Critic's Notebook: Louis C.K. Releases 'Horace and Pete' — Is It Good and What Does It Mean?

Alan Alda and Steve Buscemi are fantastic, but what are fans getting for their five bucks?
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On FX's Louie, Louis C.K. plays a moderately successful version of himself, a steadily gigging comic with regular income and occasional big opportunities, but no particular clout.

In real life, we all know that pound-for-pound, Louis C.K. may be one of the most powerful men in the entertainment industry.

Sure, a Spielberg or a Cruise or a Bruckheimer may seem to have greater reach, but they all need armies to march behind them to produce anything.

Sure, Larry David's HBO deal is similar to the deal Louis C.K. has at FX — essentially, "You make something, we're happy to put it on the air" — but Larry David has Seinfeld money and doesn't necessarily seem to want to or need to work, so he often just doesn't.

Louis C.K. loves to work and he loves to create and, over the years, fans and TV networks have made it clear to him that when he produces something, somebody will air it — and if he doesn't want to air it, audiences will pony up directly and pay him for whatever it happens to be. Louis C.K. has earned the right to either play entirely within the system or to ditch the system entirely.

So it was surprisingly unsurprising — unsurprisingly surprising? — when Saturday morning brought with it the stealthy debut of something called Horace and Pete on LouisCK.net. Some artists would need a build-up and promotion to get people excited to plunk down money for their latest production, would need to offer some sort of tease on what to expect from something so cryptically titled, but Louis C.K. was just able to say, "I made something and for five bucks you can find out what it is."

And many of us did.

The whole process raised a slew of questions. Allow me to approach a few of them. [And see also the update at the bottom.]

What the heck is Horace and Pete?

Written and directed by Louis C.K., Horace and Pete is a 67 minute thing that Louis C.K. did with an assortment of his friends and acquaintances including Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, Rebecca Hall, Aidy Bryant and more. Filmed on only two loosely dressed sets, it's a laugh-out-loud family drama set in bar. It starts as a Eugene O'Neill play about two brothers running a struggling joint, transitions into a David Mamet drama about political correctness and generational definitions of masculinity, becomes a Norman Lear sitcom about contemporary political attitudes, pivots into a Chekhov saga about an underestimated woman reclaiming a birthright and settles into a Mike Leigh kitchen sink dramedy about painful blue collar family revelations.

Because the comic's website lists this as "Episode 1" of Horace and Pete, everybody jumped to the assumption that this is a series of some sort, without any real evidence. If you ask me, doing an online-only series would actually be the most predictable thing Louis C.K. could do and therefore the least interesting thing he could do. Horace and Pete is, as many have already said, basically a filmed play in the vintage TV style and it's close-ended enough that there's no reason why it should necessarily need to be continued. I love the idea that Louis C.K. wrote this thing and thought to himself, "This isn't really a pilot, because it's neither a half-hour comedy, nor an hour-long drama and it isn't long enough to take to Broadway and I'm not in production on my FX series so I can't wedge it in there, so why not just get some folks together for a weekend, film it, recoup my costs online and it'll just exist as a strange one-off that I can do since I'm Louis C.K.?"

Horace and Pete is peppered with enough recent political commentary that it must've been completed in the last five or six days and there are enough slight editing/acting hiccups that it must've been done in haste. The language is pretty raw, both in terms of the general words you can't say on TV, but also in terms of racial and misogynistic slurs and one has to assume this is part of the reason why Horace and Pete doesn't just have a home on FX.

It would be almost disappointingly reductive if Louis C.K. and company did this again next week and turned around six or 10 episodes. I love Horace and Pete the more sui generis it turns out to be and the less it can be fit into a box.

But is it GOOD?

As a script, Horace and Pete could have stood a few more drafts, especially in the Norman Lear-flavored "issue comedy" segments, which aren't all that funny or even all that interestingly articulated. There are times Horace and Pete is a barely staged table read, either with people sitting around a bar, or sitting next to a bar or sitting above a bar and even a play would have wanted to give those characters more business. And as a gay lawyer, Stephen Wallem enters with Nurse Jackie co-star Falco and gets bogged down in clunkiness.

I love when Louie does serious or nearly serious episodes, but I also always feel like those episodes announce their seriousness loudly and Horace and Pete has the same patina of contained mirth, in which Louis C.K. wears his dourness like a frowning costume saying, "I could be hilarious here, but I'm holding it inside." That's not a bad thing, it's just a thing to compare the tone here to.

But goodness, even in this tiny, hard-to-quantify little story, there's some of the best acting I'd expect to see in any TV show this year. Alda is as good as he's ever been, offering shades of his Tony nominated Shelley Levene from 2005's Glengarry Glen Ross revival, a man just clinging to a position he held his whole life, not quite ready to die and not sure what else to do with himself. After his long run as the vicious and venal Nucky on Boardwalk Empire, Buscemi comfortably slides back into the well-meaning screw-up mode he's played in indie films for a decade, adding the complication of mental illness. Falco and Hall only have drop-in parts, but they're indelible enough that Horace and Pete doesn't just feel like another sad look at middle-aged white guys losing their grip.

In terms of composition and lighting, Horace and Pete could have been shot in black-and-white and just passed off as a Playhouse 90 installment and that retro aesthetic is utterly charming.

Is it worth five bucks?

As a 67-minute one-off? Absolutely. You've paid more for less entertainment.

As a regular series? Well, that's when you start figuring out what the money truly looks like. You pay two or three bucks for an episode of a TV show on iTunes or Amazon and that's already adding up to a seasonal price that's far higher than what you'd pay for the DVD and, in that case, you're paying for the near-immediacy of it and the convenience of it. Or else you pay whatever you pay for a Hulu or Netflix or Amazon membership that maybe allows you unlimited access to episodes. It becomes how you rationalize costs in bulk. But if Horace and Pete becomes a series and you're paying maybe $50 for a 10-episode season? That's not cheap. There are very few shows I would pay $30 for a six-episode season of and that's where Louis C.K. being Louis C.K. comes into play. He's shaped a business model in which he's convinced customers that he only asks them to pay what things are worth and so when he asks for $5 for a mystery box, we assume it's worth $5. But would we assume a full run of episodes is worth $50 or more? Yeah, probably we would, even if most podcasts are free and the cost of most TV programs are amortized into blanket services we pay for.

So what does it mean, bigger picture?

The number of people who could do what Louis C.K. did, dropping a filmed thingamajig without any warning and getting people to happily pay for it, is very limited, but it's not "one."

We've seen how crowdsourcing can get us a Veronica Mars movie or a new Zach Braff opus, but there have only been hints at what it could do for a TV series. MST3K has tried something along those lines. And, of course, there's Dr. Horrible, which brings us to the most obvious person who could do something along these lines and get people to give money sight-unseen.

Doing Horace and Pete initially as a one-off feels like a test-run. If it failed or only recoups, it's easy for Louis C.K. to just say, "This was a lark... Moving on... Buy my latest comedy special!" And if it's successful, only Louis, Buscemi and Alda are probably necessary for future episodes and anybody who wants to stop by the bar in the future can stop by, schedules permitting. Then the question comes whether Louis keeps charging on a weekly basis or whether he tries to make some promises. The first installment was released without a plot summary, much less promises of future stories, but if Louis wanted to guarantee audience investment, emotional and financial, he could then offer more clarity next time, either a "Just so you know, this will be a six-episode run, so plan your spending accordingly" or "This will be a 10-episode run, so give me $45 more dollars up-front."

It's in the second case that things seem more interesting to me, because a pre-paid subscription model for a single TV project is a different variation on the Kickstarter funding model that we have yet to see. If Joss Whedon woke up tomorrow and said, "Give me $5-per-episode and I'll give you a 10-episode season of Firefly," how many people authorize the $50 charge immediately? If the answer is 10,000? That's probably not enough. But if the answer's a million? Shoot, that's doable. Or how about if the answer is 500,000 and then somebody like Netflix wanted to make up the difference in exchange for posting those episodes a month late and then having them live on their service? Could that get the job done? Could a similar model and a smaller subscription fee get 13 more episodes of Happy Endings? Who else could do something like this? What else could they do something like this for? There's a difference between the audience clamoring for more Longmire and inspiring Netflix to renew it than the audience that bought Horace and Pete, so how do you make those audiences work in different ways?

I can't say if Louis C.K. is seeing the future of TV or if the future of TV is going to follow Louis C.K. or if Horace and Pete is just an oddity, but I'm glad such things can exist.

[UPDATE: In an email to subscribers on Thursday (February 4), Louis C.K. announced that Horace and Pete will, indeed, be a regular series. On the price-point issue, Louis explained the series isn't cheap, but the next episode will be $2 and all subsequent episodes will be $3. Because having a show with three different prices is, like everything else here, the LouisCKiest thing Louis C.K. could possibly do. The next episode will be out on Saturday.]

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