‘Horace and Pete’ Review: Louis CK Surprise Series Is an Intriguing Retro Drama

Stagy series brings the stand-up’s melancholy sensibility to the world of Eugene O’Neill

On his acclaimed sitcom “Louie,” creator-star Louis C.K. often pushes against the limits of the genre, testing to see how much heart, darkness and drama can fit inside a format that’s ostensibly just about generating chuckles. With his new surprise series, he risks even further, not always successfully but with a boldness that ought to encourage curious viewers to stick with it to see where the program goes after its stagy, somber opening episode.

Designed to feel like a play shot for television, “Horace and Pete” is a hermetically sealed theatrical work that largely takes place in Horace and Pete’s, a New York bar that’s been in operation for 100 years. There was no advance notice about the show’s existence until C.K. made its first hour-long episode available on his website Saturday for $5, and indeed the secretive nature of this star-studded affair befits a story about characters who feel cut off from the outside world and, in some cases, aren’t telling all that they know. Of his generation of stand-ups, C.K. has most clearly shown a desire to experiment in other mediums, whether it be feature films or in the tonally rich “Louie.” With “Horace and Pete,” his ambitions can sometimes outrace his execution, but the commitment of his cast to a consciously old-fashioned kind of drama reminiscent of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill makes the pilot exciting even when it’s a bit stilted.

Written and directing the first episode, C.K. also stars as Horace, a divorced father who runs the bar with his brother Pete (Steve Buscemi), a broken man who needs medication to keep from seeing visions. Working alongside their bigoted Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), they welcome a collection of blue-collar patrons (including Jessica Lange, Kurt Metzger and Steven Wright) who discuss everything from the upcoming Super Bowl to the Iowa caucus. (The fact that the characters know that the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos are playing in the Big Game suggests the show was filmed in the last week.)

But those discussions are peripheral to the main conflicts presented in this pilot episode. Horace’s grown daughter Alice (Aidy Bryant) has reached an impasse with him, preferring not to have her dad in her life. Horace’s girlfriend Rachel (Rebecca Hall), who just moved in with him, seems much giddier about their relationship than he does. His sister Sylvia (Edie Falco) wants to take ownership of Horace and Pete’s so that she can sell the place, even though it’s been in the family for generations. As for Uncle Pete, he has a confession to make that will change Horace and his brother’s understanding of their lineage.

Akin to the beleaguered doppelganger he plays on “Louis,” C.K. displays his character’s every anxiety on his middle-aged face, but unlike that Emmy-winning show, “Horace and Pete” doesn’t go for laughs. Using no music and mostly sticking to classically composed master shots, C.K. draws on theater’s hushed austerity to create an almost claustrophobic sense of a community with few prospects. Whatever punch lines come from the drama are often spit out with a bit of malice as we familiarize ourselves with the miserable wretches C.K. has gathered at this dingy watering hole.

As an actor, C.K. has never shown the same excellence he’s exhibited as a writer or director, but he’s adept at embodying a kind of rumpled melancholy, and that quality is crucial for Horace, an unhappy man unable to stand up for himself or prevent further unhappiness from visiting his door. C.K. has brought together a veteran cast that imbues their characters with bitter wisdom. If Lange can be a bit hammy as a drunken patron, then Alda is riveting as a crotchety old racist who’s heavily invested in the bar’s history. Buscemi is suitably pathetic as the flailing Pete, while Falco brings the kind of scene-stealing fury that’s pure electricity in the silence of the theater. Among the younger cast members, Hall and Bryant have a little less to do but both acquit themselves well, leading one to wonder if their roles will expand as “Horace and Pete” moves forward.

The pilot’s bleak family recriminations and topical talking points can sometimes feel wooden — like a decent dress rehearsal that needed more run-throughs and maybe a rewrite — and the surprises don’t carry the shock that perhaps C.K. believes they do. But above all, “Horace and Pete” is gripping because of the pure pleasure that comes from watching C.K. fearlessly try something so audacious in its retro seriousness. This is an artist with a great deal of clout — not only did he bring together this cast, he hired Paul Simon to write the show’s theme song — and he’s using that cultural currency to challenge himself. It’s worth a return visit to see where “Horace and Pete” will go from here.