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Thursday, January 21, 2021

'Horace and Pete' captures American moment

In our fast-paced platinum age of TV, a show foregone is too often vanished in the void, maybe a gem to be unearthed by a future socio-archaeologist, maybe a treasure committed to eternity.  Subsisting with this embarrassing extravagance, I watch as much TV as humanly possible.  Last week, I wrestled a prize from the gravity of evanescence.

The Harvey Weinstein allegations splashed across the internet in 2017.  "Me Too" got a hashtag, and so many of our screen stars were plucked from reverence that it wasn't easy to keep track of who was on the outs and whom we still could watch.  Relative qualitative assessment of sin was not a lawful plea.  Hollywood was blanched in black and white, and the implicated were expeditiously expatriated.  Here, certainly, I'm not meaning to diminish #MeToo, nor to opine on the merits of any accused, but only to observe the outcome.

Comedian Louis CK was out.  He already had been grist for the rumor mill, and then ugly accusations surfaced.  King Louis was deposed before the curtain closed on 2017.  He had not been a favorite of mine anyway, so, to be honest, I barely noticed.

Edie Falco in 2009
So there were a lot of reasons why I, and a lot of people, missed Horace and Pete (short trailer below, from Hulu via YouTube).  CK created, wrote, directed, and starred in the series in 2016.  It was a 10-episode television drama, sort of.  Really it was an experimental web series.  It was experimental in how it was made, a budget crowd-sourcing operation that filmed, episode to episode, only as funding goals were reached.  CK sought both to pioneer a democratic model for making online TV and, with full transparency, to publish the model so that others could do it, too.  That business model didn't work out.  But A for aspiration.

The show also was experimental for what it was: a TV show, on a set, yes.  But through scene structure, stage direction, blocking, cuts (or lack thereof), and especially dialog, the show exudes the intimacy of a live stage play, and every viewer has the best seats.  Sometimes the actors make mistakes, let slip a sly smile, or trip over a line, but the camera carries on.  Longer episodes even have an "Intermission"—the word burns for a minute, white type on a black screen, suggesting that sets and costumes are changing behind the electronic curtain.  One is given the impression that crowd-sourcing doesn't swell the budget for endless takes and post-production wizardry.  The ultimate effect is to make the viewer feel like an insider in the conceit of the art.

And art it is.  CK stars as the eponymous Horace, owner of a rundown Brooklyn bar, Horace and Pete's, and its apartment above.  The bar survived the 20th century as the inheritance of generations of Horaces and Petes.  Now, a hundred years on, the bar, and the family, might have entered their coda.  The script bears ample evidence of CK's signature wit, droll style, and sardonic frown.  But the story is thoroughly a tragedy.  In the distinctively American tradition of Death of a Salesman, Horace and Pete is unrelenting with its occasions for despair, and yet, somehow, manages to illuminate the silver linings of family, loyalty, and love.

Alan Alda
CK the star might be the least compelling actor of the principal cast, and that seems to be exactly his plan.  The show is sumptuously star studded, and CK wrote for himself a central yet characteristically subdued role that serves to intensify others' shine.  As Horace's sister, Sylvia, Edie Falco does her most moving work since The Sopranos.  As present-generation Pete, the abundantly accomplished Steve Buscemi has done nothing else quite like this to date.

As the elder "Uncle Pete," the incomparable Alan Alda turns in a career-capstone performance, the omega to the broken-protagonist alpha of Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, 33 years before.  Jessica Lange brings elegance to the dispirited surviving love interest of an elder Horace, and Aidy Bryant is incandescent as the aggravatingly unforgiving estranged daughter of CK's Horace.

The cast is rounded out with a stunning breadth of stand-up talents, often offering edgy and well-tuned comic relief, who take turns as bar flies.  The list is too long to give it its due, a who's who of contemporary American comedy.  So I'll mention only my favorites: Steven Wright and Kurt Metzger banter throughout the series.  Amy Sedaris, Michelle Wolf, and Colin Quinn get an episode each.  And there are cameos, too.  Mayor Bill de Blasio drops in the bar as himself, and magician David Blaine tries to trade a trick for a drink.

CK with a Peabody in 2013
(Photo by Anders Krusberg
/Peabody Awards CC BY 2.0)

Horace and Pete earned some critical acclaim before it dropped off the radar.  It won a Peabody Award in 2016 "[f]or a truly independent and groundbreaking demonstration of how quality television is expertly done in the new media environment, all the while building upon decades of artistry and craft."  And then there was 2017.

The show might be rising the recommendation ranks at Hulu now because CK spent 2020 at hard labor on the rehabilitation road.  Again, I'm not opining on the appropriate consequences for, or redemption eligibility of, a #MeToo offender.

The fact that I cannot escape is that too many people gave too much and worked too hard on Horace and Pete, and the sum of what they made is too valuable, to write it off.  Label it with whatever disclaimers one must, #MeToo and financial failure.  Amid our transition from broadcast frequencies to the electronic multiverse, Horace and Pete nevertheless represents a pivotal moment in cultural creation and a searing snapshot of the American condition.

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