) stars as one of the leads and is supported by recurring cast members including Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange, Alan Alda and Edie Falco. Paul Simon wrote and performed an original theme song.
C.K. fans may have been the first to get the skinny but the show – what do we call it, “webseries”? – is very different to the performer’s dick and masturbation joke-laden oeuvre. Following serious performances in TV and films such as Blue Jasmine and Trumbo, and the many dramatic undercurrents in his five season sit-com Louie, it is part of his trek into drama. And now, his trek to become dramatist.
The setting is a run-down 100-year-old family-owned dive bar, where the staff and regulars are either angry or sad. Not a single person in this show is happy or pretending to be. Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Buscemi) are the titular characters, the owners whose fathers went by the same name.
Their sister Sylvia (Edie Falco) has cancer and wants to sell the building, understanding the real estate is worth a mint. Marsha (Lange) was Horace’s late father’s partner, one of a glum but opinionated group of barflies.
There is considerable talk of economic and political circumstances in between grief-stricken conversations and bursts of bickering (as well as many laugh-out-loud moments).
Horace and Pete moves like a filmed play. C.K. has subsequently revealed it is shot week to week, with very short turnaround. The first episode in particular, which includes an intermission and a reference to Donald Trump’s ascension, feels like Cheers crossed with Death of a Salesman. Episode five concludes with the words “end of act one”.
The character who really makes sparks fly is the resident old grouch and bartender, Uncle Pete. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool, things-were-better-back-then type who walks around in a permanent funk — angry, intolerant and irascible. The sort of hard-as-nails old codger who doesn’t understand concepts like mental illness — you feel bad, you get over it — but is clearly suffering from a cocktail of them himself.
Played with monstrous charm by Alda, the words “scene-stealing” feel like understatement. The 80-year-old actor fires off F and C words as if they were bullets from a handgun and works himself into a tizzy. You’ve never seen Alda revved up like this before, and it’s glorious. His performance alone is reason enough to watch it.
Uncle Pete’s old timey disposition is also an effective way in for C.K. to contemplate a topic clearly on his mind: how a modern economy might, or ought to work if it maintains a foot in liberalism as well as individualism. An argument arises when a hipster newcomer to the bar (they stand out like sore thumbs) complains that the man next to him (a regular) was charged $3 for his beer, while he was charged $4.50.
When he asks why, Horace responds: “If he looks like him he pays $3. If he looks like you he pays $4.50.” The young man is upset. Is it because he’s gay, or Jewish? Horace resolves the dispute by convincing the hipster he’s actually getting greater value for money: you’re here ironically and get to make fun of the place and get the beer, he explains, while the other guy just gets the beer.
Other scenes similarly use the setting as a kind of socio-economic crucible, where traditional values rub up against a world that has generally moved on. When a financial auditor arrives, he is aghast to discover Uncle Pete doesn’t have a salary. He just helps himself to the register according to how much he needs and how well the business is going.
There are moments when the show gets achingly personal, such as a superbly written dialogue exchange between Horace and his ex-wife Sarah (Laurie Metcalf) which explores her erotic encounters with her 84-year-old father-in-law. The opening shot is a close-up of Metcalf (another great performance) that runs uncut for over nine minutes. Almost the entire episode is constructed as a shot-reverse-shot, the conversation venturing into dark and personal territory.
The experimental format leads to some patchy moments — spots in episode two feel particularly languid — but Horace and Pete is a rare example of a show ultimately enhanced by its imperfections. There is a feeling genuinely new and interesting territory is being explored, and that Louie C.K. has finally, unquestionably come of age.
Previously by Luke Buckmaster:
London has Fallen (but xenophobia is doing fine)

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