Around the time in Horace and Pete when I was watching an adult male openly weep in a static frame for what was perhaps the sixth time in the course of the ten-episode season, I wondered if I had ever watched a ‘television’ show as willing to adopt such an unrelentingly bleak tone, and only offer respite in order to take it away again.
In Louie CK’s black comedy/drama Louie on FX, we see a skirting of the bounds of a similar philosophical outlook. Absurd, horrible things happen without cause or post-event explanation, such as a homeless man getting decapitated by a truck just before Louie is to go on a date, Louie getting beaten up by a woman and Louie gets himself saddled with an impossibly large court-imposed fine for accidentally deforming a model. These events, however awful it would be to endure them (and the show doesn’t stint on this point), generally contains them within a framework that makes them more digestible. For one, the show plays fast and loose with chronology, the aforementioned court fine that would reduce Louie to indentured servitude for the rest of his life ceases being an issue at the end of the episode. And he’s more interested in taking advantage of the story to get laid in any case. Secondly, I think the use of free jazz in the series’ soundtrack posits an analogy between the improvisational nature of the genre, and the series itself; get what you can out of this, but don’t come into it expecting a beginning or end-point.
Of course as the series continues, this unsettled quality becomes the norm, and the viewer comes to expect whatever tonal inconsistency, slipshod camerawork and meta, dream-like qualities that the series offers. This is the only, I repeat the only, downside to radical artistic innovation, if an innovative formula doesn’t stay ‘on the move,’ no matter how well it works, the viewer becomes habituated and eventually, bored by it. Further, whatever absurdist detours it may take, such as having one of Louie’s love interests’ head explode apropos of nothing, it is within an essentially humanistic, life-affirming framework. The homeless guy’s death becomes an occasion for Louie to monologue about the hollow nature of social interaction between a man and a woman said man may be trying to bed, leading to the woman that he is trying to bed becoming attracted to him. She is very much turned off again when she finds out what it was that prompted Louie’s honesty and, conscious that he’s once again blown it, Louie reverts to his nebbish, needy self, reterritorialising his abject encounter with the nature of mortality within his own normal, haplessly passive and ineffectual selfhood.
In the episode ‘Dad,’ Louie comes under pressure to re-connect with his estranged father, and begins spontaneously vomiting. He seeks advice from a doctor, who asks him if he’s been feeling stressed. His reponse, “boiler plate misery, alone in the world, might aswell be a maggot sucking a dead cat’s face what’s the point but, nothing new,” may well be the series’ essential outlook, life is mostly suffering, but, combined with the moments of human connection, especially from unlikely places, it can be bearable. Examples of this are the archetypal Boston southie rough-looking guy turning out to be rather nurturing, the helpful intervention of Louie’s neighbours during a medical emergency and Louie’s heartfelt, yet somewhat preachy monologue to his suicidal friend Eddie, being interrupted by an arguing couple. These all provide contrast and respite, subverting whatever tone, bleak or otherwise might be becoming overly dominant in the moment.
Horace and Pete meanwhile, has none of this. Unlike Louie, which is often shot quite beautifully, with a wide palette of lighting, Horace and Pete is dark, sparse and deliberately shoddy. CK has spoken on his love for the rundown, rough feel of the sitcom The Honeymooners, where the basic plot points would be the only thing Jackie Gleeson would show up knowing in full; he would simply improvise his blocking and dialogue around the episode’s arc. This was initially CK’s intention for his HBO sitcom Lucky Louie. In any case, there are rarely more than two sets in any given episode of Horace and Pete, and a correspondingly small list of set-ups. The camera often remains static and, as was said before, is not shy on dwelling of moments of despair. In the second last episode, an old actor advises a young woman that love is rare, and the sooner that she accepts the fact that it might not happen to her, the better. When asked how to make peace with something like that, he responds that he finds himself incapable of it himself: “I walk around broken-hearted…and I get drunk and…I mean I, I hate being alone…um…some day it’ll kill me.” This elicits no verbal response from the other barflies, and there is almost ten seconds of silence. It’s bleak af, and I think takes the cringe humour pioneered in The Office to its logical conclusion, comic scenarios are reproduced without the crucial gloss of ‘joke,’ it’s all just pained expressions, eye avoidance and interminable silences. See also, when Horace meets his daughter’s boyfriend, Pete introducing Horace and Sylvia to his girlfriend, etc.
Pete, played by Steve Buscemi, is the series’ heart, and seems to be the only decent human being on the show. As the series charts his deterioration into psychosis, the loss of his relationships, reduced to seeking an imagined reconciliation with his abusive father while sweeping a dank bar he could never escape, the nihilism of Horace and Pete is far more overt. Pete is the only character who articulates an optimistic vision for the future, though it is optimism within the already stymied framework of Horace and Pete: “Part of living my life is waking up…going to work, taking care of myself, carrying on my relationships, sleeping, eating…it’s not a joyful life. You do it, because there’s always, some potential. Some days are ok, and even if they’re not, you know you could have an ok one. Or maybe even a great day.” What eventually happens to Pete demonstrates the futility of that hope, in Louie it’s an occasion of wonder to sit next to the Dadaist meaninglessness of everything else. In Horace and Pete it’s just a fiction that elongates Pete’s ordeal.