The Happy Tragedy of Horace & Pete

Louis C.K. may have the most emotive brow of all time. It scrunches and wrinkles as he listens. He sighs. Sometimes a smile plays across his lips. Sometime his face falls. Sometimes he weeps, holding his head in his hands. In his latest series, Horace and Pete, he stars as a chronically sad bar owner, Horace Wittel, alongside a fantastically manic Steve Buscemi as Pete Wittel, his brother/cousin and co-owner of the bar. The confused familial relationship of the duo is just the tip of an iceberg that extends deep into the history of televised drama and the subconscious of a uniquely American dysfunctionality.

In an interview with Louis, Jimmy Kimmel describes the show as “Cheers, if everyone there was depressed.” It’s a pretty accurate synopsis. Horace and Pete exists solidly within the good old American bar-sitcom tradition, but it fights against that descriptor up until its dying breath.

The first thing to go is the laugh track. Silences abound. Lines hang in the air with a dead weight. The next thing to go is the outside world. Aside from two short scenes, we only ever see our cast in the bar and the apartment upstairs. The space of the building becomes a refuge, a purgatory, a prison, a world unto itself.

At the heart of the show is a truth recognized by all bar sitcoms to some extent–that the bar is a place which brings people together, a place where we sit and unwind and tell stories. It’s a natural setting for a television show, providing both a stage and a steady influx of characters bringing drama in the door.

The deeper truth lies in alcohol’s strange dual role as both social lubricant and psychological crutch, the line becoming increasingly blurred with every sip. It’s fun to get drunk and talk to people, but the more you hang around bars getting drunk, talking to people who hang around bars and get drunk, the sadder the whole thing becomes. Sometimes we drink to remember, but sometimes we drink to forget. The important point here is that both are narrative acts.

If the show’s heart is in the bar, its soul is in the stories themselves, the anecdotes, jokes, recollections and monologues that cut in and out, sometimes leading nowhere, sometimes to an unexpected revelation, sometimes to screaming, laughter, tears or fucking.

Like all good bartenders, Horace is a listener, and the weight of every story shows on his face. Though we are the ultimate witnesses, he becomes our on-screen proxy. We feel through his feeling. Mostly, he’s at a loss for words. That’s because the stories told here are the stories that have been bottled up for years, the ones that take a little effort to uncork, but then pour out, rich and dark.

A big part of the show also revolves around the exploration of words themselves, which is no surprise, given that it’s created by a guy who once wrote a whole movie where the main character speaks his own made up language.  To say that Horace and Pete is profane would be the understatement of the century, but much of its effort is to defuse the offensiveness of the curses and slurs. Alan Alda delivers Uncle Pete’s tirades with a strangely egalitarian, principled brand of bigotry. Maria Dizzia plays Trisha, a sweet woman with Tourette’s syndrome who follows her outbursts with heartfelt apologies. “It’s ok, I could tell there wasn’t no hate behind it,” says Greer Barnes’ character, Carl, after a particularly racially charged exclamation.

Central to Horace and Pete is the idea that there is a gulf between feeling and expression, between what we meant and what we said, and that our lives will inevitably plunge us at some point into that gulf, usually headfirst and without warning. Death by cancer or suicide or murder, domestic violence, insanity, racism, drugs and alcohol, infidelity, sex and love and broken marriages, broken homes and promises, all these things and so many more will push us beyond the bounds of what we thought we could bear, let alone say.

But Horace & Pete offers us a consolation, an assurance that when it’s all said and done, we will have our stories, at least the ones that have left their mark, like the bottom of a wet pint glass staining a ring into the wood of a hundred-year-old bar. And as it turns out, keeping one of these stories inside is what allows it to keep living. It’s the telling that brings it, finally, to an end.

So we watch Louie as Horace, we watch his furrowed brow as he listens, as we listen, as his face becomes the stage on which these dramas unfold, as he transmutes our darkest, most depraved moments into a strangely feel-good brand of tragedy. Finally, the story draws to a close. Jesus, he says, we say. We hold our heads in our hands, and we’re not sure if the sounds coming out are laughter or tears.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson