The last time I wrote about Horace and Pete, I said that I wouldn’t write about it anymore. But two things happened since then. First, my curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to see the rest of the episodes. Second, I still get people coming to my blog to read those first four posts. So, for the sake of the clicks, once more unto the breach, dear friends!
The series is now over and I watched episodes five through ten. Here’s a quick catch up of the very major points in the show.
Uncle Pete kills himself. Marcia leaves the bar. Sylvia goes through chemo but survives her breast cancer. Pete has a promising date but his hopes are crushed. He later finds out that Probitol is actually doing more harm to his body than good, so, he has to go off of it and be committed. He goes off with the Tricia, the Tourette’s girl he knew from previous hospital stays, but he quickly descends into madness. He puts her in a hospital and then disappears. Horace starts a budding relationship with a woman who is either transgender or enjoys intense discussion about the topic and is also a drunk. Pete returns to the bar, looking like a feral animal. In his madness, he picks up a knife from the bar and kills Horace. Finally, Horace’s son, Horace the ninth, comes to the bar to see where the father he never met spent his life.
Are we up to speed? Good.
The Sad = Real Fallacy
A friend of mine who likes the show read my most recent Horace and Pete post and disagreed with my take. He was essentially saying, “look, this show isn’t Cheers, if you stop into a bar like this on a weekday, you’re going to find people like the ones in Horace and Pete.” I understood what he was saying but, frankly, I knew it wasn’t Cheers and I wasn’t looking for Cheers but the defense of the show is telling. Is a dramatic show that piles tragedy upon tragedy somehow more real than an upbeat, jokey sitcom? I say no.
Cheers is clearly performative, from Carla’s well timed one-liners to Norm’s repeated entrance jokes. Horace and Pete is just as performative, though. It’s just that it’s tragic rather than comedic. Ultimately, I could never enjoy the show because it was so absurd in its tragedy. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Horace gets killed by his mentally ill brother who was failed by an inefficient health care system while “America” by Simon and Garfunkel plays. You can’t even parody that.
Look, people have to deal with the problems dealt with in this show. Strained family relationships, domestic violence, cancer, mental illness, suicide. When things like that happen to people it is tragic but simply including those things in a dramatic narrative does not absolve the creator from making me believe it.
I could tell you a story about a pregnant woman who’s fetus overdoses on cocaine in the womb and she is so distraught that she commits suicide by shooting herself in the head twice. There is no question that a drug overdose and suicide are tragic but when presented in a story, they still must be grounded in reality to make me care. Make me believe it. In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides made me believe that a brother and sister would fall in love and have children. It can be done. Horace and Pete never made me believe it.
There was an overall lack of clarity in the spine of the show and I’ve been trying to figure it out the whole time.
The Unnecessary Cruelty of Episode Six
Episode six truly made me want to ask for my money back and not just because I had to watch Steve Buscemi put Vaseline on his nipples before a date. This episode was like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown and then pulling it away only the football is innocent, idyllic love and the pulling away is your family callously stomping on your happiness.
Pete has a date with a beautiful twenty-something girl who just happens to be into older guys, like, guys in their fifties. Okay. I’ll suspend my disbelief just to see where this is going. So, Pete invites his date to meet his family and then, they are awful both to Pete’s girlfriend and to Pete. Sylvia is unapologetically mean and then Horace tells Pete’s date in stark detail about his mental illness. So, this episode gave Pete a fantasy woman and then ripped her away from him like stitches from an unhealed wound. And then we saw Sylvia and Horace just sit at the table and go on eating like nothing had happened.
Perhaps Sylvia’s cruelty could be explained by her going through chemo but then she sits down to a big plate of pasta at the end because if there’s one thing cancer patients have, it’s a big appetite. Horace’s cruelty, however, renders all the care he shows when Pete goes missing in later episodes completely meaningless. If he cares about Pete at all, it seems to be in a George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men kind of way.
We know in episode one that Horace has a daughter and then we come to find out that he has a son from whom he is estranged. Okay. In episode one, we also see a girlfriend who is not the father of his children. Okay. So, there’s an ex-wife somewhere. In episode three, we meet the ex-wife and find out that Horace had an affair with his wife’s sister. Ah, okay, and he got married really young to a woman a decade his senior and he screwed it all up. That explains his regret.
But, wait, we find out in episode seven that he impregnated the sister and his wife at the same time? And then his wife raised both children when the sister just sort of left? Um, okay, I’ll still go with this, albeit reluctantly.
Then, in the final moments of the show, after Horace has been murdered by Pete, Horace the ninth comes into the bar. It was one of those moments that both surprised and made total sense. He greets his aunt Sylvia and says, “I’m your nephew” but then says about his dad, “I never met him.”
And that’s where you lost me. They never met? No. Sorry but no. That’s too far.
I’m supposed to believe that this kid who was the ninth in line of Horace’s never met his father? Even when that father was eager to have some kind of relationship with his kids? Even when his sister has a relationship with their father and the crumbling of the family took place before this kid even understood object permanence?
Uncle Pete and Pete
Episode five finds the family coming back from Uncle Pete’s wake and we find out that Uncle Pete killed himself. Why? Perhaps because of his tortured life? I don’t buy it. All of the pain and guilt and resentments he had in his life, he had had them for a very very long time. So, why did he, on that day, pick up a gun and shoot himself?
I might have an idea. Louis CK spoke about running out of money after episode four and he wasn’t recouping it from episode sales. So, it’s interesting that after episode four both Alan Alda, who plays Uncle Pete, and Jessica Lange – the shows biggest stars – were both in the series for about five minutes more each.
One thing that never stopped bothering me was that Uncle Pete being Pete’s father was treated as a shocking revelation to this dysfunctional family, especially since we can clearly see in the finale’s flashback that Uncle Pete and Pete look exactly the same at the same age. (I’ll admit that this is a weak point as it could merely have been done for the convenience of casting but still.) We also get to see Uncle Pete live under the same roof with his son and watch over him and take pride in his baseball skills but we still have to believe he gave that son away because he doesn’t like kids. If you say so.
What Mental Illness does Pete Have?
I had assumed Pete was schizophrenic but in the finale’s flashback, we see the bourgeoning mental illness in young Pete. He says he has to fill all the glasses with water before the sun comes up. Well, that’s not schizophrenia, that’s OCD. So, perhaps it’s just a non-specific though still debilitating mental illness?
What bothers me more is Pete’s dependence on the fictional drug Probitol. So, Pete takes Probitol and then shows no signs of his illness and can, in fact, be a pretty capable person. But if he doesn’t take it the Probitol, the mental illness comes back and there’s no other option but to commit Pete. That part of the show had a sort of Flowers For Algernon/Awakenings vibe to it and made psychotropic drugs seem like allergy medication.
My cousin is schizophrenic. She’s in her early sixties now but has lived in a home since her early thirties. There’s no drug that enables independent living or a glimpse at her former self but also, at the same time, she isn’t in a haze of bad acid trip hallucinations.
I’ve heard the theory that this is a commentary on the state of our country’s health care industry. The problem is that there’s not much commentary. It strikes me more as a presentation of the problem. People rely on drugs and our health care system makes them hard to get. I knew that before.
The True Heart of Brooklyn
Towards the end of the finale, as the bar is being packed up, Sylvia’s new boyfriend says to a mover, “This, this, my friend, is Horace and Pete’s, the true heart of Brooklyn, owned for a hundred years by two brothers, Horace and Pete until one day Pete killed Horace and had to go away. And that’s what happened to Horace and Pete.” It makes it all sound like a horrible fairy tale, which I suppose it is.
Only someone who doesn’t live in Brooklyn could describe anything as the true heart of Brooklyn. I go to a bar on my corner that looks much like the interior of Horace and Pete’s. It opened in 1997. The bar, the backdrop of the entire show, struck me as the romantic creation of someone who has never lived in Brooklyn, which I think is literally true of CK. No mixed drinks and only Budweiser. Is the notion of this place’s existence romantic or fetishization of the working class and of a New York gone by? I’m not a fan of such things.
A recent New Yorker article calls the show talky, which it was, and that’s when the show thrived. I enjoyed the show when it just let the characters behave, especially the tangential ones. I liked all of the conversations of random customers. I liked the vulnerability of Rick Shapiro approaching Sylvia while she was still going through chemo. I liked Karen Pittman’s performance as a mysterious alcoholic in the bar who might provide Horace with some temporary happiness. I liked Alice bringing her boyfriend to meet Horace and giving her the only happy ending in this show.
In the flashback episode, we saw Uncle Pete telling the Horace peeing his pants at little league story forty years earlier than we had heard it originally. So, he’s been coasting on the same stories for his entire life. And if the bar had a soul, it was Leon, played by Stephen Wright. It was intriguing that in the flashback, he looked no different, no younger, he was just always there. When Pete went missing, it was Leon’s blank stare that caused Horace to feel guilty.
I’m not immune to the good things in this show.
On Me Being a Dick About This Show
I admit that I’m being extremely nit-picky in my criticism of the show but, well, you are currently on the internet reading a blog. This is kind of what this arena is for. I’ve heard the sentiment that if you don’t like a show, you should just not watch it and focus on the things you do like. I see that point but, well, I’m clearly ignoring it. I paid for each episode (my conscience is clean regarding Louis’s debt, which truly does suck) and I took time out of my life to watch each one and, frankly, I just want to talk about this.
I have an obsessive need to pick apart things that I don’t get. I had a similar experience with Stella, the sketch comedy trio of State alums Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and David Wain. I worshipped The State in high school and when I found out that three of the members were doing this show, I was excited. Then I watched one of the online shorts and it was just the three of them playing with dildos. Well, it’s just that one, right? Nope. All of them featured a dildo. But surely no one else likes this, right? Wrong again. Not only do comedy geeks love it, they revere it. If you’re around a comedy aficionado and you say, “Stella kinda sucks, right?” you get, “uh, well, I guess you can look forward to seeing Carrot Top in Vegas and the new season of Mind of Mencia.” I racked my brain just trying to understand what the appeal was.
Horace and Pete is similar. I’ve loved everything Louis CK has done to this point. I love his stand up. I love Louie. So, what is this? I have friends whose opinions I respect who get this show and I just don’t.
He Was Nothing, Really
There is one thing that I’m holding on to with regards to this show. When Horace the ninth asks Sylvia about his father, she says, “He was nothing, really. He was no kind of man. He wasn’t particularly funny or smart or kind. He was just some guy.” It was a harsh appraisal of her brother and you could see it was armor for the emotions she kept hidden when she broke down and cried right after saying it. It was supposed to pack an emotional punch but it didn’t really work for me but you knew that already.
It sounded kind of familiar, though. I remembered the episode of Louie where he meets a producer who has the power to greenlight anything. So, he pitches to her. This is the pitch: “You know how in movies there’s always a guy and his life is, you know, okay and then something happens like a conflict and he has to resolve it and then his life gets better? Well I always wanted to make a movie where a guy’s life is really bad and then something happens and it makes it worse but instead of resolving it he just makes bad choices and then it goes from worse to really bad and things just keep happening to him and he keeps doing dumb things so his life just gets worse and worse and like darker and like like he lives in a little one room apartment and he’s not a good looking guy he has no friends…”
I read an article once defending I’m Still Here, the Jaoquin Pheonix faux documentary about his pursuit of a transition into a career in hip hop. The article praised Pheonix and brother-in-law and director Casey Affleck with “taking a big swing.” The failure of the project was acknowledged but, man, there’s something about swinging for the fences. You’re only here once, so, if you ever get the opportunity, do it your way. Make no excuses or compromises. Do the thing you want to do and do it one hundred percent. I might never have the balls to do what he did, to put all of my chips on the table and go for it. A recent New York Times article “How Horace and Pete Made the Network Suits Look Good” argues that maybe a little input from the outside could push you in the right direction. “Horace and Pete might have been one meddling suit away from a masterpiece.”
We only tell the stories where someone takes a big swing and it’s a home run. We never talk about the times people took their swing and struck out. But both swings are important.
Louis CK took a big fuckin’ swing.