Louis C.K.’s groundbreaking FX show “Louie” has played a giant role in changing the meaning of TV comedy. Some of the best episodes of “Louie” can leave you feeling the generalized but unremitting pain of a passive middle-age man in an anarchic and sometimes brutal New York. It’s a comedy, mostly, sort of, but a comedy that aims to capture the shifting tones of real life, the pathos and the existential aches as much as the laughter and the absurdities.
“Horace and Pete,” which C.K. made available on his website over the weekend, is definitely not a comedy, even by the new standards that C.K. has helped to create. It’s a dark 67-minute-long episode that feels more like a Eugene O’Neill play, or an episode of the 1950s live series such as “Playhouse 90,” or a piece by director Mike Leigh (who is thanked in the credits). Featuring an impressive cast led by Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, and Jessica Lange, along with C.K., the show takes place almost entirely on the set of a glum old Brooklyn bar, exploring the entrenched divisions between friends, families, generations, cities, and the country as a whole. Indeed, the “Horace and Pete” script, by C.K., who also directed, is fresh enough to include political bar talk about Donald Trump skipping the most recent Republican debate.
If it were on network TV, Horace and Pete’s would probably look more like the bars in “Cheers,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Northern Exposure,” or “How I Met Your Mother.” But this is C.K. TV, and the bar is claustrophobic and the source of an epic, dramatic family rift. Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Buscemi) are the latest Horace and Pete to run the bar, after generations of men with the same names; but now Horace’s sister, Sylvia (Falco), wants to sell the failing venture and end the male-dominated cycle of inheritance, inequality, and despair. The episode revolves around that story but also drops into banter by the barflies, who include Nick DiPaolo, Kurt Metzger, and, as a bearded liberal defending his tribe, Zach Cherry. Metzger gets the best line, about the self-destructive choices of American voters: “If we vote for [Trump], that just means we want to go down,” he says. “So let us go down.”
The acting is superb, especially as the tensions become more overt in the second half. Lange, as a lush, is outstanding in a small but vivid turn. Falco finds just the pitch — fierce but not hate-filled. Buscemi is powerfully weary as a man struggling with mental illness. Aidy Bryant from “Saturday Night Live” is poignant as a bruised but unbroken daughter. And Alda steals the show as an Archie Bunker type who has no patience for anyone different from him — women, blacks, gays, and cellphone users among them. The moment he sees suspected hipsters — one young pair order Coronas, for instance — he orders them out the door. He rejects change on principle, even if it’s change for the better. I’m not sure Alda’s character, Uncle Pete, is written to be entirely original, but Alda brings the guy to life in a very specific way.
Watching these actors work a juicy story line is deeply satisfying. Some of the bar conversations seem tacked-on, as they take on current events with a degree of self-consciousness. It can feel as though C.K. is using his bar customers as ways to vocalize his own interesting but somewhat unrelated thoughts about politics and the seemingly unbridgeable distance between conservatives and liberals. He’d probably kill with the same material in a stand-up show, but in a script about abuse, alcoholism, denial, and family estrangement, it doesn’t quite work. The strength of “Horace and Pete” is in the age-old themes festering at its heart. They are the reasons I will eagerly return to LouisCK.net when the second episode drops.
HORACE AND PETE
Starring Louis C.K., Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange, Aidy Bryant, Steven Wright, Edie Falco, Rebecca Hall, Kurt Metzger
On www.LouisCK.net. First episode is available now for $5.