Louis C.K.’s attempt to bring theatre to the small screen with web series Horace and Pete is an interesting experiment but does it amount to anything more?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been catching up with shows from earlier in the year, and Horace and Pete is perhaps the most unusual of this selection. Rather than airing on an American TV network, the show was released without fanfare or prior announcement online by comedian Louis C.K., and stars an initially impressive cast of famous faces including Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Jessica Lange.
The show’s visuals lie somewhere between single-camera sitcom and 20th century drama, and the script falls emphatically in the latter. It’s a moody, rambling attempt at the likes of Eugene O’Neill or David Mamet, but lacks the clarity of vision that makes that kind of drama so terrific. Horace and Pete has the kind of family story and depressed characters that you’d associate with the American theatre, but its telling is an absolute mess.
These problems emerge from a combination of bloated running length, inconsistent acting and ‘current events’ inserts written into the script that break up the plot’s momentum. The show is unrelentingly pessimistic and to its credit often genuinely upsetting, but it seems caught between wanting to recreate realistic life and being a stylish homage to the stage.
It’s a shame that the most interesting and well-acted characters are tangential to the titular Horace and Pete, played by C.K. and Buscemi respectively. The former is as ever an acquired taste, but this is perhaps the most diluted C.K. has ever been, writing, directing AND acting in the lead. The ambition is admirable, but his performance in particular gives other more seasoned stars less to work with. As in Boardwalk Empire, Buscemi’s emotional range is incredibly stilted, lacking the versatility to convincingly play the emotional centre of the show.
If the rest of the cast were on the same level, this would be forgivable, but that’s not the case. Edie Falco’s acting chops are on full display as sister Sylvia, but the character is so thinly-drawn in the script that she barely manages a third dimension. Alan Alda and Jessica Lange are by contrast exceptional, elevating the wearily familiar archetypes of archaic uncle and alcoholic stepmother to a reasonable level, though they benefit from having less screen time to grow wearisome of.
In fact, the longer a character is on screen, the more the cracks begin to show. It’s no coincidence that Laurie Metcalf delivers the hands-down best performance of the season by appearing in a single episode, and that her appearance is unmarred by excessive flourish or a melodramatic plot twist. Amy Sedaris appears for mere minutes in the final episode to bring much needed life to a swamp of misery in a performance that’s nothing less of joyous.
It’s these people that seem real ahead of the main cast. Even the bar regulars who debate politics and sexuality have more dimension than Horace and Pete, and this is because so much of the script is over-written. C.K. makes a point by hammering it home, such as Sylvia’s cancer and Pete’s mental troubles, but he’s unable to bring nuance beyond factual character traits.
If Mike Leigh was indeed the inspiration as interviews have suggested, there’s a clash of cultures at work in Horace and Pete that could explain this failure – Leigh was aiming for realism, for spontaneous dialogue and little touches, but the American theatre that Horace and Pete pays homage to is more associated with thematic dialogue and big bold heavy drama.
From my impressions of critical and audience reactions to the show, it’s definitely served its purpose for many, but these will be those who sought it out in the first place, and who may have been influenced by personal investment and C.K.’s commitment to rewarding those who bought the show online. As it is, Horace and Pete is an experiment, and it’s hard to call it a success, but it’s the execution not the concept that is at fault.
Verdict: Horace and Pete is an over-wrought derivative melodrama, and there’s an audience for that kind of television that it’s likely already reached. But its lack of subtlety and bland characters are incredibly disappointing, especially given that these seem to be fundamental to Louis C.K.’s interpretation of the concept.