Television Awards : The Obsidian Brilliance of HORACE AND PETE

The Obsidian Brilliance of HORACE AND PETE

By the time a psychotic, hallucinating and broom-wielding Pete (Steve Buscemi) storms and rages to clear out the 100-year-old Brooklyn dive bar, "Horace and Pete ", he runs with fellow manager Horace (Louis C.K.) (and which has been managed throughout the preceding decades by generations of "Horace's and Pete's" - hard-working Irishmen "who beat their wives and raised their children right" and passed their own pains and miseries down to their families like substantial legacies and inherintances) you get the feeling that you're watching something both extremely familiar and shockingly new.
 
This is a bar where nobody knows your name; where there isn't a laugh track or score punctuated by calculated moments of silence to sway you into feeling one way or another.  This isn't Cheers and yet, it echoes that show's charm, humor and quiet melancholy just as it echoes ever so faintly and respectfully milestone television dramedies such as The Honeymooners, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, Archie Bunker's Place and Maude by way of theater behemoths like The Iceman Cometh and Death of a Salesman.  (Often, it felt like I was witnessing a masterwork created, written and directed at least three or four decades ago by a team consisting of C.K., if he could time travel, Norman Lear, James L. Brooks, Allen Burns, Eugene O'Neil and Arthur Miller.  It was only the occasional use of a smart phone, or the mentioning of current day sports and politics that would snap me back to the current millenium.)  So unique and singular is this show that with every turn I continued miscategorizing it until finally giving up with an exasperrated sense of relief.  "This is totally and crazily it's own *beep* thing," I thought.  Blessedly.
 
The glowing aura of nostalgia cloaks the entire production, but it's the piercing and often painfully awkward moments of current and unadorned realities (e.g. politics as sport; the ties that both bind and kill; the fading of familial legacies) that establishes this - already, in just one episode and with no clearly mapped out future or trajectory for the series - as one of the best, most relevant creations to come out, regardless of format (i.e.  in theater, film, television or the web), in years.  C.K. could never release another episode of "Horace and Pete" and I can guarantee that it's brilliance would still haunt and beckon you days after viewing it.
 
Though a long-time and extreme admirer of Jessica Lange (obviously and naively, along with Edie Falco, the main reason I pulled out a bar stool for this, though certainly not why I'm sticking around), I'd be remiss to say or lead anyone into thinking that she's the star of the show.  She's not.  Though she's fantastic and one gets the distinct feeling that C.K. has, in fact, cooked up something very special for the two-time Oscar and three-time Emmy winning legend he's long admired, she's on a welcomed and intriguingly low simmer for now.  But we'll get more into that in a bit.
 
The electrifying and almost omniscient titans of the piece are Alan Alda and Steve Buscemi, essentially playing flip-sides of the same coin.  Like two opposing centrifugal forces, they swirl, move and dominate the piece, laying out the stakes with sharp, breathless and shimmering abandon.
 
Alda's work easily echoes Caroll O'Connor's brilliant portrait of Archie Bunker only to grip you with the fresh and unbridled ferocity of his own character's misguided convictions in a way that guarantees you won't, by show's end, think of anyone else before or after him in this role.  Whereas O'Connor occasionally, brilliantly and out of necessity winked at the audience to reveal bigot Bunker's soft underbelly, Alda pulls no punches.  He's here to persuade you to see and accept his views, however misguided; not to forgive them.  The Emmys should change whatever rules and regulations will prevent this from being eligible just to give him - hell, throw him the award.
 
Buscemi is right there with him, frighteningly good while also practically reinventing the traditional loony and bafoonish foil.  He's what Mike Stivic was to Archie Bunker; Edward Norton to Ralph Kramden, but he bites back and much harder.  Like a white-hot fury with lots to say and barely enough lucidity to say it with, he burns through you and everyone else in "Horace and Pete ", as Diane Chambers once said, "with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns."  His work here is awards worthy, too.
 
Rounding out the rest of the main cast is Edie Falco, in a pointed, riveting turn (when the time comes, her ferocity is an equal match for Alda's); and Steven Wright and Kurt Metzger, both bringing equal-parts substantial weight and effortless levity to their roles.
 
And, of course, there is Lange, in the midst of an amazing career resurgence which has seen her, within the last six years, lead five television miniseries to pop-culture icon status and lend her exceptional supporting work to a handful of films to great acclaim, while topping it all off with three Emmys, three Dorians, a Critics' Choice award, a Golden Globe and a SAG in just as many years.
 
Last year, when asked by Vulture what it felt like to attend the awards shows, C.K. punctuated his response by concluding, "And I like being at an event like the Golden Globes and making Jessica Lange laugh for an hour. I'm a bit of a starf — er, so a lot of [the] time I'm just happy to be in the same room as these people."

One wonders, did this brilliant comedian, writer, director, producer and star intend to make Lange laugh and lighten up in front of the cameras, too? Though everything points to C.K. having written and gifted Lange with another bombastic role brimming with pathos, something else in his handling of her throughout the piece suggests that he intends to bring the comedienne out of this well-worn tragedienne.
 
What a refreshing thing it is to Lange, freed from the clutches of Ryan Murphy's earnest and thrilling, yet increasingly vapid and repetitious scarescapes, getting to go toe-to-toe with another equally amazing ensemble and an even better and more astute master-creator.  Here, however, she trades the "Queen Bee" crown for a role that seems like it could veer into American Horror Story territory - a mysterious and acerbic drunkard with what seems like a complicated past and plenty of bones to pick - but which she and C.K. seem determined to steer in another direction.
 
C.K. has intelligently and refreshingly chosen to give Lange's character the thickest aura of mystery out of the whole group, while also starting her out as the tamest and most obscure.  Why is she drinking her life away and sparring with strangers in her late lover's bar?  Why is she so disliked by the female members of her late lover's family?  Why is Alda's Pete so determined to keep her in the familial loop?  Is he really that loyal to his former partner, or are there more complex ties between he and Lange?
 
I suspect that Lange, billed not as a guest star but as a regular with the same credential weight given to her in American Horror Story (i.e. "And Jessica Lange"), as much as I'm sure she respects and admires C.K. and Co., would've made sure these questions would be answered or at the very least addressed by the close of her character's arc.

It's testament to Lange's skill and bravery, and to C.K.'s evidently clear vision that she fits right into his world, surrounded by thespians who match her dramatically, but who will no doubt push and teach her to stretch comedically - something that has always been difficult for her, but which she's already showing signs of brilliance with here.

Just before the intermission, there is a moment when an old patron of "Horace and Pete"'s (I can't for the life of me recall or find this actor's name; please help) enters the now faded bar and he proceeds to tell us and his fellow patrons how much the bar means to him; how it was where he had his first drink as a lad and met his wife and... other things.

Before dissolving into a puddle of tears and wails, he reminds us that even after fifty years of being away from the bar, it still means enough to him to break him in two.

"Horace and Pete", given the time to grow and mature, though it feels born that way already, promises to do just the same to us.
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