It’s unfortunate when other critics get to a movie or show before we do, because sometimes they grab all the good analogies and force us to get really creative when coming up with our own. The thing about the Horace and Pete, however, is that there’s not a better analogy than the ones that have already been offered. It is Cheers by way of Eugene O’Neil, and that is the only description that really does the show justice. It’s as though Louis C.K. — who wrote and directed the first episode in what we expect to be a four-episode series — specifically set out to make a Cheers episode as though written by Eugene O’Neill.
If you’re like me, though, that’s the kind of comparison that sets expectations too high. When I see those kinds of comparisons, my first thoughts are, “Louis C.K. may be a genius, but he’s not Cheers and Eugene O’Neill genius.”
Maybe he is.
Horace and Pete is 67-minutes of perfection, a show with the intimacy of Cheers and the disillusionment and despair of Eugene O’Neill’s best work. Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi star as Horace and Pete, owners of a 100-year-old dive bar with a crusty, opinionated roster of patrons played by the likes of Stephen Wright, Jessica Lange, and Kurt Metzger, who opine on politics and political correctness. To demonstrate how recently the first episode was filmed, there were also references to tonight’s Iowa Caucus and Donald Trump’s decision not to participate in last week’s GOP debate on Fox News.
The political take is ruthless, while the position the show takes on political correctness is more Archie Bunker than Cheers. Alan Alda, who plays profane misanthropist Uncle Pete, is the Archie Bunker character, a man who insists that his actions outweigh his words, and those words are awful. Rebecca Hall, Edie Falco, and Aidy Bryant (in an unusually somber role) round out the cast, but it’s best to let viewers discover their roles in the series as they are revealed. The impact will be greater. Meanwhile, Paul Simon offers the weary, melancholy score.
Horace and Pete is not a funny show. It’s a drama with flecks of humor. I’m not even sure what Louis C.K. is trying to say with the series yet, except that we were once a great country, that we aren’t anymore, but that we still have the potential to be if we actually cared enough to fulfill that potential. The rise of Donald Trump suggests that we do not.
There’s also a brilliant bit about politics, about how liberals and conservatives will never agree because of the way they define each other. Mixed in are themes about tradition versus progress, and whether it’s possible to advance without giving up our pasts.
It’s a remarkable episode, like a piece of theater written specifically for television. It also feels like the natural progression of Louis C.K.’s FX show, which has evolved from comedy to drama. It’s cozy but cynical, comfortable but challenging, and smart without calling too much attention to how smart it is. Politically and culturally, there’s something for everyone here; it’s not a show with a viewpoint so much as it is a show about how screwed up and toxic our viewpoints have become.
Louis C.K. surprised dropped the series on his website over the weekend. It will cost $5 an episode, and we have no idea when — or if, really — the next episode will appear. It is absolutely worth the costs, however.