Review: ‘Horace and Pete’ concludes as one of the very best dramas you’ll see

(This column starts off talking about Horace and Pete in relatively general terms, for the benefit of the people who still haven’t watched but are curious about sampling it. I’ll get to spoilers for the finale midway through, with another warning before that.)

Horace and Pete, Louis C.K.’s drama about a Brooklyn bar that’s been run by the same family for 100 years, came to an end over the weekend, with even less fanfare than it had on arrival. News of the first episode simply appeared in the inboxes of people on the email list that just said “Go here to watch it. We hope you like it.” Saturday morning, the email read, “I have nothing clever to say. But I would like you very much to know that episode 10 of Horace and Pete is ready right here.” That this was going to be the final episode of the story wasn’t even hinted at, which seemed appropriate for a series that reveled in keeping its audience in the dark, so they could be surprised when an episode began with a nine-minute close-up of Laurie Metcalf delivering an amazing monologue amazingly.

This was yet another way that Horace was a throwback to the earliest days of television. C.K. designed the thing as a series of filmed plays, evoking the best of Playhouse 90, Studio One, and the other live anthology series that dominated TV drama in the 1950s, and those came out in a time when television was covered, but not in the breathless, all-access fashion we experience now, where we know half of everything that’s going to happen in a given show long before we see it. This was a weekly surprise appearing from out of the void – albeit a digital void that wasn’t possible even five years ago(*), let along 60 – and all the more pleasurable for how little we knew when we fired up each episode.

(*) Though in hindsight – especially given all the surprise albums the music industry has dropped over the last few years – we should have seen this coming. That C.K. could make a show like this, with a cast (including C.K. himself, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, and Jessica Lange) this impressive, in complete secrecy, and distribute it on his own rather than through FX or HBO or Netflix, would have been shocking even a couple of years ago. Now? Well, now it’s still shocking, but I at least feel like I’ve been punched in the face instead of being hit in the back with a folding chair. I could see this one coming, even if I wasn’t entirely ready for it.

Given all that, there’s a part of me that feels reluctant to mention that the tenth episode was the finale. But it became pretty clear early on that this was meant to be a summation of all that C.K. had done in the previous nine installments. You’ll recognize it’s the ending long before things happen in the story to make that definitive.

Besides, every time I have written about this show, I’ve gotten questions from people who haven’t watched and are wondering if it’s worth the investment of time and money – which, after C.K. lowered the price following the first episode, came out to $31 for the whole series. In an age where a month of a streaming subscription costs much less than that, while offering far more content, that may seem a steep cost. But it’s not that simple. If C.K. had mounted some kind of streamlined version of this story as an actual Broadway play, with this amazing cast doing some of their best work ever – Alan Alda is one of this medium’s greatest actors, and his performance as the vile, pathetic, foul-mouthed Uncle Pete outstrips everything he’s done before – a good ticket would have cost you a whole lot more. (For that matter, buying a season of a show a la carte from Amazon or iTunes can cost a similar amount to what C.K. ultimately charged.) Making and distributing the show on his own meant C.K. didn’t have to make compromises – for all the talk of his creative freedom on Louie, he does still have to have conversations with the executives at FX, and this show is so uncommercial and counter to most current TV trends that even John Landgraf might have balked at ordering it as is – but it also meant that some of the cost of his vision gets passed onto the consumer.

I’m never going to tell someone who doesn’t do this for a living the best way to spend their entertainment dollar, and particularly on something as specific and dark as this. But I will say that this is easily the best show I’ve watched so far in 2016, and that other contenders (whether the rest of this season of The Americans, or the final season of The Leftovers, whenever it airs, or something coming from out of left field) will have to work very hard to surpass it. This wasn’t a perfect, polished work of art. It was messy. It tried a lot of things, many of which worked, some of which (having the barflies debate current events) didn’t quite. But those performances, and the work done in crafting the characters and having them shoulder the weight of generations and traditions, were extraordinary. It was grim, it was thoughtful, it was on occasion shockingly hilarious, and it wasn’t quite like anything anyone’s attempted in TV before. Even in this golden age of experimentation in comedy and drama, that’s hard to do, let alone to do it as well as nearly everyone involved in Horace and Pete did what they did.

Also, it ended. It tells a complete story over the course of these 10 installments, and while it leaves a few loose threads here and there, that $31 brings with it a complete and engrossing entertainment experience. I plunked down the 5 bucks for the first episode just because I wanted to see what on Earth C.K. was up to instead of making more Louie. After that, I paid the lower price because I knew the next episode was likely to be the highlight of my viewing week (and, cumulatively, of my viewing year). I don’t know exactly how he pulled all of this off, and I’m glad the cone of silence is starting to lift so that C.K. can tell us how he accomplished all of the magic we saw over the last few months, but it was wonderful.

Now, for the finale spoilers, which are coming up just as soon as I can only have one 10-year-old friend…

That we open the episode 40 years in the past felt like the right summation of all that had come before. Horace and Pete’s, we were told over and over, was a bar with a rich tradition, passed down from one generation of the Wittel family to the next, with everything done just as it had been since 1916. Things were always done a certain way, and would always be done a certain way. In the premiere, Uncle Pete sold this as a great thing, but the series had offered us ample evidence of the lasting damage that traditions can cause. The extended flashback to 1976, with many of the show’s actors playing representatives of the previous generation – C.K. as Horace the 7th, Falco as Horace’s battered wife Marian, Buscemi as Uncle Pete – only underlined the many ways that all this had happened before, and would keep happening again because of tradition, DNA, and the extraordinary difficulty of changing your life around.

Horace’s father is an angrier, scarier man than his son – it’s a credit to C.K. both as performer and director that most of his abuse is presented so matter-of-factly (the casual way he pulls Marian away from the door when she’s trying to escape speaks volumes about how much he dominates her) – but the end result is the same, with both men driving away their wives and children, to the point where Horace the 9th never gets to know his father at all. Uncle Pete (living in the same room off the side of the bar where his biological son will reside decades later) is just as aggrieved and cruel back then, and we learn that he’s been telling the same awful tee-ball story about Horace for 40 damn years. Even though many (but not all) of the barflies are played by actors new to the show, their arguments about then-current events suggests a version of the TV show that could have existed at the time if the technology were different. (Imagine if Norman Lear could have written, produced, and aired each episode of All in the Family within the span of a week, and with no interference from CBS!)

The series had gone to some dark places in the past, but because there are kids, and violence, involved, these scenes are much uglier than anything that’s come before. It’s mortifying enough to hear Uncle Pete tell the tee-ball story in front of a middle-aged Horace; for him to physically restrain the little kid version, for whom the memory is still fresh and humiliating? Horrible. And for Marian to use the beating of her adopted son as cover so she can make her escape with the other two kids? On top of Uncle Pete hearing what’s being done to the boy he knows is his, and doing nothing about it? That’s at once monstrous and sadly understandable, given what we know of them both.

(Even when things were going well for young Pete, those scenes hit hard, because we knew that this charming and confident kid was destined for a life of pain and loneliness.)

The flashbacks also drove home exactly why Sylvia is so desperate to escape the bar – and to have Horace do the same – when we return to the present. There are some good things in this place, like that 100-year-old bottle up on the high shelf, but we already knew it had been home to a lot of misery. The dramatization of that made the bar feel like more of a trap than ever, and added more power to Falco’s already very powerful performance as Sylvia tried every rhetorical trick she had to convince Horace to run far and fast from the joint. The only reason he had kept the place open as long as he did was to provide a home for Pete, and with Pete (mistakenly) presumed dead, it was just a museum of childhood horrors for them both.

Ricky’s insistence on declaring Pete dead seems to be setting us up for one kind of ending, where Horace sadly closes the bar and struggles to figure out what to do next. The arrival of Amy Sedaris – simultaneously more a force of nature and more human than in any performance I’ve ever seen her give – as would-be waitress Mara then completely upends both our mood and Horace’s. She steamrolls over Horace with the same force Uncle Pete used to use, but in a far kinder and gentler way, until she’s somehow chased all the grief out of his mind and replaced it with joy and possibility. That shouldn’t have worked dramatically, but Sedaris, C.K. (in the single best moment he’s played as an actor, shifting beautifully from devastation to elation and then somewhere in between), and the sweep of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”(**) made it seem wholly natural.

(**) Generally, it’s a bad idea for a director to use a song that Cameron Crowe has already laid cinematic claim to, because odds are the comparison won’t be a flattering one. But given Paul Simon’s involvement in this series, and how much the song spoke to a need Horace had never recognized in himself or accepted before, it wasn’t just acceptable; it was perfect.

And then… well, then, traditions and secrets and madness combine to give the story its tragic, and inevitable in hindsight, ending, where Pete returns to the bar, still in the grip of his illness, and stabs Horace to death right after a very theatrical blackout. Thematically, it’s a nice, if brutal, touch that Horace dies in part because Sylvia had the knife out to prepare for the bar to finally serve mixed drinks. Keeping the bar open out of tradition led Horace to the moment of his death, but so did Sylvia’s breaking of tradition. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

As often happens in plays where something terrible happens during a climactic blackout, there is an epilogue, which gives Sylvia a chance to scold Horace the 9th for never knowing his father (and to finally cry all the tears she held for so long beneath that stony exterior), and offers Harold the opportunity to sum up the entire story in the space of a few elegant, mellifluously delivered, sentences:

“This? This, my friend, is Horace and Pete’s, true heart of Brooklyn. Owned for one hundred years by two brothers, Horace and Pete. Til one day, Pete killed Horace and had to go away. And that’s what happened to Horace and Pete.”

C.K. and I traded emails over the weekend after I’d watched the finale. At one point, he wrote, “It turned out to be, for me, the best thing I ever made. It may be because Louie feels very far in the past. I can”t feel that show anymore. But I am drenched in the feelings that this show and making this show gave me and revealed for me. And the feelings I have for the characters and the fine people who played them and the crew that executed the show for me with such care. I am terribly sad that it”s over and bracing for whatever wild feelings will follow in it”s absence from my daily efforts.

Later, while discussing a particular moment in the finale (Horace’s reaction to Mara’s exit), he wrote, “It just happened that way. This whole show felt like it happened. I don”t feel like I wrote it. I just copied it down. It was very strange.”

However it happened, those of us who watched are extremely lucky that it did. I am literally shaking as I write this sentence and think of the experience of watching the show. Great art – whether it’s live on a stage, filmed for my TV, or something in between – can do that to me. And this was great, great art.

Some other thoughts:

* Another part of what C.K. told me is so good and long that I’ve done a separate post on it, but you should know that Amy Sedaris improvised her entire performance, in every rehearsal and every take.

* C.K. is going to submit this show to the Emmys as a drama, which made perfect sense a few weeks ago, but now maybe seems not quite right. Shouldn’t this belong in the miniseries categories, even if that means Alda and company will be competing against all the great people from Fargo and The People v. O.J. Simpson?

* Cameos, cameos, get your cameos here! In addition to Sedaris, the episode was filled with recognizable faces: Burt Young as Horace Sr., Angus T. Jones from Two and a Half Men as Horace the 9th, Colin Quinn as Jimmy, George Wallace as George, David Blaine as the magician who eats the glass, and Paul Simon as Leon’s alcoholic buddy. (Steven Wright could have been playing, like a lot of the other actors, Leon’s ’70s doppelganger, but Wright hasn’t changed that much physically since the ’70s, so it could go either way.)

* Of the actors cast as the young versions of Horace, Pete, and Sylvia, only Sofia Hublitz had previously been on Louie, also in an episode (“In the Woods”) flashing back to an earlier time in our hero’s life. Jack Gore, who played Horace, is on Billions as one of Bobby Axelrod’s sons, while Nolan Lyons, who played Pete, also has flashback experience (specifically, experience channeling Steve Buscemi), as he played the young Nucky Thompson in the final season of Boardwalk Empire.

* Where Alda returned for last week’s hallucinatory sequence (and also appears prominently when we see Louis C.K. stage a kind of curtain call for all the actors after the series wrapped), Jessica Lange did not appear again after Marsha walked out of the bar in episode 5.

* The curtain call comes after filming of the flashback scene down in the bar, which is as it had to be, given that C.K. shaved his beard down to a horseshoe mustache. Meanwhile, Falco donned a dark wig to play Marian, while Buscemi went with a mustache to channel Uncle Pete. We of course know what Alan Alda looked like in 1976 (and that Alda of any era is much taller than Buscemi), and I also can’t instantly think of a role he played with a mustache, but Uncle Pete was so unlike most of the performances he’s given in the past that you might as well go for a clean break while doing the doubled-up casting.

* The New York Daily News’ “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” cover from 1975 features perhaps the most famous tabloid newspaper headline of all time (it’s that or “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar”), even though, as Jimmy points out, the Daily News was only paraphrasing a much wonkier statement from President Ford about attempts to pull off a federal bailout of NYC as it went through a dire financial crisis in the early-mid ’70s.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at