Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Karl Puschmann: Louis CK's surprise sitcom costs $5 to watch

Out of nowhere, Louis C.K. has unveiled a new sitcom. Karl Puschmann opens up his wallet and takes a look...
Louis C.K. continues his exploration of middle-class misery in Horace and Pete.
Louis C.K. continues his exploration of middle-class misery in Horace and Pete.

Earlier this week the comedian Louis C.K. blindsided me with an unexpected threesome. I'm speaking figuratively, of course. A literal interpretation would see these words tarnishing the pages of a very different sort of publication. But let's get back on track here ...

First came the unexpected news that C.K. had a brand new TV show out called Horace and Pete. Second was the fact it wasn't going to screen on telly at all.

Instead, interested viewers could download it directly from his website - louisck.net/show/horace-and-pete. And third was the catch that to do so would cost the princely sum of US$5.

C.K.'s surprise release really did surprise me.

It used to be an exciting and genuine thrill to be caught out by musicians making artistic or rebellious statements by dropping an unexpected album.

Now, through overuse, it's become a cheap marketing ploy. A de rigueur strategy deployed by pop stars big enough to ignore the press game, or as a panicky counter-strike to a sales-crushing online leak. Or, as in the bungled case of Rhianna's new album ANTI, both.

But this ... this was properly exciting. While C.K. has dabbled with direct-to-fan downloads of his stand-up comedy specials, this was something entirely different. A world's first.

There's no other examples of a "gotcha!" release for a TV show that I can think of. Which I reckon pretty much makes C.K. the Beyonce of television.

But can Horace and Pete even be called television? You can't watch it on TV. At least for the time being as no network is screening it. Also, there's only one episode. Or, more accurately perhaps, webisode.

It's described as a mini-series, which could mean anything from one, two or even three more episodes, I guess. But there's no release date for episode two and no real info on the show floating around either.

As its ensemble cast is populated with big-name stars like Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange, Edie Falco, C.K. himself and a show-stealing Alan Alda, you'd have to assume the comic has the series wrapped and is waiting for a surprising time to drop any future episodes.

So what's it all about? Basically, Horace and Pete continues C.K.'s exploration of middle-class misery. He also sets it to work stretching the definition of sitcom even further than his boundary pushing series Louie does.

He achieves this by restaging situational comedy as a stage play. There are only two sets and while it occasionally cuts to various camera angles there's a few tells that, location changes aside, the show was shot as one continuous take. There's even an intermission, which oldies can use to explain to youngies what intermission is.

It's set in a proud, yet struggling, Irish pub named Horace and Pete's. For over 100 years the pub has been family-run by a Horace and by a Pete. The original duo left it to their sons, also named Horace and Pete, who in turn left it to their sons Horace and Pete and so on and so on until you arrive at its current proprietors - Horace, played by C.K., and Pete, played by Buscemi.

Conflict arrives with Horace and Pete's sister Sylvia (Falco), her lawyer and her claim of ownership of the bar under "common law".

C.K.'s mopey and unwilling pub manager Horace doesn't much care while Buscemi's twitchy Pete has bigger medical problems to deal with. This leaves Alda's cranky former owner Uncle Pete as the pub's last bastion, holding the fort and fighting the good fight 'til the end.

If anything, Horace and Pete shows that Alda has been frightfully miscast in all those likeable, nice-guy roles over the years. His bitter and dishevelled curmudgeon, watering down the whiskey and berating patrons and nephews alike, is a grumpy delight. His withering takedown of C.K.'s Horace, repeatedly spitting "pissant!" at him from behind the bar, before regaling the regulars with the origins of the insult, is a beastly joy.

After writing and directing the show you can forgive C.K. for not pushing himself in his role of Horace, playing the character as a more downer version of Louie's Louie. Buscemi, of course, is excellent and Lange also impresses as an old lush whose loud, over-the-top dramatics will be instantly recognisable to career barflys.

It ends on a cliffhanger, of sorts, with problems set up and no resolution in sight. But even if the curtain falls on Horace and Pete after this one episode, it still works as a dark and darkly humorous slice of life dramedy.

It's a small play with big stars that not only sees C.K. challenging the confines of television, but also its very existence.

- NZ Herald

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Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

A pop culture junkie, Karl has spent his career writing about the important things in life; music, film, television, comics and video games. He was editor of a popular music rag for five years and has since written regularly for every local culture/arts/lifestyle magazine worth a damn. His recent expansion into travel writing has flung him far, far from the comfort of his couch and into that bewildering place known as the ‘outdoors’. He is also currently endeavouring to make sense of the world by reviewing it over at critikarlreviewstheworld.com

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