Bars are both bulwarks against change and its advance forces. Nothing signals gentrification like a fucking new brew pub and nothing has the musty and glorious sense of nostalgia of an old bar that seems to have escaped time.
But the past is a bastard. It is at once a refuge from the present and full of horrors we can't quite escape. This becomes clear in the new Louis C.K. show "Horace and Pete" from almost the first scene, when Uncle Pete (an astounding Alan Alda) says all kinds of racist shit in order to show that he isn't racist.
It's a story about a bar that two brothers named Horace and Pete opened in 1916 and have passed on to their sons named Horace and Pete ever since and "all of them have been opposed to change." That's actually a quote from Joseph Mitchell's great 1943 book "The Old House at Home" about "McSorely's Wonderful Saloon," the oldest bar in New York. C.K. has said how he went to McSorley's as he was writing "Horace and Pete" but not how indebted the show is to the melancholic but ultimately life affirming vision of Mitchell.
Though "Horace and Pete" was released on C.K.'s website (louisck.net) a couple months ago, episode by episode, it is, in many ways, the greatest show of the early 20th century, the pre-TV era. It is, essentially, a 10-hour-long teleplay, shot primarily in long takes on two sets: the bar and the apartment above it where the family lives.Though set in contemporary Brooklyn, where the old world is being swept away by the influx of money and hipsters, "Horace and Pete" has more in common with Mitchell and the work of Eugene O'Neill, especially "The Iceman Cometh," than it does with anything in the so-called "Third Golden Age of TV."
Alda plays the older Pete—the older Horace died a year before the show starts—and C.K. and Steve Buscemi play the current iteration, C.K. as Horace and Buscemi as a brilliant and kind but seriously mentally ill Pete, both drowning in the demands of tradition, but also buoyed by it in their otherwise shitty lives.
As the show begins, Sylvia (Edie Falco), their sister (actually it gets real complicated but I won't spoil it) brings in a lawyer to tell Horace and Pete that their family tradition of the bar always being passed from Horace to Horace and Pete to Pete doesn't mean shit and since their father, an asshole abuser, died without a will, the lawyer informs them, common law applies and Sylvia can sell the joint. Given real estate prices in Brooklyn, its the smart thing. But… what can they do?
The elder Pete sits the lawyer down—after making fun of him for being gay—and gives him a sip of the first bottle of whiskey that the first Horace bought when he opened the bar a 100 years earlier. The lawyer is stunned. "It tastes like drinking time," the lawyer says, declaring it the best whiskey he's ever had.
This is what is so great about the show. It isn't willing to take an easy answer and say that the past is better than the present or that the present is better than the past. We are all so quick to judge the past without realizing that we, too, will soon be as outdated as Zima at a craft beer joint. But, in reality, "Horace and Pete" doesn't even really raise the question of better. It simply meditates, melancholically, on the inevitable collision of eras in our own lives and in the larger culture.
C.K. put out the 10-episode show on his website with no promotion or fanfare. When it first came out I found it on Twitter or something just after the first episode came out and there was no indication how long it would last or what it even was. It was clear almost immediately that this wasn't a comedy unless you consider the bits of gallows humor in tragedy to be the essence of comedy—like I do. The episodes were different lengths and main characters disappeared and it was like nothing I'd ever seen.
And there was this absurdly cool cast. In addition to C.K., Buscemi, Alda, and Falco, Jessica Lange, Stephen Wright (the laconic comic from the '80s), Colin Quinn, and tons of other comedians and theater actors sit around the bar. The third episode starts with a close up on the face of Laurie Metcalf, who played the sister on "Roseanne," as she gives one of the most stunning monologues in American literature. Seriously. Not just TV. C.K. ain't just some comedian motherfucker anymore. This is shit of the highest caliber, like what people might remember of America in the future.
A bar is a place where people can disagree. In our increasingly digital and segregated worlds, bars force us to sit beside each other and talk to people who think differently than us. Tolerating different views isn't popular now, but it's not just millennials or conservatives or progressives. It's never been popular but has always been fostered by bars. And unlike Facebook, it still holds a bit of civility. If we talked to each other at bars the way we do on Facebook, we'd end up knifed.
And because they actually made each episode the week before it was released, a lot of the disagreements give this talented cast a chance to riff on public events, such as the Trump campaign.
So there are these rumors about C.K. jerking off in front of unconsenting women who are also comedians and generally sexually harassing people with less fame or power than he has. The rumors haven't been substantiated and are mostly anonymous at this point, which makes it impossible to really address journalistically, but there are enough of them that a friend of mine just can't bring herself to watch "Horace and Pete," which I totally understand, especially because, when you cut out the middle man, like C.K. did in producing this show, it becomes even more clear that you're giving the money directly to the artist. And if that artist is an asshole, it is even more of a problem than normal. And I think this friend would otherwise really like the show if it weren't for that. So, Louis, if you're doing shit like that, apologize and stop it and get your shit together, because even if you can't see that it hurts the people you are allegedly harassing, surely you see that the very model of production you've embraced forces people to see your art as part of your person and if the person is shitty—even if he makes a show about being a shitty person—it can irrevocably hurt the art.
The show does end up addressing a number of big social issues surrounding sex, gender, and race in tremendously complicated ways. There's a discussion about trans acceptance and expectations and sex that my wife, an American Studies professor, wants to teach in a class—but it isn't pedantic and it is funny and uncomfortable and ambiguous and awkward.
But these glimpses of hope are entirely couched in the grim trajectory of tragedy. When I first watched it as it came out (I watched it again later), I had no idea when the final episode would come. But now, when you go to his site, you see that there are 10 episodes and so you know when the finale will be (in an interview on Marc Maron's podcast C.K. talks about some of this). But the first time, it hit me like someone who has been talking harmless shit at the bar walking up and smacking you with a chilled mug.
It was devastating. I was left on the couch with my mouth open, my wife and my dog asleep beside me. There was no way I could sit there like that. There was no way I could go to bed. The show had punched all my buttons. So I walked over to Mick O'Shea's, where I am also sitting and writing this now, one of those bars where I may end up arguing with some random guy with whom I wildly disagree until early in the morn, and stared into the bubbles of my beer in silence as I contemplated the horrible passage of time.