Stand-up comics aren’t supposed to be gifted dramatists, and TV stars aren’t supposed to take a break from lucrative jobs that come with boundless freedom and critical praise. Louis C.K. is not good at supposed to, though, and Horace and Pete is a fine example of that. Because a show about a bunch of sad bastards in an equally glum bar with a crazy uncle and a put-upon protagonist is supposed to be played for laughs, but this isn’t Cheers. And with a meat and potatoes script and the absence of the occasional pinch of absurdism and visual flare, it isn’t Louie, either. It’s barely a show. It feels more like a 67-minute-long dramatic play (with both the look and rhythm of such a thing) that C.K. decided to film and release on his website for $5 an episode with nearly zero fanfare, another thing you’re not really supposed to do.
On its face, the century-old family-run bar at the center of Horace and Pete sounds like a charming establishment with a cute backstory about successive Horaces and Petes running it from its inception. It’s the kind of thing you’d read about in the life section of a Sunday paper, but as the “morning” transitions from a light shuffle by Horace (C.K.) and his brother/business partner, Pete, (Steve Buscemi) to something joyless and far less musical, the weight of the family legacy becomes more clear. In a way, Horace and Pete are indentured servants, damned by their names and other people’s expectations — specifically, their Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), a canker sore of a man.
Really, the bar is a glue trap, but complacency is more perceivable than discontentment at first, specifically when it comes to Horace.
For the bulk of Horace and Pete, C.K.’s character tries to be the family savior, repeatedly apologizing for Uncle Pete’s free-flowing hate speech while trying to care for Buscemi’s character, who is affected by mental health issues and off his meds. This all while failing to run a successful business, connect with his adult daughter (SNL‘s Aidy Bryant), and carry on a relationship with his live-in girlfriend (Rebecca Hall). Horace is spread too thin, obviously unable and seemingly unwilling to consolidate his energies and shake up his life until others stand up for him and make it clear that that’s an option. As Horace’s sister, Sylvia, Edie Falco is charged with doing that as she vacillates between acting as a caring sibling and a hard businesswoman while trying to sell the bar — an assault on the family business that Horace seems absolutely indifferent to.
As you’ve doubtlessly noticed from the names mentioned, C.K., the writer and director, has no fear when it comes to surrounding C.K., the actor, with talents who are capable of blowing him off the screen. And that’s never more clear than in those final moments as Falco and Alda (and Buscemi’s character, in a moment of lucidity after a life-changing revelation) rise to the forefront and shout at each other about common law and family law. It’s in that fiery exchange that the family’s secrets are fanned out on the floor for all to see as both Alda and Falco demonstrate that their characters have a very different view of the family legacy. The scene should merit both actors award consideration, particularly Alda, who transforms into the frustrated, bitter, condescending, and perpetually disappointed old man, leaving almost no evidence of the easy charm and gentleness that we usually expect from an Alda performance.
While C.K. sets out to examine the crushing weight of familial obligations and traditions, he also works to say something about generational power shifts, though it’s here he falls somewhat short. Uncle Pete is made uneasy by the throngs of hipsters who go sightseeing in the bar, and Horace has no idea how to relate to his twentysomething daughter. But while those angles work in an effort to explain the actions and feelings of Uncle Pete and Horace, the script fails to adequately show the situation from the other side, choosing to instead paint anyone under 30 as insubstantial and little more than a prop. Bryant’s character gets the most room to navigate of all the sub-30-year-olds. And when she speaks of things that Horace and she both know about as a spark for her need to keep him at a relative distance, it offers hope that the character will, at some point, get the chance to do more than breeze through the bar and offer an elongated, “I can’t even” when pressed into an emotionally complex conversation. But will we get more of her or any other character?
Horace and Pete closes on a big change that could be an interesting wrinkle in this story as it evolves, but it could also serve as an ending if C.K. is unmotivated to keep going for whatever reason. Again, all we know is what C.K. is supposed to do now that he has our collective interest in this new world that he has created. And that doesn’t mean a whole lot, does it?