By In Television

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:

Hi there.  

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.



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32 Responses to When you smile …

  1. Nickolai says:

    I just binge-watched the entire series, and while I admire the tremendous acting and writing and loved the no-frills production style, I found the work to be overwhelmingly and unremittingly bleak. I agree that the moment highlighted by Joe was beautiful and so necessary, but that’s not the note that remains in your memory at the end of the series.

    I will consume pretty much anything Louis CK produces, but H&P is something I will never re-visit. I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Unlike his stand up comedy which I re-watch in some form every week.

  2. Jon Weisman says:

    “Horace and Pete” is deserving of every bit of praise it gets. Things that happen to the characters are bleak, but I don’t find the show bleak – it was far too affecting for that. I guess I feel there’s something inherently positive in a shared experience that is so deeply felt.

  3. MikeN says:

    Regarding Downton Abbey’s repetitiveness, can you tell the Bourne movies apart?

  4. invitro says:

    I agree that television is horrible.

  5. Dave says:

    I think the best way to watch H&P is the way it was released (Louis CK says as much too). One episode a week, with no expectations. Binge-watchig it *will* be too bleak. But watching it once a week, not knowing what’s to come? To me that was like watching a “train wreck in progress”.

    Many critics have called H&P the best TV show of the decade – I agree, with the reservation that it is *not* a TV show at all. The performances of both the stars and guest stars are memorable. Each episode can be viewed as a stand-alone episode, but new viewers should do themselves a favor and watch start-to-finish. There is a beginning, a middle, and end.

    Stating each episode is a stand-alone doesn’t just mean they are a “self-contained” episode. There’s some experimentation going on too – both on episode length, and on content or guest stars. One episode in particular sticks out – It opens with a pretty lengthy monolog and… well, you just have to watch it (and please, some of the power of that episode comes when you are *not* binge-watching it).

  6. TS says:

    I’m glad I don’t watch TV (other than sports). Nothing in this article even kind of makes me want to watch.

  7. Kuz says:


    I’ve never seen “Horace and Pete”, but your description reminded me of watching Knicks basketball.

  8. MikeN says:

    That’s pretty surprising he would make fun of his own attacks on Trump. I wonder if it is deliberate, or perhaps he was thinking of someone else. George Lopez endorsed Bernie Sanders, in a pretty stupid way.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Well, people can make fun of themselves. I think it’s a sign of not taking yourself too seriously. I appreciate that bit of irony.

    • Spencer says:

      You must not be very familiar with louis ck, he’s very self aware and will make fun of his shortcomings. The joke was absolutely at his own expense.

  9. invitro says:

    Since Joe doesn’t have an entry for it, I’ll quickly note that his “Too big to fail” story linked to at top left is a nice quick overview of Jackie Robinson before MLB. But I guess I need to read a Robinson bio… Joe uses “famously” twice and “well-known” once in regard to events that I hadn’t heard about.

  10. David Cox says:

    I agree with you on nearly everything. . .but you have never seen “Fargo” ?
    I’m overwhelmed with great sadness.

  11. Andy says:

    Could it be Cheers distilled to its essence?

  12. wjones58 says:

    I agree with the person who said television is better than it’s ever been. I also agree with the person who said television is horrible. Both things can be true. There’s just so MUCH of it, and it is everywhere! So many networks, plus all the other avenues. I wonder what form traditional network tv will morph into eventually. It seems that over 80% of award nominees come from cable programming. On the other hand, it was disappointing to me that the NCAA basketball championship was not on CBS, but on TBS. I don’t know why, since the NCAA football championship has been on ESPN since day one. Then again, ABC started doing Saturday night basketball, though in some circles that’s considered maybe ‘punting’, and none of the major networks do any original programming on Saturday night, other than special events and documentaries. Indeed, watching how television evolves could be as interesting as most any show, and more so than many.

    • invitro says:

      98% of current fiction TV is utter garbage, and the remaining 2% is mind-numbingly boring. That 2% includes many of the award winners like Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and other hipster-friendly show. I have watched at least one episode of each of those and found them to be a good cure for insomnia. Since I don’t have insomnia, I have no use for them.
      My entertainment level permanently rose through the roof when I finally quit trying to find something good in television or movies, and switched to books. Both classic literature and non-fiction. Great books are so much better than “great” TV shows or “great” movies, it’s not even funny.
      If anyone else is eager to dive into literature, but isn’t sure where to start, well I could talk for hours, but I’ll just share a couple of links I’ve found very helpful:
      . – The Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels of the 20th century is probably the single best list that I’ve found. I look up a prospective novel in wikipedia if I don’t know anything about it, to try to gauge how much I’ll love it (I don’t love everything on this list that I’ve read). Of course, ignore, or laugh at, the readers’ list.
      . – This is a similar list, from Time magazine, covering 1923 to around 2004. It’s a little less academic (it lists a Judy Blume book!), and has links to mini-reviews of each.

  13. Greg Tamblyn says:

    Let me see if I got this. Life is unremittingly sad and bleak. So we should watch a NINE-PART SERIES about how unremittingly sad and bleak life is, so we can feel unremittingly sadder and bleaker.

    Is that about right?

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Or, you could see it as THEIR lives are unremittingly sad and bleak and you can enjoy schadenfreude because your life is better. That’s sort of what Cheers was anyway.

    • invitro says:

      Life is not unremittingly sad and bleak (especially if you live in the US/Europe/etc.). If you think it is, maybe you should talk to a psychologist, religious leader, or trusted family member.

      • Spencer says:

        Living in the US and Europe doesn’t exempt one from having an unremittingly sad and depressing life. Plenty of people here have it VERY rough.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I think his point was this is a TV show that portrays life as unremittingly sad and bleak so why would you watch it? I don’t think he is saying he thinks life is unremittingly sad and bleak.

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