When you smile ...
You might have noticed that I almost never write about television here, and there's a simple reason for it: I almost never watch television.
Mad Men? Never seen it.
Walking Dead? Never seen it.
Homeland? House of Cards? The Americans? Orange is the New Black? Fargo? Anything CSI? Never seen them. I've never even seen The Big Bang Theory, though I've seen enough commercials while watching sports to stitch together roughly 239 episodes.
I have seen one and a half episodes of Downtown Abbey. Well, it's a funny thing. I watched an episode because Margo loves the show, and so I watched the show for her. It was fine, though I didn't really know what was going on, but it was fine. At one point, the main guy -- Lord something or other, I'm sure -- got into an uncomfortable argument with a young woman who I guess was not supposed to be invited to the table. That was kind of fun. She was all "oh you snobs!" and he was all like "how impertinent!"
The next one I saw, well, I didn't really see it. I was reading in bed and Margo was watching and I looked up and the main guy -- Lord something or other, I'm sure -- got into an uncomfortable argument with a young woman who I guess was not supposed to be invited to the table.
"Hey, I already saw this one," I said.
"No," she said. "This one's different."
I do not have anything against any of these shows. Quite the opposite: I am 100% certain that if I STARTED watching any of these shows, including Downton Abbey, I would become obsessed with them and would spend way too much time thinking about them because that's my personality. I grew up on television. And so I get obsessive. My girls have sort of made me watch "Limitless" this year, and so now I spend way too much time thinking about NZT and stuff. My girls have also sort of made me watch Supergirl, and so now I think way too much about how this world is apparently filled with WAY too many evil aliens and how Callista Flockhart would make a great editor.
None of this is healthy, I'm sure. But if I don't start watching, it's OK. Then I never really know what I'm missing. I'm sure "The Americans" is amazing. But I probably would stop writing if I started watching.
A few weeks ago, Louis CK sent me a personal email because, you know, we're super good friends who hang out all the time, or because I'm on his mailing list, one or the other, and here's what it said:
Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.
Go here to watch it.
We hope you like it.
That's it. That was the whole thing. Of course, I clicked on it because I'm a big fan, and it turned out to be a show called "Horace and Pete." It begins in a bar, and I thought: "Hey, Louis CK is doing 'Cheers.' This is going to be hysterically funny!" It turns out Louis CK was not doing Cheers. And "Horace and Pete," to say the least, is not hysterically funny.
Horace and Pete are brothers who run a Brooklyn bar that has been around for 100-plus years. The bar has been passed down through family lines with the one quirk that all the owners have been named Horace and Pete. Louis CK is the latest Horace, and Steve Buscemi is the latest Pete.
But also in the bar is the previous Pete, played by Alan Alda. The previous Horace is dead as are all the other Horace and Petes through the years (one of the earlier Horaces is played by Burt Young, a point I want to make because I love Burt Young).
There is a lot of pain in the Horace and Pete bloodlines. I don't want to spoil anything with plot points, but you quickly find out that the Alan Alda Pete is a virulent racist and extraordinary angry man. The Steve Buscemi Pete is schizophrenic and in need of medication. And the Louis CK Horace is a man who has clearly made enormous mistakes he does not believe can ever be remedied.
"Horace and Pete" is both mesmerizing and unrelentingly bleak. You see a whole long list of broken characters -- Jessica Lange as the drunken former beauty, Edie Falco as the hard-as-nails sister who will not let herself feel, Aidy Bryant as the daughter trying to make some sense of her relationship with her doomed father -- and they're all trying just to do the best they can. At the bar, there is a Greek chorus speaking cynically about the events of the day. There is one great joke that you might not get if you aren't on Louis' mailing list -- he wrote a long and funny and intense plea to voters to stop voting for Donald Trump. The next week, the characters at the bar were ripping a comedian for giving us his political views when he doesn't know what he's talking about.
"Horace and Pete" is a very sad show. The sadness is its brilliance. It is made like a stage play, like something Arthur Miller or David Mamet might do, and it dives into the sadness of these characters without blinking, without turning away. There are long monologues throughout where a character explores the pain, roots around in it, refused to turn away from it. I'm reminded of Louis CK's brilliant bit about why he hates cell phones.
"Underneath everything in your life, there's that thing, that empty, forever empty ... that knowledge that it's all for nothing, and you're alone. It's down there. And sometimes when things clear away, you're in your car, and you start going 'Oh no, here it comes, that I'm alone.' You know, just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad just by being in it. And so you're driving and, you go, "Awww," and that's why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100% of people driving are texting, and they're killing, everybody's murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own 'cause they don't want to be alone for a second."
He then told how he heard Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" on the radio, and he felt sad and alone and reached for his phone to start texting friends. But then he stopped himself and just allowed himself to feel sad. And he found there was a beauty in feeling sad.
I think that, in the end, is what "Horace and Pete" is about. It's about allowing yourself just to feel sad, no diversions, no distractions, no backing away from the sheer sadness that is such a part of life. And it's like that for the first nine shows. There are some funny parts, sure, but even those are usually pessimistic and jaundiced. The point, I think, is to let the sadness of these characters wash over you. The point, I think, is to take even the smallest pieces of joy and laughter and goodness and hold on to them for dear life because it's a hard world, and some mistakes are never fixed, and some memories are never overcome, and some prejudices blind us all ... and it's all so temporary. It's so hard to leave an imprint on the world.
All of which takes me to the final show and the whole reason for this post: There is a scene in the final "Horace and Pete," which is so beautiful that I will never forget it. I don't think it's a scene that will carry much power if you have not seen every episode. I don't think it's a scene that I will be able to explain well enough.
Louis CK told my e-migo Alan Sepinwall that the scene wasn't supposed to be all that important. It comes at the very end when Louis CK's Horace is trying to decide what to do with his life. He's at his lowest point. The last show is particularly grueling and sad. And there's this near-throwaway scene starring Amy Sedaris, where she comes in and applies for a bartender job.
Only, Sedaris turns it into this extraordinary thing. She is just tenaciously positive and happy and hopeful. She talks about her weird and funny and chaotic life. There are hints of a few bits of sadness -- in relationships, with family -- but she simply refuses to let any of that throw her. Life, she seems to realize, is here to be enjoyed, to be celebrated, to be explored. Why else live?
And -- this was the amazing part -- she overpowers Horace. She hits him so much energy and force of happiness and craziness that finally, against every impulse in him, he smiles.
"Look at that smile!" she shouts. "You use every muscle in your face when you smile!"
This is not the ending of the show. But it is the moment of transcendence for me. Sedaris apparently ad-libbed the entire scene. And Louis CK says he wasn't acting during that scene. That smile was real.
"Sadness is poetic," Louis says in that phone bit. "We're lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings because of it. When you let yourself feel sad, your body has, like, antibodies and happiness come rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad. Then I met it with true, profound happiness."
That was "Horace and Pete" for me. I won't lie; there were times when watching the show I thought, "I don't want all this sadness. I don't want it, don't need it, I would rather feel something else. Give me a joke. Give me a pause. Turn the camera away.' But I stayed with it, explored the sadness, because it was all so well done, the acting was so brilliant, and I felt something was coming. Then that Amy Sedaris scene exploded on me and made me feel so gloriously happy. That's a pretty good payoff.