Horace (C.K.) is a divorced guy in his early 50s who inherited the bar from his father. He runs it with his brother, Pete (Steve Buscemi), a friendly but melancholy helper who lives in a small room downstairs, and both are continually berated by both their irascible uncle Pete (Alan Alda) and their customers from behind the counter. Horace’s sister, Sylvia (Edie Falco), wants to cash in on Brooklyn’s coolness and sell the bar, while Horace is struggling to maintain a relationship with his daughter Alice (Aidy Bryant). Meanwhile, barflies played by Steven Wright, Kurt Metzger, Jessica Lange, and others chip in topical commentary and stir up various kinds of trouble.
Still think it sounds like a sitcom? Well, nobody’s laughing. Plus, there’s tons of bad language, and the episodes are four times as long. Imagine an Eugene O’Neill play, but with a little more hope, a little more emphasis on humor, and plenty of sly winks to the news of the day. (The Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker is a consultant.) The show, shot on two soundstages, is produced so quickly that it can be making fun of Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump the week it happened, and yet at other times it bears the significance of an important relic of American drama that’s just been unearthed.
I don’t want to spoil too much of what happens in the show, but the plot is surprisingly dense, with each episode digging through the history of Horace’s family. Uncle Pete, a horrifying racist and sexist who says at least six inexcusable things an episode, is a living example of the strange legacy his nephews have been burdened with. He’s a symbol of a bygone age, something to be ignored and shoved into a dark corner, even if Horace can’t bring himself to completely exile him. Sylvia is the loudest voice in favor of abandoning ship, but as the series continues, viewers learn more and more about Horace’s personal history, and just why he won’t take the easy money (the bar is worth millions) and run.
C.K. has long been a student of TV history. His near-forgotten HBO sitcom Lucky Louie was an attempt to revive the Honeymooners-style working-class shows of yesteryear with a modern, profane perspective, but it never quite worked. The crucial difference between that show and Horace and Pete? The latter doesn’t have a laugh track. As C.K. himself said on his site, “This show is not a ‘comedy.’ I dunno what it is. It can be funny. And also not. Both. I believe that ‘funny’ works best in its natural habitat. Right in the jungle along with ‘awful,’ ‘sad,’ ‘confusing,’ and ‘nothing.’” That said, when Horace and Pete does provoke laughs, they usually stem from some combination of shock horror.
If the show has flaws—it’s certainly slow-moving, and the intentional abrasiveness of its characters can sometimes feel cartoonish—they deserve to be forgiven just because of the singularity of vision on display. After the first two episodes, which are long and plot-heavy, the third focuses entirely on one conversation between Horace and his ex-wife Sarah (played by Laurie Metcalf). It dives into the show’s expanding mythology, but is also a striking 45-minute analysis of the horrible mistakes people are prone to making in their personal lives, and the sympathy and scorn they deserve in equal measure. It’s a crystallization of the bitter, humanistic, sometimes infuriatingly apolitical view of society which comes out in C.K.’s standup comedy—that we’re all monsters, so maybe nobody is.