If you thought Long Day's Journey Into Night was funny, Horace and Pete will split your sides.
When I first heard about the series, featuring Louis CK--the star and producer--Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, and Edie Falco, I expected deft, daring, socially incisive comedy. But it's as bleak a chronicle of addiction, family disfunction, and mental illness as anything O'Neil ever wrote. And it's great.
The series follows two brothers, the sixth generation of Horace and Petes to have owned the eponymous hundred-year-old Brooklyn dive. Louis CK's Horace is in his late forties, divorced, with an adult daughter. Pete, played by Steve Buscemi, is a few years older; his chronic schizophrenia is controlled by medication, and he has never lived anywhere but behind the bar or in the hospital. Alan Alda is bartender Old Pete, cranky and crotchety, but not in a cute way--in a mean, bigoted, vicious way. Edie Falco plays Sylvia, a sister who wants to sell the Horace and Pete's for millions in the gentrifying borough. Around the bar are its regular patrons, all alcoholics, happy to drink watered whiskey because they know drinking it uncut in amounts equal to their thirst would have killed them long ago. The show's few laughs come from Old Pete's rage at hipsters who wander in seeking artisanal cocktails or craft beers--the bar serves draft Budweiser and straight well whiskey, gin, or vodka.
The story line largely concerns Horace's struggle to keep the bar and Pete's struggle to keep his sanity. Along the way Sylvia is diagnosed with breast cancer and Louis forms a relationship with a woman who may be transgendered--an ambiguity that provides an opportunity for a long polemic--but is certainly alcoholic. And Mayor Bill DiBlasio makes a cameo appearance, ignored because Pete has gone missing. (Forgive the vagueness, but the last thing I want is a spoiler.) The sets are classically theatrical, and almost all the action takes place in two rooms, the bar and Horace's dingy living room above it.
But if the scarcity of yux was a surprise, the show is nevertheless a distinct success. The final episode contains one of the most powerful evocations of paternal cruelty and its filial cost I can imagine. It alone justifies the cost of the series, which can be bought directly--and exclusively--from Louis CK's website.
The show isn't what you expect. See it.