THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING HORACE AND PETE by Martha Nochimson

Printable version Thursday 09 June 2016 Last updated at 17:24

 

Horace and Pete, a series created for his own website by Louis C K, challenges us to rethink television.  Higher praise I cannot bestow on serial entertainment.  The show is part of what seems to be becoming a tidal wave of fictional offerings that take the form we recognize as serial television, but are neither produced by the networks or by a cable company, nor are delivered to your Sony,  LG, or Samsung.  But Horace and Pete isn't, like so many of these newly minted online serials, a production of an alternate online megalith—Amazon, Netflix, or Hulu; rather it is what I want to call American New Wave small screen drama; funded by one artist.   In Horace and Pete, C K, a stand up comedian who has already crafted a television series based on the form of stand up entertainment, makes a sharp turn into serial drama/comedy with a much larger scope.  In what follows, I propose to discuss the significance to television of what C K has achieved, and I will do that with as few spoilers as possible.  Surprise, as Hitchcock says, is the most flimsy of options in the arsenal of dramatists, but, nevertheless, I enjoyed the shocks and unforeseen moments of Horace and Pete very much and don't want to deprive others of the same pleasure.  Subtext:  I want you to go to LouisCK.net and subscribe to this series.

For the most part, in their online series', Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu replicate, but with a slightly more lurid edge, the formulaic work of the networks, which are veering toward ever more affectless, technologically bloated action vehicles.  C K uses the intimacy of home entertainment to give us auteur fiction.  His work is extremely personal, not in the sense that it reflects C K's literal biography, but in the sense that it reflects his personal take on modern America.  Intimacy, once the lingua franca of television, has been replaced by glitz and violence, so in some ways Horace and Pete is a step backward, but  it is also a leap forward away from the sanitized family-to-family entertainment like The Brady Bunch, and Leave it to Beaver that once passed for intimacy as well as from current family series' like Modern Family and Blackish, in which there is less originality than meets the eye.  We routinely mock the early family shows and flatter ourselves that there has been progress since their heyday because the new series' include a broad range of people once excluded from televisionland--blacks, gays, and strong women for example.  However, in truth the new family series' are just as formulaic as the old ones; just as constrained to embody the neat view of human life that formula television demands.   They assure us that intimate family life is legible and workable.  By contrast, Horace and Pete is not remarkable because it includes black, gay, and strong female characters, which it does, but because Louis C K moves beyond formula to narratives that suggest, as David Lynch says, home is a place where things can go wrong.  We know it is, and C K pulls no punches about the actual universal experience of familial comedy and tragedy as he weaves a tapestry out of  history and the intractabilities of human nature, registering truths that formula television does not dare to touch.  Unlike formulaic television, Horace and Pete questions our romantic faith that we have made progress and our mythic valorizing of the power of the individual to escape “the dead hand of history.”  The characters—white, black, gay, straight, weak, strong--are contemporary descendants of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, either obliviously caught in the incomprehensible and tenacious nightmare of history or frantically trying to awaken from it.

 

The title of the show refers to a bar named Horace and Pete's, a one hundred year old Brooklyn institution that has continuously been owned by a Horace and a Pete in the Wittel family.  The tradition of family ownership and family names travel down the generations sometimes referring to brothers, and sometimes to cousins, but always excluding the women in the family.  The series itself is not linear, however.  It ricochets backward and forward in time and both into personal fantasies and outward toward situations that constitute what is narrowly characterized as ordinary reality.  This is to say that Horace and Pete takes a very broad and inclusive view of reality, insisting that internal life (psychology) is just as real as external life (history).  Reality grows out of both the discontinuities in the public lives of the patrons who pass through the bar's doors—in the two generations we see, there are patrons of all races, sexual orientations, and philosophical persuasions--and the continuity of family quirks, compulsions, habits, internecine struggles and benchmark events.  Is it a longitudinal time image that conveys a microcosm of America?  You guessed it.  But that barely skims the surface of what C K offers.

As a television series, Horace and Pete uses the structure and flow of serial narrative with such challenging originality, freshness, and depth in its depiction of American life that binge watching is difficult, although all ten of the episodes are now available to stream, because their richness inclines the viewer to savor, not to plunge forward.  That is noteworthy, since formula television is predicated on the assumption that viewers have to be driven by narrative suspense about winning, losing, and achieving sexual intimacy and the many series' that comply with that imperative drive us with such shallow urgency that binge watching is the natural result.  C K does not abandon narrative suspense, but suspense does not structure the series, rather it hovers as a presence, both obligatory and provocative, as the current Horace (Louis C K) and Pete (Steve Buscemi), now middle aged, are forced to consider whether they will sell the bar as they are being urged to do by their slightly older sister, Sylvia (Edie Falco), the first woman in a hundred years to attempt to exert control over the family business.  There are also running concerns about Pete's and Sylvia's health (you will need to watch to find out what the problems are) and the love lives of Horace, Pete, and Sylvia, but these emerge in fits and starts.

Bar dramas have a sub-generic place in American entertainment, notably in the works of Eugene O'Neill, William Saroyan, and the Charles brothers, creators of the television series, Cheers.  The first two exclude women almost entirely.  Cheers uses women as foils for men almost entirely.  So in the history of media culture as well as in the history of the Wittel family, that a Horace and a Pete are receptive, however grudgingly, to a powerful female voice  with a point of view is of narrative and cultural interest, but only as part of a much larger vista that shows us the overarching historical dynamics of the space the family and the customers inhabit.   It is a complex space that juxtaposes the customers and the family as two different, inextricably connected realities. 

The conversations and temporary relationships among the customers, which occupy a significant part of most of the episodes, are defined by an unstable, random, impersonal, combative, open-ended public cacophony that mirrors what we all know of the interchanges taking place in social media, in the news media, and in public spaces.  By contrast, the conversations and relationships of the family reflect personal, private, closed circuits of ongoing patterns mandated by historically entrenched familial traditions.  Together, they reflect that peculiar American fusion of the rigidly conservative and the chaotically fluid.  Through the unproductive clashes between these two forces, we are encouraged to question whether forward motion is possible.  We see two eras of customer conversations, now and in the 1970's, in which the same questions are bombastically and pointlerssly argued.  In the same two eras of family angst, connection, and combat, history is repeated over and over, “boats,” as Scott Fitzgerald would have it, “against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.”  And yet there is that whisper of hope, that open-ended question, mostly asked by Sylvia, as to whether change and a better life are possible.

The customers are foils for the family, but they don't act merely as convenient catalysts or obstacles for the action of a family plot, of which there is very little.  Rather, the bar's customers reveal what is outside the family circle, and relativize the pain of a long family history of treachery, sadism, and ignorance in the way the Horaces and Petes treat the feelings of their children and wives, their own sexual desires, and assert their ideas of male entitlement.  In this juxtaposition, family tradition is validated as necessary and gratifying in some ways at the same time that it is depicted as a kind of biological prison.  The world outside the family is also ignorant, self-centered, and uncaring for the most part, a battle of wills equal to the battle of wills inside the family, but without the rich sense of connection that enables family members a kind of privileged communication.  Make no mistake.  Family communication in this series changes and/or solves nothing.  It is, rather, a revelation of the communication of deep understanding that allows them and us to know what is meant in moments of silence, that makes us sit up, take a breath, and experience a shock of recognition.  Yes, this is the hallmark of actual families.  We don't solve problems together, do we?  Not usually, not really.  But in our families we do often experience the possibility of recognizing each other without words or action that is so very rare in our interactions with those outside of the family, perhaps because of the long exposure and maybe even because of a special bond hard wired into the body. 

As witness to this family, the audience is able to savor the silences and also to intuit a world of meaning under the words spoken by the family, meanings we (and they) may or may not understand, but meanings that go far beyond the angry, absurd, and/or lying words, a depth of significance that the series suggests is not possible outside of the family circle.  This definition of family is absent on conventional television, where there are barely levels of human experience indicated.  Formula television deals in surfaces, where the action is.  C K joins a small group of artists working in television that use serial storytelling to penetrate surfaces and defeat the simplifications of linear narrative.  I am speaking of David Lynch, David Chase, David Simon, the founding titans of non-formulaic television and their descendants, Matt Weiner, Lena Dunham and several others whose work I am currently considering in a book I am working on about the rise of non-formulaic television.  To this list, I now add Horace and Pete.

Horace and Pete travels through the time afforded by serial storytelling, deploying interior experience, exterior events, words, and silence to pose some pretty daunting questions about family intimacy which, as it suggests, we can't live with or without.  C K exploits the layering of incidents that serial television can deliver with unparalleled complexity and depth to confront us with both the difficulty of making new connections, which are subject to the many vicissitudes of life and misunderstandings when we fail to bridge the gap between strangers and our preconceptions and the dangers of family familiarity which threaten to confine us within a web of jealousies, anger, and vindictiveness.  The people who pass before our eyes are essentially alone but are also immersed in the Hell of other people.  Oxymoron alert! 

The Wittel family that runs the bar is not always but mostly thrown back on the warm but potentially destructive familiarity of family when they run up against the wall of strangeness and otherness of outsiders—here otherness is not racial, ethnic, or gender connected, but a matter of those inside and those outside the family circle.  In the inner circle, Horace, Pete, and Sylvia spar endlessly, often comically, about whether they are doomed to continue family traditions.  Horace plays out a troubled comic and wrenching connection with/estrangement from his daughter, Alice (Aidy Bryant).  Pete plays out a long running sadistic battle of wills with his funny and menacing Archie Bunker-like Uncle Pete (Alan Alda).  Horace plays out a running hilarious and pathetic sex fantasy life about Marsha (Jessica Lange), a fading alcoholic beauty who is given family privileges in the bar because she was the last lover of the previous Horace.  Pete, Horace, and Sylvia spend a lot of time with each other silently, and it is clear that something is going on beneath the surface that is not about understanding in the usual sense of the meaning.  They are not letting each other know information wordlessly.  Rather there is an extended, unarticulated hum of familiarity, the glue that binds the world together.

But when it comes to making new connections, discontinuity and words are the rule.  Lonely Pete makes a connection through an online dating website with Jenny  (Hannah Dunne), a girl much younger than himself, who likes older men,  potentially a fresh start for Pete.  But that freshness includes ignorance of Pete's very troubled history, which when communicated to Jenny by Horace and Sylvia shatters the nascent relationship.  Horace's actual sex life is with women who come and go.  One woman comes over to the family apartment above the bar for sex with him, but then rejects him because he doesn't entertain her.  Another, a bar customer, has sex with him and then taunts him with the possibility, very threatening for Horace, that she used to be a man.  True or false?  The scenes are written so that it remains indeterminate, part of what it means to reach out into a very complex world of unknowns outside the family unit.  Mean and detached, Uncle Pete is even more fascinating as an example of the exclusivity of the inner circle, because he blurs the line between family and other.  He has little attachment to the present, and rejects anyone or thing that isn't already familiar.  However, at the same time, he is in some ways an enigmatic other, shielding from the family the identify of of the mother of his only (unacknowledged) son.  In Uncle Peter, C K complicates his series by, having established a line that divides the family from outsiders, finding moments when that line is smudged.  Uncle Pete also blurs the line between known family and unknown other when he suddenly erupts in an enigmatic but moving monologue about the nature of true love, a radical departure from his usual callous boorishness. 

However, the most stunning, original, and prolonged example of C K's refusal to keep his own categories immune to the contradictions of life occurs in episode 3, which is composed almost entirely of a series of monologues by Sarah (Laurie Metcalf), Horace's ex-wife.  In her long and disturbing speeches, she speaks to Horace about her second marriage, which is clearly headed for disaster.  Sarah, both an other to the Wittel clique, from which she is now excluded, also remains intimately connected to them through Horace.  She needs words in order to explain to Horace her strange sexual betrayal of her second husband and his family, as all outsiders do.  But between her and Horace there is also a connection in the silences behind their words that suggest an alchemy by which strangers can become as bonded as blood relatives.  Horace's ability to completely understand and empathize with her bizarre and self-destructive actions is based on their shared guilt.  Sarah has replicated in her second marriage his betrayal of her in her first marriage.  ( I won't reveal the details of her confession, or of his infidelity, except to say that her narrative concerns a kind of sexuality never alluded to on American television.) Long speeches are conventionally considered anathema in writing for television.  They work here because of the silence under the words made palpable by nuanced acting by performers who do not captivate the viewer as impossible ideals of beauty made flesh by nearly nude, surgically altered former models, but rather by the intense emotional fluidity emanating from their full body acting. Celebrate humanity in all its forms instead of only in prescribed machine-made, plastic “perfection” ?  Yes, here on an American website.

The alternation of long speeches and silence, the presence of the Greek chorus like customer chatter at the bar, and the free form of the episodes as the current manifestations of the bar and the family are discovered and consequences of old actions, thoughts, and feelings move to a boiling point gives Horace and Pete a theatrical cast-- and yet.  The orchestration of sound and noiselessness in this dramatic space in which action is secondary to affect is effective only because of how brilliantly it works within the television-born serial form of narrative.  This is not theatre.  Theatre cannot replicate, at least not in the same way, the layering possible in serial television untrammeled by formula.   C K suggests that televisual possibilities are endless, obstructed only, and this is a powerful “only,” by the intransigence of network and cable television deeply rooted in ignorance, emphasis on numbers in the audience, and an insane preoccupation with the profit motive. 

To be fair, HBO has had a policy of subsidizing programming experiments using the profits of crowd pleasers, and has been very instrumental in the emergence of non-formulaic television since Twin Peaks. Whether it will retain that policy remains to be seen.  But I'm not sure that even HBO would allow the free play of artistry C K has manifested in Horace and Pete.   The series, possibly a mini-series of ten episodes, possibly the first season of more to come, haunts me and makes me look anew at my life and the life around me, although there is nothing in the Wittel history literally reminiscent of my little part of the world.  That any fiction can break into old ways of seeing is, of course, important.  But what may be more important is that Horace and Pete is one more rare indication that television is a medium in which art can handsomely be made.

 

Martha P. Nochimson's 26 year career as a University Professor of film and literature is only part of her story. In addition to the pleasure she has taken at being in the classroom at Mercy College and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, she has worked as an editor for Cineaste magazine, written for American television, and has had the privilege of being in long running conversations with both David Lynch (25 years and counting) and David Chase (ten years and counting).  She has published six books and is about to start work on Inner Tube:  Television Beyond Formula for the University of Texas Press.             

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