Review: Louis C.K. goes back to TV’s first golden age with ‘Horace and Pete’

On one of the final episodes of the podcast, a listener asked if there would ever be a surprise TV show release, in the spirit of Wilco or Beyoncé dropping albums without any advance warning. Fienberg and I mused on how difficult this would be to pull off, given the number of collaborators involved in making a TV show, and speculated that even if such a thing could be produced in secret, all involved would want to make sure the world knew of its existence long before it was released.

Well, leave it to Louis C.K. – who yesterday morning released the first episode of a new series called Horace and Pete on his website – to make fools of us both.

But then, I'm amazed in hindsight that neither of us thought to mention C.K. as the kind of person who might be able to pull this off, given how few of the rules of show business seem to apply to him.

Already, C.K. has a show on FX where he does most of the jobs, gets minimal network involvement, and only makes seasons when he feels like it – which, at the moment, he doesn't. (At TCA last month, he confessed he has no idea when, or even if, there might be new episodes.) And while he waits for new Louie ideas to come, or not, he went off and not only filmed Horace and Pete – with an impressive cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, and Jessica Lange, plus guest appearances by Rebecca Hall, Aidy Bryant, Nick DiPaolo, Steven Wright, and others – in secret, but released it with zero advanced promotion or fanfare: just an email to people already on the list that read, “Go here to watch it. We hope you like it.” There's not even any information on how many more episodes there may be (though the web design suggests there could be four in total), or when they might appear.

Who does that?

Louis C.K., obviously.

Almost as remarkable as the surprise of the show's very existence is its structure. Though it takes place in a seedy bar, and has the bright lighting of a multi-cam sitcom, this is no modern-day Cheers riff. This is Louis C.K. (who, as usual, wrote and directed, along with playing one of the title roles) doing a play for television – not in the apologetic way that actors on sitcoms often describe their work, but an honest-to-goodness dramatic play, much more in the vein of The Iceman Cometh than anything involving Sam Malone or the gang from Paddy's Pub. Though there are some flourishes that come only with filmed entertainment, including a theme song written and performed by Paul Simon, it feels so much like a Great Performances rendition of a Broadway show – or, really, like the kind of live plays (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Marty) that dominated the first golden age of TV drama in the '50s – that C.K. even includes a title card midway through that reads “Intermission.”

There are occasional jokes, most of them revolving around the clash of political ideologies among the customers at the eponymous bar. There are topical references to the Iowa caucuses and Donald Trump skipping the latest debate, and at one point Alda's Uncle Pete gets annoyed that their Brooklyn establishment has started attracting hipsters looking for an authentic dive bar experience. (This has also, strangely, been a running joke on Shameless this season.)

But for the most part, Horace and Pete is a melancholy drama about a family bound by both traditions – the bar is in its 100th year of being run by a succession of either brothers or cousins, all of them named Horace and Pete – and secrets, unclear which of them, if any, makes sense to keep at this point. Buscemi's Pete is mentally ill but, due to an insurance snafu, currently off his meds. C.K.'s Horace is estranged from his kids, and in the midst of a legal feud with his sister (Falco). And Uncle Pete – played by Alda with venomous force and a complete lack of vanity for his appearance or personality – keeps demanding that everything be run like it's always been, no matter what.

It's an experiment, and one with some rough edges. (The political references, for instance, sometimes feel like they're there just to let you know how recently this must have been filmed, though they eventually fit into the larger themes about time and changing standards.) But Alda, Falco, and Buscemi are powerhouse dramatic actors, and C.K. makes a good reactive foil to them. The first episode (which runs slightly over an hour) feels like such a self-contained story that I have no idea what later installments will be about, or feel like, but I can't wait to see them, whenever they happen to appear.

C.K. is selling the series directly through his website because he's set up the infrastructure to do that by selling some of his own specials (and others by friends like Tig Notaro) through it, but also because it's hard to imagine a regular TV outfit – whether his current employers at FX, his occasional collaborators at HBO, or one of the streaming services – wanting to try something like this, which is simultaneously an enormous throwback and something that C.K. wants to keep very current. I mean, if Louis C.K. called you up and said, “I'm doing a series of filmed plays with Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, and Alan Alda,” you take that meeting, but you also likely demand a lot of time to develop it, see if you can convince him to make it more commercial, etc.

Horace and Pete is no more or less an undistilled representation of C.K.'s creative id than Louie is, but it's a project he had a very specific vision for. And given the show's fascination with the way things used to be versus the way things are now, the idea that he would choose to release it in such an unusual, but decidedly modern, fashion seems about right. Tell Uncle Pete that he has to go to a website and pay five bucks to watch a story about his life, and he'd probably throw a bottle at you and call you a few names I wouldn't dream of printing here.

For those of you who've watched, what did you think? Do you want to see more, or would you rather the weekend surprise had been a stealth Louie episode?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at