“Horace and Pete” began as a complete surprise. It’s only fitting it should end the same way.
Louis C.K. announced the first episode of his self-made, self-distributed barroom drama in January with an out-of-the-blue email to his fans. There was no advance hype; no one had breathed a word that the comedian was making a series with co-stars including Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi and Edie Falco.
On Saturday, he sent another message, in what was by now a weekly series, that “Episode 10” was available. Not until the episode’s wrenching conclusion and the postcredits curtain call was it clear this stunning experiment was over. It felt too soon.
For 10 weeks the series used television’s simplest and oldest format, actors on a stage, to suggest new possibilities for what the medium can become.
Before I begin the spoilers, a word to readers who haven’t seen the show. Maybe you haven’t watched because “Horace and Pete” costs money: $31 for the full season. (Louis C.K. sold the episodes weekly through louisck.net, starting at $5, dipping to $2, then settling at $3 apiece.)
Is it worth it? It’s more expensive than a month of Netflix or Hulu, but cheaper than a typical night of theater, to which the “Horace” experience is comparable. It’s about what you’d pay for a season of many series on iTunes and better than most of them.
I can’t set your budget, but I can say that if you’re willing to pay for art that challenges and moves you, and for the actors who give it life, you will do many, many worse things with $31 in your lifetime than to buy this series. (In which case, go now and read the rest of this later.)
No drama since “Mad Men” has landed weekly with so little sense of where the next episode would go. “Horace and Pete” might dive into the past or riff on the week’s headlines. It might collect a series of set pieces or, as in the astonishing third episode guest-starring Laurie Metcalf, showcase a single performance.
But in the end, the surprise was in service of the story about a family for whom the mistakes of history would return, generation after generation, as predictably as happy hour, or in this case, unhappy hour.
The dysfunction in the Wittel family is layered, like cheap wallpaper in an apartment. The bar (from which the series takes its name) has been around for a century, a record that seems less a legacy than a sentence. It’s been run by a chain of Horaces and Petes who had sons named Horace and Pete. Louis C.K.’s Horace, we learn in the finale, is the eighth in the line, the son of Horace VII (also played by Louis C.K.), an abusive tyrant.
It takes a moment to realize the finale opens with a flashback, because the apartment set looks essentially the same. So does the bar, painted in the dingy browns and yellows of cigarette-stained teeth. It’s always a kind of 1976 at Horace and Pete’s, even in 2016, weighted with malaise, the only difference being the names on the cover of The Daily News and the barflies arguing over them.
There’s Budweiser on tap because there was always Budweiser. Things are the way things are because that’s the way things were. History is handed down from father to son like a punch in the arm.
As for the daughters, Horace’s sister, Sylvia (Falco), summed up the bar’s history in the pilot: “How many wives have been beaten up here?”
Falco plays Horace and Sylvia’s abused mother as well, which is an efficiency of casting (wouldn’t you use this actress as much as possible?) but also, like Louis C.K. as Horace VII and Buscemi as the younger Uncle Pete, underlines the idea of eternal return. It’s as if there were one version of each of these people, and they just keep being reborn. (It’s a kind of perversion of the Resurrection story of Easter, the holiday that looms largest in this series.)
There’s a sense in the finale of the chain finally being broken, for (slightly) better and (horribly) worse. Each generation of Wittel men, it seems, has left the next a little worse off, until finally Pete (Buscemi), broken and off his meds, kills Horace, the cousin he grew up believing was his brother.
There won’t be another Horace and Pete; the bar is packed up and Pete left no descendants we know of.
There is a Horace IX (Angus T. Jones), Horace’s estranged son, to whom Sylvia gives a wonderfully tart eulogy of sorts for her brother: “He was nothing, really. He was no kind of man. He was not particularly funny or smart or kind or — you know, he was just some guy. But he was your father.”
Louis C.K. is reportedly submitting “Horace and Pete” for the Emmys as a drama. If it gets a nomination — Alda, Buscemi, Falco and Metcalf would all be strong picks — that would be a landmark for an independent show. Few artists have Louis C.K.’s resources or multi-hyphenate ability, but the series could at least expand the possibilities.
But in its short life, the show has already left a legacy. Louis C.K. has never drawn sharp lines between drama and comedy. His work is about provoking strong feelings, whether a laugh or a cry or a scare. His FX series, “Louie,” lives by that idea and “Horace and Pete” extended it, drawing strong performances out of comics like Aidy Bryant and Kurt Metzger.
Like its bar, “Horace and Pete” operated out of old, dusty traditions. It recalled the staging of 20th-century sitcoms and the earliest live-theater days of 1950s television. But it was also hypercurrent. Like modern “limited series” (the seasons of “Fargo,” e.g.), it wasn’t obligated to spin out its story for years; like Netflix and Amazon series, it was free of network scheduling. Both on the episode and series level, it was only as long as it needed to be.
“Horace and Pete” did not end happily, leaving us with the sobs of Sylvia, a survivor of both cancer and her family. But it was a gorgeous snapshot of humanity and a bracing preview of television’s future, a story that exemplified how, to move forward, sometimes you have to go into the past.