Just as Beyoncé, the reigning pop queen, pulled the rug out from under the world with an outta-nowhere single the day before her Super Bowl performance, Louis C.K. has similarly found value in surprise. C.K.’s boldest project yet materialized from nothingness a few weeks ago and took everyone off balance: Horace and Pete. That one of the greatest living comedians could assemble a cast including such accomplished actors as Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange, Alan Alda, and Edie Falco for what presents itself as a tangential vanity project is impressive. That he could do so completely in secret until the absolute moment the show was ready to be unceremoniously unveiled for anyone with a wi-fi signal and five bucks is nothing short of astonishing.
This unorthodox release heralded the arrival of a doubly unorthodox show, a work of drama and entertainment that leans against the definitions of “show” in the first place. Many reviews — including our own — described the program as a “filmed play,” which may have been fair at the time, when the first of three-so-far installments looked like a standalone release. But with episodes coming at a steady clip every Saturday, C.K. has held fast to the serialization that marks this project as television, or more accurately, a precious and rare hybrid of the two. Freed from the systemic constraints of TV, shrugging off its installment-based mode of storytelling without fully parting with it, C.K. has successfully compressed the best parts of Broadway into one and a half gigabytes. The waiting period for Hamilton tickets runs somewhere between seven and 13 years, but a powerful theatrical experience can be had for a few dollars in the comfort of your own bed.
Horace and Pete courts the “filmed play” descriptor most glaringly through a visual threadbareness that draws attention to its artifice before the viewer gets acclimated to it. Minimalism and simplicity dictate the design of the program, and in all likelihood, betray the modest budget that C.K. had to throw this thing together. Everything takes place in one of three rooms, either the main bar, the living room in Horace’s apartment upstairs, or Horace’s bedroom. The spartan sets accommodate the multi-camera setup associated with laugh-tracked sitcoms of yore, and the bright lights that flood every scene contribute to an overall flat aesthetic diverging both from the cinematic vibe currently fashionable in prestige dramas, as well as C.K.’s own Louie, a show unafraid to conduct wild formal experiments. At least on the surface, the closest antecedent to Horace and Pete would be C.K.’s orphaned HBO series Lucky Louie, a conspicuously cheap-looking sitcom that performed the postmodern equivalent of a self-vivisection every week, examining the phoniness of the sitcoms on which C.K. was raised and finding heaps of discontentment.
But the genuflection to the tradition of theatre runs deeper than the program’s most superficial layer. Horace and Pete moves at a pace so gradual, most TV programs fighting to hold viewers from commercial to commercial wouldn’t dare attempt it. It’s a contemplative show that privileges character over plot to the point that the infinitesimal changes that take place within the characters might as well be the plot. Dialogue and silence are Horace and Pete‘s only tools, but it uses them both to devastating effect. The third episode opens with Laurie Metcalf in a no-nonsense medium shot that remains transfixed on her as she relates the mesmerizing, heartrending story of an awkward encounter with her father-in-law that may or may not be of a sexual nature. Without any introduction or additional context — we don’t know who she is or what she’s talking about, and the frame even squeezes out any indicators that we are indeed inside the bar — she addresses her unseen companion slowly and steadily, monologuing for more than nine minutes before the shot first cuts to reveal C.K. sitting across from her.
Metcalf has nowhere to hide. As she describes literally laying herself bare, the static shot winnows away anything that could possibly distract from the hypnotic performance unfolding onscreen. And it works, mostly because Metcalf is firing on all cylinders through the 40 spellbinding minutes that make up this single scene. (What I’m saying is we need to invent a new acting award and give it to Laurie Metcalf. Maybe name it after her, too. The Lauries kind of has a nice ring to it.) HBO’s masterly In Treatment wasn’t afraid to depend on a talented ensemble and a well-made script to carry it, sitting undiscovered talents like Mia Wasikowska, Alison Pill, and Dane DeHaan down for half-hours at a time and stand patiently by as they do some virtuosic, carefully-studied acting.
What’s more, the loosely theatrical presentation affords Horace and Pete the flexibility to touch on any topic it so pleases. If Seinfeld was the show about nothing, digging into the minutiae of human behavior, and Louie was the show about everything, encompassing subjects as varied as racism, the fear of God, and the ecstasy and agony of pan-frying chicken, then Horace and Pete has ample room to wiggle right on into the middle. With a cast of characters conversationally ricocheting off of one another as everyone gets sloshed and no plot to push them around, the dialogue can drift gracefully in and out of Big Ideas and person-to-person drama. The pilot episode could be the most vital work of art about American politics released in the modern era, working through some lightly didactic tetes-a-tete about the two-party system of government and positing the siblings’ dispute over the rightful ownership of the title bar as a canny allegory for the upcoming Presidential election as a national turning point. Like Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, another clear ancestor, the show revolves around people who feel trapped in their own lives, but are unwilling or unable to jolt themselves out of it. As the various patrons of the bar chew the cud and wait for the end of another day, their chatter can shift from something as banal as awkward flirting to profound philosophizing.
No way that this guy is American theatre’s new pre-eminent dramatist, a title and level of prestige that would most likely make him uncomfortable. (I don’t see him going by Louis Székely any time soon.) But C.K. is trying something radically different with Horace and Pete, and it’d behoove Netflix junkies to take notice. He’s making use of his unprecedented creative freedom to synthesize an unusual mixture of sitcom and high drama, gifting a moving triumph of the stage and screen to anyone interested for little more than a song. C.K. has not yet stated how long he intends on keeping this up for, only reinforcing the spontaneous live-wire sensation that accompanies the release of each new episode. All audiences can do now is give thanks that someone’s still pushing the boundaries of what TV can be and do — the off-off-Broadway ensembles that’ll inevitably stage Horace and Pete can just mail him a royalty check.